Survey results and anecdotes suggest that students have been less engaged in school since the start of the pandemic. That’s a big problem.
After all, research shows that students learn best when they’re motivated and engaged in their work. Educators across the country have made boosting student engagement a priority this school year.
Two teachers—Alejandro Diasgranados, an elementary teacher in the District of Columbia, and Ann Stiltner, a high school special education teacher in Hamden, Conn.—shared some practical strategies for how to motivate students and get them engaged in their learning during an EdWeek online forum earlier this month.
Here are three takeaways from the discussion. You can go deeper in the full video embedded above.
1. Give students voice and choice
Students are more engaged in their work when they feel a sense of ownership and agency in class, Stiltner said. At the beginning of the school year, she has students draft a class contract. They start by discussing the best classroom they’ve ever been in: What did that classroom look like? How was the teacher treated? How did the teacher treat the kids?
Then, students use those values to come up with how they want this classroom to look like, and what should happen if someone breaks the rules.
In English class, Stiltner gives students a vote on what book they’ll read as a class. And she gives students smaller choices throughout the day: If a student needs a writing utensil, for example, she’ll offer them a choice of a pen or pencil.
“Where I can, I work in choice—for me, the only thing that’s not a choice is safety, respect, and learning,” she said, adding that she still structures the choice so it’s not entirely open-ended.
Diasgranados said that involving students in making decisions whenever possible—whether it’s what time they do daily tasks, where they sit, or what they’re going to write about—can be a mindset shift for teachers, but it’s worthwhile.
“I have to reflect on, what are the things that I’m willing to allow them to have choice on, where are the parts of my lesson or the parts of my day where I can be more flexible, and what are the things that I know I need to do,” he said.
But giving students the opportunity to have a voice in their learning makes them feel valued and respected, he said.
2. Incorporate students’ interests into your class
Diasgranados pushed back against the idea that a student is “unmotivatable,” saying that it’s up to teachers to learn what does motivate students and then incorporate that into the curriculum.
For example, his 3rd grade students are “obsessed” with Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game and movie series. Diasgranados has been teaching a unit on fables and folk tales and has peppered references to Sonic throughout.
When teaching a lesson on character traits, he named the characters Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. A few of his students who typically aren’t engaged in class were “shocked and surprised,” and then raised their hands throughout the lesson to describe each character.
“I think it takes some background practice and background research [for] teachers, with a lot of pre-work, to [try] and figure out, how can we make those connections between the things that the student is interested in, and where we’re trying to go” in the curriculum, Diasgranados said. “Some days, you might flop and give a lesson, and they still aren’t interested. But you just try again. It’s an experiment.”
And it matters to try.
“Once they see that there’s an adult who’s really reached out, and cared, and has watched the movie that they’ve been talking about or raving about, or listened to the artists that they’ve been talking about, ... they now have someone to talk to about it,” he said. “They now see you as someone that respects them, and they respect you, and they’re willing to do a little bit more.”
Added Stiltner: “I think children of all ages don’t feel like adults are really listening, so if you have really listened, that gets their attention.”
3. Get parents on your team
Students’ guardians can be a powerful ally for teachers, Stiltner and Diasgranados said.
Diasgranados said he starts each school year by asking parents what kind of motivational strategies have worked with previous teachers and what works at home.
“If there aren’t many or they haven’t really found any, then I use that as an opportunity to work with them to build things—just noticing things that I’ve noticed at school and see if that aligns with things they’ve noticed at home, and trying to align those strategies together,” he said.
When parents and teachers are on the same page, they can use the same verbiage with the children. Parents can remind their child of the things they’re practicing at school, and teachers can remind students of the things they’re practicing at home, Diasgranados said.
To foster that collaborative relationship, Stiltner said she makes an effort to call each parent at the start of the school year with something positive about their child, so their first interaction isn’t about anything negative.
“It’s really important to ... set that positive relationship with the parents so the parent knows you are there as an ally for their kid, you are there to believe in their kid, and you look to the parent as their first teacher,” she said.
Stiltner involves parents in numerous ways. For example, her freshmen do a persuasive research project, and at the end, she hosts an “author celebration” where the parents are invited to listen to their child’s presentation.
She hangs students’ work on the classroom walls for parents to see, and during conferences, she shares with parents folders of their children’s work—"so they get a real clear vision of what their kids’ day is like at school, and what they’re working on, and how you as the teacher are respectful of their child,” Stiltner said.
Building a relationship with parents also puts the students more at ease, Diasgranados said.
“If I’m talking to their parents, [students are] not super frightened thinking that I’m saying something negative,” he said. “They know that we are all on a team together, trying to figure out what’s best for the student.”