It’s All About Student Engagement

Student engagement article

I interrupt my current puppet series to bring you a message about student engagement.

To quote literacy leader Christopher Lehman, “Engagement isn’t a thing, it’s the ONLY thing.” (Emphasis added.)

The more I learn about effective teaching and the more I see it done well, the more I am convinced that the ingredient in the effective teacher’s secret sauce is engagement.

The kids have to be hooked. Involved. Active. Interested. Curious. Doing the work of learning and understanding for themselves.

No matter how many bells and whistles we put on our lessons, if the kids aren’t engaged deeply they just aren’t going to learn in a way that sticks. It’s that simple.

Technology isn’t the answer. “Mastery” teaching models aren’t the answer. Sleek, glossy curriculum packages aren’t the answer. I’ll even be so drastic as to say the arts aren’t the answer!

I truly believe that the answer is summed up in the response to this question: What are we asking to students to do and why should they do it?

The answer to that question depends on your students- their ages, backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses, etc. Oh, and if your answer to the above question is, “Because they are supposed to do what I say!” or “They should be working hard to make As so they can be successful and go to college,” then you are on thin ice with this generation. They require a better answer than that.

And here’s another important part of the engagement equation: If our children feel loved, their engagement levels automatically rise! When a child feels valued, safe, and loved by a teacher, he will love her in return and work hard for her. This is why I am always beating the “Classroom Community” drum! The path to a child’s mind always detours through the heart. If you try to speed past the heart connection, you’re in trouble.

So how do we get to engagement? I’ll be transparent and say that after 18 years in education, I’m still figuring it out! But here is what I do know:

Our children must feel loved and valued as part of a classroom community. They must feel safe in our care. They need to believe that the work they are doing matters. Authentic tasks are powerful. Hooking into their interests helps tremendously. Highly engaging structures such as inquiry-based science, arts-integration, and technology-enhanced learning all have increased potential to engage students. Attention to kinesthetic learning is important (kids need to move!) and they also need to talk and work with others (hello, cooperative learning!) Giving them choice within structure is powerful. And FUN! Can I get a shout-out for having fun when learning!? Fun always works.

Engagement Killers:

What doesn’t work? Too many worksheets. High-stakes tests and an over-emphasis on good grades (usually only motivates high achievers.) Boring. (Boring NEVER works.) Yelling. Intimidation. Sarcasm. Too much skill and drill. Doing 30 problems when 5 would be enough. No talking. Read the chapter and answer the questions. All pencil and paper work. Negativity. Stay in your seat and be still. Punitive approaches to classroom management. Did I mention boring?

Let’s examine a few of the helpful ideas:


Does technology help with engagement? Absolutely! Though it’s what you DO with technology that matters. I see too many SmartBoards being used as glorified overhead projectors. A lot of the SmartBoard-based instruction I see today closely resembles what I did 15 years ago with an overhead, color transparencies, transparent manipulatives, and a DVD player. (And back then “technical difficulty” meant you needed to replace the lightbulb!)

We need to examine our technology choices carefully and make sure that we are engaging students in critical/ creative thinking. For example, which of the following learning experiences is stronger?

1- Using an iPad to practice “basic skills” through game-based apps.


2- Using the Keynote app on an iPad to create a presentation about important content learned during a unit or research project.

They are both “good things” but the second is going to require deep thinking and internalization of content by the child. Any time you ask a child to create, you can be confident that deep thinking/learning is happening.

Arts Integration

What about the arts? If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I am passionate about the arts? Why? Because I have personally witnessed the power of arts-based lessons to hook a child’s heart and mind and utterly transform them as learners. But we must tread carefully. There are too many low-level learning experiences out there masquerading as “arts integration.”

Which one of these lessons is worthy of time and effort?

1- Propping a painting on an easel and using it as a writing prompt. (i.e.- Write the story of this painting.)


2- “Read” a painting to discern the artist’s central message and cite evidence to support your decision. Then create your own painting, carefully thinking about your own central message as you craft it, so that you can write a story from your artwork.

Do you see how the first example really only uses art at a superficial level and is likely to result in milk-toast writing from the child? It’s a forced prompt without much heart. However, the second lesson is powerful because visual art maintains its integrity as a discipline. The student is also asked to think more deeply and do more as a learner- “read” the art for a central message, justify an opinion, and create an image for a purpose related to writing. That’s arts integration done well!

For more on sound arts integration practices, read my posts on the dual nature of arts integration and the balancing act that it requires.

Student Interest and Choice

How about student interest and choice? That’s an easy one! Which one of these assignments will result in higher student engagement?

1-  You and your partner have been assigned an animal to research. You will create a poster with two drawings and 5 facts about the animal.


2- Select an animal you’d like to learn more about for your research project. (See the menu if you need ideas.) Brainstorm what you would like to learn about that animal and any questions you have. Work with a partner to research your animal and decide the best way to present your findings to the class. Ideas include making a poster, creating a PowerPoint presentation, writing a book, etc.

(Sometimes “good” teaching practices like the one featured in #1 above can be made much stronger by punching up the engagement through student interest and choice per example #2.)


Will every lesson be perfect? No. Will every moment of every day hit that magical “uber-engaged” status? Probably not!

But it’s like everything- the more you try, the closer you’ll get and the more effective you’ll be!

Here are a few other posts from around the web that reinforce my thinking about student engagement:

Two Writing Teachers talk about Letting Student Interests Take the Wheel – I love their ideas for hooking into student interests, giving students freedom to write about their passions, and also the creative ideas for tools and props.

Read to hear from 8th graders what motivates them and keeps them engaged.

And this article says that student “happiness” goes a long way in learning.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about student engagement and the way to harness its power! Share your thoughts in the comments.

Coming up… more puppet tips! Next I’ll be sharing some tips for working with talking puppets! Oh, boy!

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  1. Amen, amen, amen!!! Were you in my head as I was planning a reteach on arrays because my completely unengaged students just didn’t get it today?!?!

  2. Thanks Katie! You are the perfect example of a reflective teacher who knows low engagement when she sees it and is willing to try again. It certainly isn’t always easy. But if anyone can do it, you can do it!

  3. Chrissy Greenman says:

    Amen is exactly what I thought. I love that you mentioned the first step is reaching their hearts! This is SO important!

  4. And you do it so well Chrissy!

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