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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Building Student Engagement Begins With Community & Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 30, 2019 21 min read
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(This is the third post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What does “student engagement” mean, and what can we do to promote it in our classrooms?

In Part One, Kathy Dyer, Sarah Said, Samantha Cortez, Cathy Beck, Danny Weeks, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D., helped to answer those questions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Kathy, Sarah, Samantha, and Cathy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two’s commentaries were offered by Cheryl Abla, Jessica Garza, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Michelle Shory, Irina V. McGrath and Cindy Garcia, and Kim Morrison and Ann Mausbach.

Today’s responses come from Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, Jodi Weber, Dr. PJ Caposey, Blake Harvard, Katie White, Michael Fisher, and Meena Srinivasan.

Response From Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, & Jodi Weber

Paula J. Mellom is the associate director of the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE). Rebecca K. Hixon is a postdoctoral research and teaching associate for CLASE. Jodi P. Weber is the assistant director of professional development for CLASE. CLASE is a research and development center housed within the University of Georgia’s College of Education. Together, they are the authors of With a Little Help from My Friends: Conversation-Based Instruction for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Classrooms:

The issue of student engagement has received increasing attention in recent years—it has even become a key factor in the school accreditation process. In part, this focus is because research shows (and experience supports) that students’ curiosity and passion about what they are being taught—as evidenced by their attention and active participation in the learning process— is directly related to their motivation to learn and progress in their education. Nevertheless, as teachers, we are often perplexed by how to increase student engagement, particularly that of our culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students.

Building student engagement begins with community and relationships. Students become engaged in class when they feel they are a part of the class and that their interests and assets are valued. By establishing a trusting classroom environment where students feel safe to take intellectual risks without fear of being mocked can go a long way toward fostering students’ engaged participation in class. Opening spaces where your students can talk about what they know and what interests them can build community and offer you opportunities to both formatively assess and differentiate and contextualize the content you are teaching, making it real and relevant for them. By connecting your instructional goals to your students’ interests and background knowledge, you can dramatically increase their motivation to learn. It might be as simple as integrating their names and interests into the examples you use. But in order to make these kinds of changes, you will need to actively and intentionally listen to your students and find out what they know, how they think, and what they like.

To further increase engagement, you can create structured opportunities for students to choose what they study and how they will be assessed. Giving your students choice doesn’t mean that you forget about your instructional goals; you can still ensure that your students learn disciplinary-specific skills while choosing their own project, topic, or manner of presenting what they know.

Finally, perhaps one of the best ways to engage and include students, while increasing their intrinsic motivation to learn, is through play. Research supports the idea that language “play” enriches language development, increases engagement, and apprentices us into speech communities. Emergent bilinguals must become familiar with the nuances of word play if they are to fully participate in their speech communities, but we rarely provide them with opportunities to use all their linguistic resources and play with language.

Emergent bilinguals often have the linguistic ability to play with language creatively and imaginatively but may not have the confidence to do so. They know that they are learning a different code and that in order to communicate, to get along in school, and to just survive in their surroundings, they must learn this new language. However, in the classroom, while they are often drilled in English grammar rules and vocabulary with the intent of getting them to “manage” the language, they are rarely allowed low-stakes opportunities to use the breadth of their linguistic repertoire to play with language in authentic, content-embedded tasks—so they may get to the point where they feel comfortable manipulating it creatively.

When teaching emergent bilinguals, I used to be fascinated with the way they used language on the playground. The students would create jokes and word plays—peppering English exchanges with words and phrases from their home languages. The playground became a hotbed of language play and consequently language learning, without the children’s ever being aware of what was going on. In the classroom, these same children might sweat over producing the “correct” words in the “correct order, with the “correct” pronunciation, but on the playground, they used the language and grew with it, utterly engaged in the activities and motivated in their participation—and if they sweat, it was only from running to get the ball.

By creating community; integrating students’ background knowledge, interests, and passions; and creating opportunities for choice and play, we can dramatically increase student engagement.

Response From Dr. PJ Caposey

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant. and author of seven books (https://amzn.to/2MArWY5), and she currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Ill. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

Student engagement is one of the most misunderstood topics in education. The biggest issue is that it is misunderstood between groups of people who should have the same definition or criteria to judge engagement. I first realized this problem when I started to travel and discuss teacher evaluation with all district reviewers or with an entire faculty of teachers.

I would often ask individuals to think about how they would teach someone else what student engagement in a classroom looked like and for years I would just have vacant eyes staring back at me. After some silence, someone would describe a relatively loud, project-based classroom. I would generally retort by asking someone who had been quiet throughout the training if they were engaged (I would pick someone who I thought had been). They often would say yes, and then we would have a conundrum.

The issue with engagement is that it is invisible. I can walk into a classroom and I cannot tell who is actively engaged in the work simply by looking and listening. It is possible to tell when someone is NOT engaged, but it is really difficult to discern who is engaged.

The reason why is that compliance looks very similarly to engagement. To explain, for many of my graduate school courses, I smiled and nodded as the professor spoke. I would occasionally interject when something came up in conversation of which I thought I could add value to. In a typical teacher observation, I would have been given the “this kid is engaged” tick-up, when in reality, I was far from engaged. I was being compliant. I was playing the game. I was thinking about fantasy football when you went over a rudimentary Excel formula I mastered six years ago.

Thus—a major problem exists.

Many new teachers do not understand what engagement is or how to work toward it. What is worse, many administrators themselves cannot define engagement or set expectations around it. Thus, there is no target or support to help us move collectively forward and increase engagement levels of kids in our classes.

The simplest way to understand engagement is this: Engagement means high attention and high commitment.

Attention is observable. High commitment means someone is actively using critical-thinking skills to process through the information. When you have the combination of someone who looks engaged AND is critically thinking through complex information, then you have engagement. High attention with low commitment is simply compliance. High commitment on a noncomplex task is just busyness.

So, this is a little—but it is a lot.


The first step is this: Commit to a framework to help define rigor. The Rigor and Relevance framework is my personal favorite, but Bloom’s or DOK are also fine. The first step to increasing engagement is by defining what rigor is and its role in creating true engagement.


Intentionally and systematically increase the rigor of your lessons. Beware. The kids will rebel. If they have gotten used to succeeding in your class/school without having to think on a class by class/ day by day basis, they will resist. Clarify the expectations and do not give in.


LET GO!! Embrace the concept that learning and engagement is about the 4Cs—Curating, Creating, Connecting, and Collaborating. These steps are loud and require a teacher to relinquish control. An engaged classroom is one where students own and express the learning and the teacher facilitates.

To be clear, creating a rigorous and engaged classroom is difficult—but not impossible. Embrace the fact that once there is clear direction and expectation that any teacher and any school can incrementally and systematically increase the rigor and engagement of their students.

Response From Blake Harvard

Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Ala. His blog (www.effortfuleducator.com) focuses on the application of cognitive psychology in the classroom. You can find Blake on Twitter at @effortfuleduktr:

“Engagement” is a tricky word. Dare I say it has become a buzzword on social media? Everyone has their own definition for what this means in the classroom. Teachers are evaluated on how well they engage their students. Students are assessed by teachers on whether they are engaged in an activity. But what is engagement? How do we know if students are engaged? Can engagement even be assessed?

So, I look at most aspects of the classroom through a cognitive lens; what are my students thinking? What are they remembering? How can I increase retention of material? How can I create situations where they are thinking more with and about the information? With those questions in mind, my definition of engagement may sound a bit different from most: Engagement is what the brain attends to. Whatever the students are thinking about is what they are engaged with. They may look like they are doing an awesome job with a project or collaborative assignment, but if they are not thinking about, discussing, working through the actual material, they are not engaged with that project or assignment. How many times have you read a paragraph from a book only to realize you have no idea what you just read because your mind was elsewhere? Your eyes scrolled through the words, but you were cognitively engaged with other thoughts. Now, what would you report about a student sitting quietly reading a passage? Perhaps that they were engaged with the material. Are you so certain now?

Engagement is quite difficult to observe. But there is a way to “see” student engagement with classroom material. Assessment. This can be assessment through answering multiple-choice questions, through a discussion board, a conversation in class, creating a manipulative, et cetera. Students need to think with the material they’ve been engaged with. If they cannot retrieve that information when needed and use it appropriately to satisfy the parameters of the given assessment, ultimately they don’t know it well enough. Without assessment, we (both teachers and students) are just assuming...and we all know what that does.

Response From Katie White

Katie White spends her time immersed in all things education. She is coordinator of learning for a school district in Saskatchewan,Canada; an educational consultant; an assessment associate for Solution Tree’s Assessment Center; an editor of the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network newsletter; a contracted writer; and an author of Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices that Honor K-12 Teachers and Learners and Unlocked: Assessment as the Key to Everyday Creativity in the Classroom:

Student engagement is a term that implies an active application and/or immersion in the experiences occurring in the learning environment. This active (rather than passive) stance is critical in developing a subsequent important state of commitment to a particular outcome, resulting in student investment. When students are engaged and then invested, all kinds of wonderful things can happen in a classroom space.

When we consider what might engage students and invite investment, we might first reflect on what engages us as adults. First, engagement is much enhanced when we consciously make a decision about how we might spend our time and when we are able to set personally relevant goals in relation to the activity or experience in which we will be engaged. Second, we are engaged when we can decide how we might distribute our time within a chosen task. Perhaps we want to spend extra time orienting ourselves to a new experience or perhaps we choose to spend more time refining a project near its end. Both decisions relate to our personally selected goal. Third, we are engaged when we have a measure of control or autonomy over our learning context. If we are engaged in a creative pursuit, we may need time to let ideas incubate. If we are solving a problem, we are more engaged when we have time to think, time to collaborate, and the ability to work through multiple strategies before selecting the one that works for the given problem.

These same factors apply to engagement of students in an educational context. Like adults, learners need to make decisions, set personal goals, allocate time, and exercise control over their learning context. This means the classroom contexts that invite these approaches support the kind of engagement that build student investment.

To support decisionmaking by students, we could begin by offering choices as often as possible. Depending on the learning goals we are addressing, we may invite students choice on how they will explore a concept (for example, working alone or with a partner), or they may choose what their product may look like (a written or a digital story, for example).

In addition to the goals we hold for student learning, we might enhance engagement by inviting students to select their own goals that reflect a specific criterion-focus. For example, perhaps a student has been exploring ways to hook readers into their introductions or ways to organize data into various tables and charts. Their personal goal might reflect this kind of focus and connects to their personal interests, skills, and needs.

To support decisionmaking as it relates to time and learning contexts, we can, again, offer choices whenever we are able and we can allow learners to consider their personal learning needs before they approach a task. This means we may opt to discuss the design of our learning plan with students. For example, we might ask whether we should spend a little more time in centers during a selected time period or whether we should spend more time on our read-aloud activity. We might also offer learners a choice in the materials they might use (three dimensional or two dimensional models), in the surface they might work on (desks or standing at the wall), in the sounds they will experience (music or silence), or in the spaces where they might work (indoors or outdoors).

We might also support personal decisionmaking by making time for students to offer their opinions and identify their needs at various points in the learning experience. We may ask: Who needs more time? Who would benefit from a different approach right now? Who needs to look at the materials box again and make another selection? Who needs some peer feedback? We might design points in a lesson when students revisit goals, reflect on progress, and adjust action plans as needed. These decisions can be negotiated between teachers and students, but the more students are given the chance to make decisions, the higher the engagement and, ultimately, the investment.

Ultimately, when students are invested in their learning, the work of a teacher is focused on maximizing the development of skills and knowledge, on documentation of growth, and on addressing student-learning needs. When we release control over every decision, we gain control over finding time to engage in effective instruction. Student engagement and teacher effectiveness go hand-in-hand.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher and now a full-time author and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction with immersive technology. His last two books, The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement, and Hacking Instructional Design: 33 Extraordinary Ways to Create a Contemporary Curriculum, both have themes of authenticity, relevancy, and contemporary instructional practices. For more information, visit The Digigogy Collaborative (digigogy.com) or find Michael on Twitter (@fisher1000):

To be sure, the breadth of the definition of “student engagement” is immense. To some, it means that students are on task and doing what they are supposed to be doing. To others, it might mean that they are actively participating in the reading, writing, speaking, or listening in the classroom. “On Task” and “Active Participation” are somewhat subjective to the observer. Then there are also those who think that engagement has more to do with passion or that which compels a student to learn something.

I am of the latter camp. That which is compelling to a student is a very interesting version of the definition of engagement to me. Being compelled by the interest in a topic for learning or having a passion for a particular topic has so much more to do with learning than doing. Engagement as time on task or active participation is likely more about doing than learning. I’m in and out of classrooms often and I always ask students two questions: 1) What are you doing? The answer is almost always a rundown of the checklist of tasks they must complete: a worksheet on quotation marks, the even-numbered problems in their math textbook, read and respond to questions from the current chapters in their science or history books, make a PowerPoint that includes a picture and definition of each of the elements in the learning task, etc. The “doing” question is easy. Students are just relaying their understanding of a check-off list for what the teacher expects. This is not inherently bad except for what they say when I pose the second question: 2) What are you learning? Here, they falter. They may rehash the directions but don’t necessarily understand the WHYs behind what they are attempting to learn or the context, content, or concept.

To promote more of what I’m describing as my definition for engagement (that which is compelling or inspires a passion for learning), students must balance the content knowledge with the context for learning it. They should be given opportunities beyond the traditional that leverage their identities as learners with what the world outside of school will expect of them as global citizens. Students should be invited as partners into the design of their learning and the subsequent demonstrations of what they’ve learned. I realize that relinquishing control in the classroom seems like a steep mountain to climb, but giving students some autonomy in decisionmaking and loosening the design parameters actually prepares them for that global citizenry in ways that we’ve not been able to before. With student voices and choices, we change the rote to the relevant. We change the test to the performance. We change old notions about engagement to new notions about passion.

Response From Meena Srinivasan

Meena Srinivasan, an SEL and mindfulness leader based in Northern California, is executive director of Transformative Educational Leadership (TEL). She is the author of SEL Every Day: Integrating Social and Emotional Learning with Instruction in Secondary Classrooms:

Think back to your favorite classes when you were growing up. What factors made the class your favorite? Chances are, your teacher was able to connect emotionally with you and your classmates. There may have been a certain degree of risk taking and engagement. In order to take risks and stay engaged, you had to feel safe, seen, and connected—all of which are attributes of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). For me, SEL is at the heart of student engagement. Three practices must be central to our instruction if we aim to promote authentic student engagement in our classrooms:

  1. Adult SEL: Research suggests that teachers’ SEL skills are an important predictor of the quality of teacher-student relationships and the culture and climate in a classroom (Jones, Bouffard, & Weissbourd, 2013, 63). An educator’s capacity to truly see their students makes learning relevant and creates safety for risk taking. Student engagement requires a tremendous amount of Adult SEL.

  2. Student Voice and Choice: Student choice empowers students to take ownership of their learning while also creating opportunities for students to develop and deepen their voice. When student voice and choice is authentic and not just symbolic, it also develops student agency.

  3. Creating & Sustaining Community: Two approaches are key for creating and sustaining community, Restorative Practices and 3 Signature SEL Practices.

    • Restorative Practices (RP), often used interchangeably with Restorative Justice (RJ), are specific practices inspired by indigenous values that build community, respond to harm or conflict, and provide circles of support for community members. These practices seek to support collectivist values in the classroom while utilizing a structure that emphasizes interdependence. By building, maintaining, and restoring relationships between members of the entire school community, RP helps to create an environment where all students can thrive.

    • There are three practices developed by CASEL professional-development consultant Ann McKay Bryson that are widely used among classroom teachers to enhance community while also promoting academic engagement.

o Welcoming rituals like morning meetings or an interactive “do-now” build community and set the stage for the learning that’s about to happen. This practice also brings all the voices into the room. When you have students talking at the start of class, they are more likely to stay engaged throughout.

o Engaging strategies like “turn to your partner,” “Socratic Seminar,” and “Jigsaw” are infused with SEL, vary in complexity, and consist of sequential steps facilitated by the teacher to support learning individually and collectively.

o Optimistic closures like an “Appreciation, Apology, or Aha” aren’t meant to be sanguine ways to end class. Rather, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what happened in class, share a next step, express gratitude, or lift up new understanding

Thanks to Paula, Rebecca, Jodi, PJ, Blake, Katie, Michael, and Meena for their contributions.

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