Creating Engaging Classrooms

"Everyone please stop what you're doing, close your computers, and give me your fullest attention. This work we're doing is very important and we all want to do our best. I'm noticing that several of you are off-task now and that's not good. Let's stay mindful of our work and try to remain on task. Thank you."

If you've ever taught, I'm sure you've said this or something similar to students. I know I have.

Let's stop.

The truth is that statements like the one above aren't effective. They distract the students who are on-task without actually addressing the reasons that some are off-task in the first place.

We continue to say things like this because the immediate response is short-term compliance. Students appear to be more engaged after we say something so we feel better about ourselves. This makes us more likely to say things like this in the future.

I'm not suggesting that we stop addressing off-task behavior; I'm actually suggesting that we start.

The next time you're planning produces less engagement than desired, take time to reflect upon why before taking action. Then, take action.

Here are a few ideas, as examples:

1. Involve your students in the planning process.

Form a student academic advisory board in your school or class. Before launching a new project or unit, ask them to convene to tune your ideas. Take their feedback seriously and use it to improve your practice.

Include a broad range of learners. You'll want input from multiple perspectives; asking only the top ten for feedback won't solve your engagement issues.

2. Observe disengaged students and ask them why they're struggling to stay on task.

If your question is sincere, they'll be quite honest. Write their responses down as if you were a researcher collecting data on student behavior. Taking this step will pay off immensely during future planning.

Over time, analyzing this data will reveal patterns of student disengagement. Are the same students always disengaged? Is there a particular activity that disengages more students than others? Are students in some classes or at different times of day more likely to disengage than others?

By analyzing data, you'll be better able plan for and prevent disengagement in the future. To do this, however, you have to first collect the data!

3. Ask an outsider to do the observing for you.

A trusted administrator might be a good place to start. Lacking that (or additionally), ask a colleague to sit in during one of your classes to collect data. Be specific about what data you want them to collect. Help them help you by providing the data collection format and tool.

Do you want to know when or how often a particular group of students disengages? Do you want to know what your proximity in the classroom does to engagement? An outside observer can see things that you never will in your own class.

4. Make peer accountability a celebrated part of your school or classroom culture.

It should not be the teacher's sole responsibility to keep everyone on task. In too many schools, though, we teach our students to be passive bystanders to their peer's disengagement and misbehavior. Make this unacceptable by addressing it explicitly and regularly when it occurs.

When one member of a group does significantly better or worse on an assessment than the the rest, there's a teachable moment that shouldn't be skipped. When one member of the group is distracting the others, what steps can that group take to address that distraction in a non-threatening way?

By taking class time to teach students to hold one another accountable to their work, you'll not only decrease disengagement, but you'll be teaching them an essential 21st-century skill.

5. End every project or unit with a day of student reflection.

Divide the day into three parts.

  1. Start with a review of the work they did and ask them to provide feedback on how you could improve upon it the next time around.
  2. Ask them to reflect upon how the class functioned as a group. What went well? What didn't? What might they be able to do next time to make the class better.
  3. Ask them each to reflect upon how they functioned, individually. What study habits or activities worked particularly well for them? What worked the least? What should they work to improve personally in the future?

Take notes throughout the day and store them with your lesson plans or project resources.

6. End every class with five minutes of honest reflection.

Choose a reflection format, as appropriate, to get student feedback on what they learned, what questions they have, or what needs to be covered more thoroughly the next day.

Whether it be through a journal, an exit slip, a discussion, or a any other format, the point is to increase communication from your students about what they need to learn to be successful.

7. Identify school and district resources for the most disengaged students.

Let's face it, we can't solve every problem ourselves. When we can't, it's important to acknowledge that we can't and to ask for help from someone who can. Regardless whether these students need academic, social, psychological, or behavioral support, remember that no classroom is an island. Use every resource available for this small segment of every school population.

8. Leverage parent relationships to help increase student productivity.

This is especially helpful when students are not engaging in homework. Calls and emails to parents for feedback and support are typically greeted more positively when delivered sincerely and without emotion.

Ask parents what their kids say about your class at home. What work do they see their kids doing at home? How much homework are their kids getting? Is it too much? Are other commitments getting in the way? What do they think could help you engage their kid in learning?

By taking time to collect and analyze data before deciding to act, and then acting intentionally to address the actual challenges of student engagement, we will start to realize a world with increased student engagement and achievement.

Moreover, you can stop giving the whole-class lectures on the importance of staying on-task.