Increasing Engagement in the Classroom: A List of Specific Activities and Strategies

For reasons researchers can't quite pinpoint but that may have something to do with video games, instant gratification, food additives, helicopter parents, cell phones, standardized testing, and/or a universal sense of entitlement - teaching methods that used to be effective in the past aren't successfully capturing the attention of 21st century students. Just go to any economically/culturally/sociologically diverse community and visit a random middle school classroom.  Can't guarantee what you'll find, but I can tell you what you won't find: rows of docile, focused, self-directed students enthusiastically filling in worksheets.

As a result, teachers are perpetually seeking new, novels ways to capture the attention of their students and motivate them to become active participants in their learning. We've even gone so far as figuring out a name for our objective: "engagement." Unfortunately, once you get beyond the word, guidance becomes frustratingly vague and murky. Just how are we supposed to implement tips such as "create opportunities for active learning," "create a safe environment," and "instill a growth mindset"?

For my own purposes I've begun maintaining a list of more specific strategies, which I'm sharing below.  Please feel free to offer suggestions for additions or clarifications!
  1. Stimulate their curiosity
    1. Capture their attention through the use of a interesting questions or puzzling phenomenon (ex: Is it possible for a child to inherit none of their mom's DNA?; Does geography start wars?; Can a book change the course of history?)
    2. Shift emphasis from delivering content to forcing students to construct their own knowledge (ex: Create a working circuit and then challenge students to figure out which way the energy is flowing and why; Give kids the ingredients for photosynthesis & make them figure out how it works)
    3. Incentivize students to ask questions (ex: Maintain a parking lot for student questions & encourage students to look up the answers; Use warmups where you show a picture - two animals fighting, a political cartoon, etc. - and challenge kids to invent as many questions as they can think about it)
  2. Make it authentic.  First ask yourself - why do they need to learn this? Then create experiences that will allow them to master the content through real-world activities
    1. Have them read/interact with authentic materials - federal agency websites, newspaper/blog articles, etc. (ex: Students cut/paste articles and add their own reflections; Webquests that require students to visit primary sources)
    2. Allow them to experience using the skills/concepts/knowledge (SCKs) in an authentic context (job) (ex: Model U.N., project based learning, problem based learning, graded conversations)
    3. Relate the skills/knowledge/concepts to current affairs (ex: In the coming election, which candidates have the most in common with Federalists? What substances does the Olympic committee ban & why - how exactly do they enhance performance?)
    4. Involve other content areas through cross-curricular projects (ex: Students create cell organelle pictures in art; Students study adaptation in both science and history; Students turn their favorite stories/novels into plays; Students map their own PE data in math class)
  3. Make it relevant/personal. Ask yourself, why should kids care about this? How does this skill/content/knowledge relate to their personal lives
    1. Work in references to pop culture (ex: introduce elements of poetry by analyzing the lyrics of popular songs; Teach graphing by comparing the sales of pop artist albums or sports team stats; ID the Latin root words/suffixes used to form the names of people/spells in the Harry Potter series; Have students create a playlist of songs that represent a specific literary character; Have students locate examples of each type of literary conflict in current movies)
    2. Incorporate people/materials that validate all ages, genders and cultures (ex: Read literature representing other countries; Include female speakers/mentors; Expose students to teens who are writers/inventors/business owners; Use students who were born in other countries to educate their classmates about different ecosystems)
    3. Allow students to choose activities that are a fit for their interests & learning strengths (ex: Offer assessment choices differentiated by individual preferences/intelligences; Build in time for students to engage in STEM or work on passion projects)
    4. Involve family (or animals) (ex: Use parents as mentors; Have students read books aloud to shelter animals)
  4. Make it meaningful. Appeal to their sense of sympathy/empathy & build engagement by giving them a chance to make a difference in their school, family or community
    1. Inspire them. (ex: Expose them to TEDTalks; Expose them to peers who are making a difference in the world)
    2. Let them teach others (ex: Encourage them to tutor/mentor other students; Let them help create assignments)
    3. Find opportunities for them to engage in meaningful public service (ex: Make their own PSAs; Plant a bee garden; Run for SCA; Spread the word about climate change through flyers written in their native language)
  5. Make it social
    1. Teach discourse strategies that enable rich, meaningful academic conversations (ex: Sentence starters, turn-taking structures)
    2. Create opportunities for students to interact in academically meaningful activities (ex: Kagan strategies)
    3. Let them to argue! Give students opportunities to appropriately express their ideas & opinions. (ex: Socratic seminars, philosophical chairs, debates.)
  6. Make it safe
    1. Foster a sense of competence by differentiating SCKs so that everyone experiences an equal amount of challenge  (ex: Leveled texts, speech-to-text tech/text-to-speech tech, differentiated homework/assignments/products)
    2. Create an environment in which students feel safe exploring, expressing themselves, and failing (ex: Teach growth mindset; Teach mindfulness)
    3. Provide constant feedback so kids know they're on the right track (ex: Build opportunities for constant feedback into longer projects)
    4. Establish & consistently reinforce rules (ex: Restorative justice; Involve students in developing your classroom management strategies)
  7. Make it fun!
    1. Add games (ex: Board games, sports-based games, on-line games)
    2. Add mild competition (ex: Who was the most important president - pick one and create a project that will convince us; Which Chesapeake Bay organism deserves to win "Bay Critter of the Year"?)
    3. Add role-playing (ex: Re-enact historical debates; Dress as a literary character and tell the class about yourself)
    4. Add humor (ex: Use memes to reinforce class rules & teach key concepts; Have students create their own political cartoons; Don't be afraid to use puns and corny jokes in your instruction!)
  8. Make it hands on
    1. Incorporate hands-on activities (ex: Experiments, manipulatives, models/simulations)
    2. Incorporate music, art, movement, and performance (ex: Use songs to help students memorize key concepts; Have students dramatize important scientific discoveries)
  9. Make it flexible/self-directed.  Offer so-called "voice and choice"
    1. "Flip" your classroom (ex: Students learn content at home, then work on projects at school)
    2. Build in opportunities for students to influence/control what they learn (content), how they learn (process) and how they demonstrate their learning (assessment) (ex: Offer menus)
    3. Make differentiation accessible and "invisible" (ex: Allow students easy access to computers with speech-to-text, text-to-speech, etc.)
  10. Make it metacognitive
    1. Teach students how to reflect on their own learning (ex: Have them analyze their own learning & Force them to draw their own conclusions rather than providing them; Incorporate deliberate, structured reflection after each activity)
  11. Make it interactive/multimedia
    1. Offer instruction utilizing a rich mix of media (ex: Audio + visual + kinesthetic)
    2. Utilize interactive technologies (ex: Clicker systems, smart boards, QR codes that link to resources; phone-based apps and games like Kahoot) 
    3. Utilize the mighty power of the internet! (ex: Webquests, online games & simulations)
    4. Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia apps (ex: Allow them to create Wixie presentations, movies, podcasts, interactive timelines, etc.)

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