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Classroom Q&A

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

Increasing Engagement With Student Choice

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 27, 2021 13 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The question-of-the-week is:

Some research suggests that as students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease. How can schools combat this trend?

Part One‘s contributors were Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, and Matt Renwick. Janice was also a guest on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Scott Bayer, Amanda Lescas, Ryan Huels, and Joy Hamm share their thoughts.

Three ‘choices’

Scott Bayer is an English teacher in Montgomery County, Md. He is a co-founder of #THEBOOKCHAT and can be found on Twitter @Lyricalswordz:

As students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease. This happens for several reasons, and let’s be honest, we cause most of them.

Maybe not as individuals, but we are part of a system that causes students to disengage. Some reasons student engagement decreases as students get older: We make learning unfun; we take away curiosity and shift toward compliance; we make all the decisions for kids. As students gain more autonomy in their lives, we become just another system that forces them to conform—and for many students of color, there is a cumulative impact of navigating an oppressive educational system year after year. Let’s look at one way to combat disengagement: student choice.

Choice of Content: Sometimes, kids all need to learn the same thing, and sometimes they don’t. When we focus on standards—which often center on cognitive skills or neurodiverse tasks—there is a lot of room to provide choice.

If your math students are trying to master one of the Functions Standards, for example, “Build a function that models a relationship between two quantities,” you as the teacher could name the function, and there could be a singular correct answer. But students could select the type of function they want to build, determine what the two quantities are, and demonstrate their own unique relationship. Providing this type of choice honors student interests. When students are interested in the work at hand, they are more likely to be engaged.

Choice of Process: Here’s a simple way to help students process information. Set up two stations: One is “Write First, Talk Second,” and the other is “Talk First, Write Second.” By doing this, we honor the ways in which people work through new information.

I know that I, for example, like to write things down to really get to the heart of what I think before I open my mouth and share anything publicly. Writing helps shape and deepen my thinking and gives me more confidence as a public speaker. One of my colleagues, though, always wants to “talk things through” before writing anything down. For him, talking is a way of getting feedback on his ideas, which helps him shape and organize his ideas before writing. A simple choice of process like this, set up physically by splitting the room in half (or several small stations) can really jump-start students. Those that normally don’t like to talk feel much more prepared and therefore comfortable once they have time to write; those that don’t normally know what to write have a lot of ideas to work with once they’ve participated in the discourse.

Helping Students Make Good Choices: Offering students choice is challenging because they aren’t accustomed to driving their own educational experiences. When I ask teachers if they let students choose their partners or groups, I often hear concerns about students only picking their friends. In a recent unit, I offered students three choices: a novel, a thematic lens to study the text, and at least one peer to work with. Before letting them choose, they previewed each of the texts and themes and then wrote three reflections. The reflection prompts were:

  • “The advantages or disadvantages of choosing a theme first are…”
  • “The advantages or disadvantages of choosing a novel first are…”
  • “The advantages or disadvantages of choosing a partner first are…”

We discussed their ideas, and I opened up the floor to questions. Then I shared a Google Form that said: “Based on my reflection, I think I should first choose a…” Not one student selected “partner” from the drop-down menu. Only after they had chosen a theme and a novel did they find other students who had decided to work on the same things.

As teachers, we make a lot of decisions. But must we make them all? No. Student choice is rooted in equity. Student choice is rooted in culturally responsive pedagogy. Students deserve to choose content, process, pace, and product—to drive their own educational experiences. We want to make the best decisions we can for students, but if we let go of some of our power, we can create a co-constructed classroom with students. And classrooms like this see highly engaged students


Five ways to promote engagement

Amanda Lescas is an ESOL instructional specialist with the Palm Beach County school district in Florida. Amanda works with teachers and students in grade K-12 and is passionate about finding ways to make instruction engaging, equitable, and accessible for all:

I spent the first 10 years of my career as an elementary teacher before I moved up to the high school level. My first day as a high school teacher was terrifying. The students were taller than I, they rolled their eyes at my “jokes,” and I got lost on the way back from the teacher work room (seriously).

Looking back on that first week, I don’t know how I made it. It took awhile for me to get students engaged in my class. You see, by the time students are in high school, they are experts at “playing school.” The trick is to move the students from compliance to engagement. As the years went on, I learned what I feel are the keys to student engagement at the secondary level.

  • Community above everything else. We have to create a safe place for our students to take risks and feel empowered to learn. This happens by creating a safe community. Get to know your students by taking a few minutes at the beginning of class to talk with them. Share your life with them. Have them get to know one another. Your classroom should feel like a home. Important: This has to be authentic. If you are genuinely interested in connecting with your students, a community will be created organically.
  • All means all. In order for students to be engaged, teachers must expect 100 percent participation at all times. This is not punitive. Instead, this sends a message to your students that every voice matters, that every student has something to add to each lesson. You should seek input from your students frequently, and every student should participate, every day. Get in the habit of randomly calling on students, let go of hand raising, and allow for classroom conversations. (Note: This only works once you have established a safe community.)
  • Provide support. Every student should feel safe to take risks, but we must provide the scaffolds needed to take these risks. Add sentence frames on your board to help students in their oral or written response. Display a word wall in your classroom with key vocabulary terms. Allow your students to use their notes or textbooks. Let students seek help from a classmate. Learning is a fluid process, and setting students up for success will help ensure that all are engaged and participate.
  • Provide choice. Is there more than one way for a student to show mastery of a standard? What would happen if you opened up an activity and allowed students to choose how they wanted to complete it? Using a choice menu or giving students the freedom to come up with their own project can vastly increase engagement. Can classwork be done in groups or with partners? What if we gave the students that choice? Trust your students to own their learning. They will surprise you.
  • Be vulnerable. Admit your mistakes. Seek feedback from your students and be open to changing your instruction to meet their needs. What do they want to learn about? What makes them excited to come to your class every day? Ask them! Consider creating an anonymous survey through Google forms and giving it to your students. Remember, it is their classroom, too. If you truly want them engaged in your content, you must seek honest feedback.

Teaching high school students has been, without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my career. These students are smart, clever, and have so much to offer to the world. They are eager to create connections with you and thrive on engaging, exciting curriculum. Open up your classroom to them and you will create a community of engaged learners!


Listening to students

Ryan Huels is currently an assistant principal at Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Ill., after an extended tenure as an early-elementary classroom teacher. Ryan is an advocate for creating a more student-focused learning environment centered around the principles of positive relationships, restorative practices, and family engagement:

Schools can tackle the issue of declining student engagement as they get older by working to increase student ownership in the learning process.

As students reach middle school, they have gotten accustomed to a tried and true learning experience, and it is our job as educators to provide a more meaningful experience and connect their learning to the world around them.

Our elementary school has worked to develop various leadership opportunities for students to engage them in the learning process. We have students lead assemblies, greet visitors, plan service projects, and assist in younger classrooms. Not only does this increase their engagement to their school, but it helps them develop a sense of pride as an individual and realize the greater good that can occur when they take on a leadership role.

Another way our school has been able to captivate students as they get older is to meet them where they are by creating authentic learning experiences about the content they are discovering. Our social studies classes have created “Wax Museums” that bring content alive and allow students to present their knowledge in an authentic manner to their peers.

As a building leader, I have made an effort to increase student engagement by giving students an opportunity for their voice to be heard. Too often, we go through school improvement efforts or changes without consulting our most important stakeholders—kids! I have made it a priority to hold student-advisory meetings in which I meet with a cross-section of upper-elementary students and ask them the following three questions:

What do you love about our school?

What do you not enjoy about our school?

What changes would you make to our school?

It is incredible the types of feedback students provide if you simply make the time (usually no more than 20-30 minutes) for their voice to be heard. Some of my favorite emails I get are from students attempting to persuade me to make a certain schedule change, add more recess, or adjust a lunch menu. I always attempt to make it a point to follow up with that student for a few minutes to hear more about their suggestion and either explain what went into a particular decision or work with them to come up with a better solution!

If a student provides feedback or asks a question that you may not have a good reason as to why we are doing something, then that may be an invitation to re-evaluate a particular program. We cannot fret about declining student engagement if we do not give students the opportunity to be heard.


Make sure students feel ‘seen’

Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners. The last few years working with middle and high school Newcomers and completing her M.Ed. in TESOL have fostered stronger advocacy in her district and beyond. She loves living in other countries and being a language-learner herself:

Disinterested students generally haven’t fit into academic school norms, which often results in years of perceived failure and increased disengagement. One strategy schools can utilize to combat this trend is through the individual impact of a teacher, counselor, custodian, or another adult who is willing to invest a few minutes each day using the approach, “You are seen, you are respected, and you have something to offer the world.”

You are seen: Find out what the student enjoys outside of school. What hobbies, jobs, sports, or musical interests can you relate to and discuss with this high schooler? Whom can you talk to in his/her family to better understand family assets or responsibilities? Recognize high schoolers by being a listener as they voice their opinions or share their experiences.

You are respected: A brief pause in our hectic days to greet students at the classroom door, to look at each of our students in the eye, and to shake hands or share a fist bump goes a long way. Also, increasing cultural appreciation by valuing our students’ diverse backgrounds and providing opportunities for students to be the expert speaks volumes to those who may otherwise feel marginalized.

You have something to offer the world: If you can’t discover what motivates a disengaged student, start creating leadership opportunities that turn the annoyance/weakness you observe into a strength. For instance, a student who is always on her phone or distracting others in the class might be a perfect candidate to lead a short lesson or class discussion. Or give the silent stonewaller a journal to write or draw connections to the lesson and display appropriate pages on the classroom walls. When students have something meaningful to offer, they are more likely to invest themselves in the endeavor.

In conclusion, as a current remedial teacher and foster parent, the teens in my life emphasize that the newest classroom tech tool or most creative lesson will quickly be forgotten. These older students continue showing up at school every day because of an adult (often a teacher) who persevered past their angst and made them feel valued.


Thanks to Scott, Amanda, Ryan, and Joy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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