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Inspiring Students to Engage and Invest in School

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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As our two-year arts@newman pilot program comes to a close (read more about it), we are entering the process of evaluating and reporting on our efforts, posing questions for future growth, and reflecting on the incredible journey we have undertaken.

In the final few blog entries for this academic year, I wanted to publicly reflect on some of the original goals of our program and share some of my thinking as I plan next year's program.

Engagment as a Goal

One of the original goals of the arts@newman initiative was to explore how an integrated arts-based model could help engage those students who found themselves on the edge of this place we call school. Lately, I've found myself thinking a great deal about the idea of student engagement. The phrase definitely has currency in 21st-century educational conversations; many would argue that, without engagement, there is no real and lasting learning.

I agree that engagement is an important element in creating and nurturing powerful learning environments. In fact, for a while, I was thrilled that students enrolled in our arts@newman program were excited about coming to school, often arriving well in advance of the opening bell and participating in our online forums during evening and weekend hours.

School has become a very positive place for many, and much of that sentiment has to do with the type of work in which students have been engaged. I was confident we were well on our way to fulfilling our goal regarding student engagement until this spring, when I had one of those experiences that forced me to go even deeper with some of my thinking.

Having a Hook

We were working on some investigations related to mechanical efficiency and simple machines. As a unit energizer, I introduced students to the world of Rube Goldberg, including some of the modern-day Goldberg machines that had been designed and presented online. (If you're not familiar with the concept of a Rube Goldberg machine, think back to the Mousetrap board game you may have played as a youngster.)

Students became so excited about the concept that the possibility of creating their own machine -- the intended culminating task for our work -- took over the thinking, the conversations, and the spare time of many students. They were engaged, they were excited, and there was no stopping them! I put aside my original unit plans and let them continue designing their machines, pausing every couple of days to connect their efforts with the science concepts that were part of our unit work.

I'll never forget the look on Carlos's face the afternoon we were forced to interrupt our Rube Goldberg work to attend to some other required activities. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he became very distracted.

You see, Carlos had not only been engaged in the work that he was doing, he had also actually developed a stake in whether his machine would do what he planned for it to do. He thought about his machine on the way home from school, and it became part of his family dinner-table discussions. Carlos would come to school early each morning and immediately begin tinkering. There was no doubt that he was constantly thinking about his machine work, and it was going to take a great deal of effort to refocus his attention.

Dedicated to the Deed

It was then I realized in a very real way that there was another important dimension to student engagement, one I had not yet officially integrated into my thinking about the arts@newman initiative: investment.

When we talk about engagement, we are often referring to what we do as teachers to affect a positive learning environment. We talk of being an engaging teacher, or of designing tasks, activities and environments that are exciting and engaging for students.

To speak of investment, however, is to speak of something that is more related to how a student responds to a task. When students are invested in the work they are doing, they become -- quite literally -- wrapped up in the design, implementation, and outcome of the task. It's quite a visceral response, one that may begin with engagement but becomes richly personal. When students are invested in a particular piece of work, it becomes something that matters to them.

In my own schooling days, it was often reported that I spent too much time daydreaming in class. To this day, I remember staring out the window and thinking about what I was going to do after school. In elementary school, my plans involved such crazy ideas as building a backyard spaceship or a neighborhood clubhouse or redesigning my bedroom.

In high school, my ideas matured, and I imagined how I would rewire my stereo system so I could listen to it throughout the house, or how I could entice a girl named Barb to go out with me on Friday night. Though I may have been somewhat engaged in school activities, my investments lay elsewhere.

We all have the experience of the type of investment to which I am referring. Many of us have witnessed a level of investment on the part of our students.

What's Next?

So, as we move into the next phase of our implementation, I'm thinking about how the program we have begun -- much of it grounded in the idea of increased student engagement -- can mature to include reflection on how the arts-based work that we plan might lead to a greater sense of investment on the part of participants.

How do we move to a point where more of the school-based tasks in which students are engaged actually become the stuff of their dreaming when they leave us at the end of each day? How can our schools become places of deep and rich investment? Please share your thoughts.

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Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Karen Herrera's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school district is training in Positive Behavior Support next school year. I am going to a training in July. Anyone have any information on this system?

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thanks for your story. You have identified areas of investment on the part of both students and teachers. You have reminded me of the importance of looking at our own levels of investment, as teachers. I find that students really pick up on the quality of investment on the part of their teachers.

Your classroom community seems like a wonderful place to be!


Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow Kaydra, you must be so proud that something that you began is still part of the dynamic of the school! You have a good read on your community, having been a part of it for several years. I was watching "Dangerous Minds" last week (for the 4th time), and the community that is highlighted there seems like some of what you are describing. The difference between what you are doing, however, (if I'm reading this correctly) is that you are respecting the fact that students are deeply invested in other aspects of their life; you are not telling them to forget all of that. Instead, you have given them a relevant and meaningful activity with which to connect. In this way, they become connected with their school a little more.

I would love to know more about your program!!!


Shannon C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow Devra it really sounds like you have built a wonderful classroom community. My name is Shannon and I am from Hawaii. I have implemented some of the aspects that you spoke of, but am going to look into this Responsive Classroom approach for more ideas!

Are you a Walden student? I am in the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment focus.

Thanks for your post!

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Karen,

I'm not familiar with the specific program to which you are referring, but it could be the one found at

If so, it looks like this is part of the conversation taking place in many school districts around positive school climate. My reading of the material at this website seems to underline the complexity of school communities and how a broad-based set of plans, strategies and responses is necessary.

So often, "behaviour" difficulties in classrooms are left for individual teachers to deal with; when the office gets involved, it is usually from the perspective of doling out consequences.

Programs like the one outlined above seem to begin from a different starting point, and that is good!

Could you let me know about any other information that you locate about your program! I would love to hear about the training.

stephen hurley

Alaycia Staten's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Devra,

I was really intrigued by your explanation of your "classroom community". I find it to be a "wow" in a way that forsee teaching students responsibility and at the same time building a comfortable learning community. I am definitely seeking a new approach for my room the next school year. I am all the time switching things up because too much of the same thing bores me. I am eager to educate myself more on the Responsive Classroom approach. If you don't care to share, please resource you used to study this approach?

Debra Esparza's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have had PBS (now called PBIS) at our school for the past 3 years. We really like it. They help you to tailor a school-wide behavior plan that fits your school. Schools come up with a behavior matrix as well as a shoolwide acronym for the behaviors. Our acronym is CARE which stands for Cooperate, Act Safely, Respect others and Expect Effort. They also encourage you to have school-wide practice sessions the first week of school. We learn how to behave on the playground, cafeteria, restrooms, etc. There is so much more to it. I really feel it helps the school to be more consistent if it is used correctly. Students know what to expect.
Debra Esparza
Kindergarten teacher
Sam Hughes Elementary

Peter Kearney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Devra and Kaydra, sounds like the kind of schools I would send my kids to. Love the idea of classroom jobs to get students invested in the classroom, do they rotate or get to "own" the job? Getting students who have lots of responsibilities already on their shoulders to be engaged at school is difficult in most cases, and to do it in the environment of the "Hood" adds to the challenge. Great approach. I worked in a corporate environment and attended many seminars over the years. One really stood out and I was reminded of it when I was reading Stephen's Rube Goldberg machines. The course was Investment In Excellence from the Pacific Institute. It worked at the cognitive level to change the way you think about your world and your place in it. When I was attending this course they talked about some companies who held an evening session for the whole family to come. In one week I really learned a lot about myself and how I see the world around me. It changed my "investment" in every part of my daily life.
More info:

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, Steve,

You mention the excitement resulting from a culminating activity where students create their own projects. Students definately respond when their input is the focus. I find massive success by offering individual, partner, and group project choices appealing to various learning styles. For example, after studying Romeo and Juliet, my students can create a group-designed newspaper, an individually-designed character diary, partner to create a computer-based comic strip of a favorite scene, design a new scene/ending and act it out with a group, designing a project on their own, etc... The kids really respond to choosing a project that demonstrates the strengths THEY choose...I hate seeing students shut down because the only project we're doing requires drawing they have a difficult time producing (technology helps tremendously in this area)...I also ask them for input on which pieces to read, how they enjoy reading them, and review games...competive review games for points or homework passes work well, is enjoyable watching them respond to having control (so many other factets of their life aren't) and produce high quality, well-thoughtout work.

Ms. Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you Mr. Hurley for writing this post. I am a sixth grade teacher in a public school in Rhode Island. My class is an inclusion classroom.
We as educators need to keep thinking about how we can create the best environment to maximize inspiration and learning for our students. On my blog I have very distinct classroom practices that I have discussed. I hope you all can read some of my posts. Comments would be greatly appreciated. As a teacher I am always looking for constructive responses and/or being able to learn from others.


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