Engagement seems to be a catch phrase in the education world these days. How can we most effectively engage our students in the classroom? Numerous books have been written on the subject, while teaching conferences around the world have engagement as their theme. Why does does it seem that all of a sudden we now need to care about student engagement as part of the learning process? Why now? This seems like a common sense strategy that great teachers should have always been using. The most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in what they are learning about. So then, why does it seem that my email inbox is constantly inundated with email blasts about new books and articles written on how to effectively engage students in the classroom? Why isn’t this idea and topic covered in colleges or teacher preparation programs around the country? Why does it seem that student engagement is the new hot topic or trend in teaching?
While engagement has always been a concern for teachers, because times and our society have changed so much in the past two decades, what we as educators learned or know about how to engage students in the classroom has changed and evolved. Our world has changed. Technology has changed. Engaging students now isn’t anything like it was when I was a student. The children of today are different. Their attention spans have grown incrementally smaller in size due to technology, movies, television, and video games. Engaging the students of today is much different than it was when I was a student in school. I used to be able to focus and pay attention to teacher-directed instruction for thirty minutes to an hour when I was in sixth grade. Now, our students struggle to stay focused or on task for more than ten minutes. Student engagement is a whole new beast because of all of these changes that have taken place. Staying current with and abreast of research and information on how to effectively engage students in the classroom is crucial for teachers. We need to know how to best support and challenge all of our students in this “Brave New World” in which we live.
The issue that I often struggle with in the classroom is engaging all of my students, all of the time. How can I best support the ELLs in my classroom while also challenging the more advanced students? Sure, differentiation works well for this, but if I’m teaching a mini-lesson for the entire class on a topic, how can I most effectively reach and engage all of my students?
Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of Epic Poetry. I began the lesson with a class discussion regarding what the students think they know about this form of poetry. Several students made some great hypotheses based on simply interpreting the word epic. A few of the boys even drew connections from the previous forms of poetry studied to epic poetry. That was pretty neat. We then read and discussed excerpts from two great epic poems of long ago. This was when the issue of student engagement popped up.
As I work to engage all of my students, all of the time, I try to call on students who seem disengaged, distracted, or bored in class when something needs to be read aloud. So, I called on two students, who seemed to not be paying attention during our mini-lesson on Epic Poetry today, to read a stanza from one of the epic poems we studied. As these two students happen to be ELLs, they faced great adversity when reading the lines aloud as they were filled with large vocabulary words and strange names from ancient Greece. It took the boys several minutes to get through each stanza, as they had to sound out almost every word and stumbled over every other word. I heard a sigh from one of the other students in the class during this time. He was clearly frustrated that this process of reading the poem aloud was taking so long. While my goal was to keep everyone focused by helping to redirect distracted or disengaged students, I ended up creating an atmosphere of disengagement in the classroom. How can I best engage all of my students without taking away or distracting from anyone? During a lesson like this, what’s the best way to help keep everyone focused, engaged, and involved in the learning process?
- As I was mindful and living in the moment, I was able to react to what was happening this morning. To help remedy the situation, I read the second poem aloud so that I could emphasize word choice, flow, and meter. This choice refocused those students who seemed a bit distracted when their peers were reading the poem aloud.
- What if I had the students read the poems independently, making written observations. This way, those students who read and comprehend at faster rates could move onto our class Things to Do When Done list while waiting for their peers to finish. Also, it would allow me to individually support and help those struggling readers in the class. We could have them come back together as a class to discuss their noticings and observations. Perhaps this method would have been more fruitful.
- What if the students had read the two poems together with their table partner, engaging in a conversation about what they noticed and wondered? Would that have been a more effective way to introduce the epic form of poetry to the students?
- What if I had read both poems aloud to the class? While that would have helped that one disengaged student who sighed during class, would it have kept my disengaged ELLs focused?
As the students will be analyzing two poems tomorrow in class, I will try having them work with a partner to read and analyze each poem on their own first, before discussing them altogether as a class. I hope that this approach will foster more engagement from the students. We can spend the class discussion focusing on analyzing the poems and not reading them together in a way that might create disengagement. I feel good about this new idea, but I still wonder, is it the most effective way to engage all of my students? As of late, I have been interested in the concept of student motivation and I feel as though student engagement is directly connected to it. I’m hoping to glean some data from tomorrow’s lesson that will help me find new ways to motivate and engage all of my students in the learning process.