Some Ideas for Re-Engaging Students

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For the past few days student engagement has been at the forefront of my mind.  Well, who am I kidding, it is always on my mind.  As I gave a workshop on student engagement, I was asked for quick tips on how to re-engage in class.  While these aren’t just simple ideas, I hope they can help you work through engagement lulls in your own classroom.

You can have an honest conversation with students.  If the same class is off-task or the same group, please pull the whole class or group together to discuss.  Do not judge, simply ask what is going on and then ask them to help you solve it.  Often students will blame being bored so then ask them how they can make it more exciting.  Part of creating classrooms where students are engaged is that students are expected to take control of their learning journey meaning you should not be trying to solve everything.

You can change it up.  Too often we fall in love with a routine like the workshop model and then forget that too much predictability can be a bore.  While I am not advocating for a zany show, I think it is important to be tuned into whether the routine is working at its optimal level or not, then tweak and change as needed.

You can turn on some music.  I have found that using music that has the opposite tempo of my students’ mood is great for refocusing them.  So if they are slow and lethargic, I play upbeat music while they work, if they are very energetic, I bring out the mellow tunes.

You can practice mindfulness.  I started using some short breathing or yoga videos after assemblies with my students because there was no way they would settle in on their own.  Once my 7th graders get past their giggles, they also benefit from 3 minutes of focused breathing.

You can stop a train-wreck.  When a lesson was going poorly, I used to ride it out to the end hoping that by then they would get it.  Now I know to stop, ask why they are not understanding, and then fix.  I also have the luxury of completely revamping it throughout the day since I teach the same class five times in a row (one of the only positive things about that).

You can move location or just move.  Sometimes my students have simply been sitting too long.  Past elementary level we sometimes do not realize how much time students spend sitting since we only see our slice of the day.  A natural restlessness is therefore bound to occur.  So we move around in the classroom either by sharing with peers, doing short book recommendations, or showing off our work, or we pick up and move altogether.  We can head to the library, outside, or into our team area.

You can affirm and replace.  This is a technique I adapted from the awesome book Awakened by Angela Watson.  When my students seems bogged down as a class, we spend a few minutes speaking about what is going on and then I try to help them replace those thoughts by shifting the focus to something else. It is important for students to feel validated in their thinking but then also for them to move beyond it.

You can find a different way for them to show off their knowledge.  We use turn-and-talk quite a bit, but I also ask students to act answers out, draw things out without speaking and any other way that will get different areas of their brains to light up.  This is not something I do the entire class period, but it is vital that we have students show knowledge in a variety of ways, rather than just one way.

You can make it personal.  Yes, personalized learning is a major buzzword right now, but I am talking about the personal connections that students can have to the learning and how we can tap into that.  A lot of disengagement comes from students being bored with the content, so we do need to re-evaluate the content we are focusing on, as well as what the students are doing with it.  Students may want to engage with the content in different ways but we won’t know that without knowing our students.

You can use technology.  We integrate technology throughout the year but sometimes introducing a new tool like Kahoot does fire students up in a new way.  However, with any new ideas, moderation is key because this does not address the problem in the long-term but simply changes the pace at that moment.

In the end, student engagement is just about the quick fixes we can make, but about the instrumental changes we need to have in our teaching philosophy.  It is too easy to just blame the students, although they do carry responsibility in all of this, so we must reevaluate whether what we are doing in our classrooms is truly worth being engaged in.  The bottom line is; we have to believe in what we are doing and show that passion every single day, because if we don’t, we have no right asking students to.

PS:  This is part of a three part series on student engagement.  The first post discussed the truths my students shared with me on why they are disengaged, the second post discussed the three areas we must re-evaluate.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

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