Teaching Opinion

Response: Student Engagement ‘Involves Joyous Effort’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 09, 2014 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

How would you define student engagement, and what are good strategies to promote it?

In Part One of this series, Julie Thompson, Myron Dueck, Bryan Harris, and Debbie Silver contributed responses. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Debbie about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

Today, ReLeah Lent, Barry Gilmore, Nancy Steineke, Michael Opitz, Michael Ford, and Eric Jensen all share their thoughts on the topic.

Response From ReLeah Lent and Barry Gilmore

ReLeah Lent was a secondary teacher before becoming a founding member of a statewide literacy project at the University of Central Florida. Barry Gilmore is the Middle School Head at Hutchison School in Memphis, Tennessee. They are the authors of Common Core CPR (Corwin, 2013):

Engagement, an elusive concept at best, nevertheless can be seen in the behaviors and attitudes of students: more time on task, perseverance in the face of challenges, pride in the outcome, and increased energy and attention--as well as more obvious indicators such as curiosity, sustained interest, and enjoyment in the process. In fact, adults report that lessons or projects in which they were deeply engaged in school often influenced career choices or sparked lifelong interests. Everyone agrees, then, that engagement is beneficial, but how can teachers lead students, especially those who are reluctant or struggle, to become motivated on a daily basis?

When we began writing “Common Core CPR: What About the Adolescents Who Struggle or Just Don’t Care?” we decided that engagement must become the foundation for every strategy and practice in the book. After reviewing research and reflecting on our own experiences in the classroom, we were able to codify the components that create engagement in learning. The resulting “Standards for Motivation and Engagement” offer a learning goal and action statement that we feel will provide guidance for teachers seeking to increase engagement in their classrooms. What did we find to be most important?

  • Active Learning: Teachers help students interact with material in ways that promote deep questioning and thinking.

  • Autonomy: Teachers offer students choice and opportunities to control their learning.

  • Relevance: Teachers find ways to connect content even when it may seem, at first, distant from students’ own lives.

  • Collaboration: Teachers place students in pairs or groups for activities.

  • Technology Use: Teachers create opportunities for students to use technology to deepen study.

  • Multiple Learning Methods: Teachers infuse instruction with a variety of learning tools such as reading, writing, speaking, or project-based learning.

  • Challenge and Success: Teachers develop challenging assignments and projects that increase students’ self-efficacy.

  • Differentiation and Scaffolding: Teachers provide instruction that is individualized, built upon prior knowledge, and structured at an appropriate pace.

  • Inquiry: Teachers create assignments based on problem solving and open-ended questioning.

  • Feedback: Teachers provide a variety of assessments and timely responses that capitalize on strengths, address weaknesses, and motivate ongoing learning.

Easier said than done? No doubt, but recognizing that engagement is a primary factor in increasing learning as well as test scores, keeping kids in school, and fostering independence--to say nothing of creating an energizing classroom environment-- makes the effort seem small in comparison.

Response From Nancy Steineke

Nancy Steineke, an English teacher for over thirty years, is an author, consultant, and Illinois Writing Project leader. Her latest book, co-authored with Harvey Daniels, is Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction. She is also the author/co-author of several other books: Reading and Writing Together, Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading, Texts and Lessons for Literature, Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles, and Assessment Live!:

I’ll never forget a quote I heard years ago at a conference. Though I’m paraphrasing, here’s the essence. “At the end of the day, it’s your students who should be leaving tired, not you.” And I’m pretty sure the speaker meant tired in a good way, the exhaustion that comes from engaging work that makes the time fly by. Though endlessly fascinating lessons sound like an impossible challenge, here’s the secret: engagement is achieved when students converse with each other about the content. Accountable talk should be our daily goal.

Get acquainted every day: Students will take greater interest in each other’s ideas when they know each other. During those first few days of a new school year, students are deluged with ice breaking activities in almost every class. Yet after that first week, it’s back to business as usual, those ice breaking activities long forgotten, the kids huddling with the classmates they knew before they ever entered your room.

Tip: Instead of spending a whole period on icebreaking the first day of school, spend five minutes on it every day. Pair up students randomly that first day, seat them next to each other, and give them daily opportunities to get to know each other better, which, in turn, warms them up for their conversations on the content material. After two or three weeks, repeat the process: a new seat, a new partner, a new opportunity to really get to know a classmate.

Teach social-academic skills explicitly: If you’ve been reading Ed Week, you’ve seen quite a few articles about Social Emotional Learning. Equally important is Social-Academic Learning. This learning encompasses the skills students need for successful interaction.

Tip: At the beginning of the year, teach students how to avoid put downs and how to treat each other with friendliness and support. When fear of a peer’s negative comment is eliminated, thinking and collaboration will thrive. Also, at the end of a work session, pairs need to reflect on how skillfully they worked together. What did they do well? What could they do better?

Offer daily opportunities for accountable talk: The more your students talk about your content, the more they will remember.

Tip: Keep students working in pairs whenever possible. In pairs, at least 50% of the class is talking about your content. Plus, it’s much easier for you to monitor the groups and keep them on-task. Always find ways to turn your content back to student talk. Design individual assignments in ways that will create interesting discussion when pairs share their work. Even if you rely on lecture, stop every ten minutes and let partners share their responses: what did they hear that’s important, interesting, or raises a question?

Response from Michael Opitz and Michael Ford

Michael Opitz is professor emeritus of reading education at the University of Northern Colorado and Michael Ford is chair of the Department of Literacy and Language at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Friends and colleagues for more than two decades, they began working together as a result of their common reading education interests and extensive work in the field. Opitz and Ford co-authored Engaging Minds in the Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy (ASCD, 2014):

In our book Engaging Minds in the Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy, we embrace Wlodkowski and Ginsberg’s definition of engagement: the visible outcome of motivation as seen in the natural capacity to direct energy in pursuit of a goal. We know engagement includes a combination of three key conditions: learners can sense that success is within their reach, value the outcome, and feel safe in contexts in which the learning is taking place. The learner must believe “I have the skill, I have the will and I have the support I need to be successful.” You’ll know your learners are engaged when you see that they are attentive, committed, persistent and attribute value to their work. As Schlechty points out, authentic engagement goes beyond compliance. We believe it must involve joyous effort.

So how do you promote student engagement? Like most education goals, start with assessing where you are at. Look closely at your learners in three keys areas: Do they think they can succeed? Do they want to succeed? Do they know how to succeed?

If the primary issue is related to thinking they can succeed, focus attention on strengthening their identities as learners. Look closely at teaching and assessment practices, materials and resources, and the school environment in terms of the messages you are sending students. Think about how they could be adjusted to present more effective positive messages about who they are as learners.

If the primary issue is related to wanting to succeed, look more closely at issues of motivation. What do your learners value and how can you capitalize on what they value to raise their levels of engagement? Think about a multi-dimensional approach to motivation that addresses issues like building curiosity, recognition, involvement, challenge, interest, social interaction and importance.

If the primary issue is related to knowing how to succeed, examine your instruction. Do learning opportunities focus on clear purposes, gradually releasing responsibilities to learners, scaffolding instruction, opportunities for guided and independent practice, and involvement in self-evaluation? Explicit instruction that asks teachers and learners to make their thinking public begins to reveal what knowledge is necessary to stay engaged and be successful.

Acknowledging that issues in student engagement can also include any combination of these factors and differs in different learning contexts, promoting it begins with a careful look at where learners are at and then a comprehensive plan to move them forward.

Response From Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen, Ph.D., is the author of 28 books including Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain, , Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind and Enriching The Brain. For more information go to: www.brainbasedlearning.net:

A New Mindset of Student Engagement

© Eric Jensen 2014

Many teachers think about engagement as an activity (e.g. “What’s the activity my students are doing next?”). Engagement is typically what people see, hear and feel in the room.

But that’s for beginners.

As your experience grows and your background knowledge expands, you’ll learn that some of the best engagement is actually invisible. For a moment, I’m inviting you to think about engagement differently. It will take a whole new mindset, so be ready to add “invisible engagement” to your menu. Because space is limited, I’ll briefly introduce three types.

First, I call “maintenance.” These engagements go by very quickly and are very low-level. Maintenance engagement consists brief actions such as call-responses, “turn tos” (“Turn to your neighbor and say ‘Great effort’”), and physical acts like, “Slide your chair a foot forward” or “Clap twice and stomp your feet” or even stand and stretch. These keep students in behaviorally flexible states and promote curiosity, attention and blood flow.

The second engagement is called “set-ups.” Most of your activities or content blocks will work (or not) based on how well you prepare learners ahead of time. Set-ups include “priming” for content, cueing with teasers, buy-in strategies and invoking states of anticipation (“Oh! I’ve got a great idea; it’ll only take a second. Please stand up and take in a deep breath. If you’re ready, next you’ll...”). These strategies are not much of anything EXCEPT they ensure the NEXT thing that you do WILL work. “Set-ups” are priceless and without them, even good activities will die.

The third type of engagement is orchestrated to elicit a certain type of mind-body change. “Eudaimonic engagement” gives your students the joyful satisfaction during long-term pursuit of worth-while goals such as becoming a team, learning a tough new skill, building something relevant, or leading an interesting project.

In fact, this type of engaged joy is associated with increased gray matter (Lewis, Kanai, Rees & Bates, 2013) and a lower inflammatory level and stronger antiviral response (Algoe & Fredrickson, 2011). Plus it helps kids stay healthy, avoid drug temptations and have greater resilience (Cohn, Fredrickson, Brown, Mikels & Conway, 2009). This engagement requires BIG goals, interdependency, feedback and relevant challenges. It’s one of my favorite types of engagement and motivation is usually through the roof.

You’ve been introduced to three ways to think of engagement in a less visible way. Your new mindset should be, “I can engage any student at any time, at any level, for any activity.” That’s the level of confidence you want. Over time, you’ll have collected or developed enough strategies to back up that confidence by working with some new levels of engagement. Some of the benefits may turn out to be invisible to the untrained eye. But you’ll know better.

Thanks to ReLeah, Barry, Nancy, Michael, Michael and Eric for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Four

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.

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Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Three in a few days....

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