Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Cultivate ‘Whole-Class Engagement’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 04, 2014 10 min read
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This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

“What can we do to get all students in class participating more all the time?”

Of course, since we all live in the real world, it’s unlikely that we will be successful in getting all our students participating -- particularly in a cognitive way -- all the time. However, there are a number of actions we can take to increase the odds of as many as our students being active learners and co-creators of what is happening in the classroom (what our school’s principal ,Ted Appel, and vice-principal, Jim Peterson, call “whole-class engagement.”). These techniques can include use of individual whiteboards for students to use for writing and sharing responses; not having students raise hands and, instead, having teachers call on students (especially if they are given thinking and partner-sharing time for preliminary processing); and asking students reflective questions at the end of class for use as exit slips.

It’s also important to remember that the effectiveness of these kinds of techniques will always be constrained or expanded by the quality of the relationships and the culture in any classroom.

Today, three guests and many readers are contributing their responses to this week’s question. Jim Peterson, who I mentioned earlier, and William & Pérsida Himmele.

In addition, you can listen to a ten minute conversation I had with the three of them on a BAM! Radio podcast about this same topic.

Response From Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson is a veteran vice principal at the school where I have taught for ten years, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. Jim is also a behavioral therapist and clinical hypnotherapist. You can learn more about his work at Alpha Mind Coaching:

When trying to get all students on task and engaged teachers need to consistently use basic motivation strategies. I’m not referring to the larger intrinsic vs. extrinsic factors. By motivation strategies I mean the lesson structures that cause students to attend to task and engage in the lesson.

Feel the difference between these two sets of instructions:

“You’re going to read the next three pages. When you finish, you are going to answer the five questions that follow the reading.”


“When I tell you to begin, you will have one minute 1 minute 45 seconds. You are going to read the next paragraph looking for the main point. As you read, you are going to highlight any words or phrases that support what you believe is the main point. When you are finished, be prepared to share with a partner or with the entire class. You may begin.”

Do you think one of these two sets of instructions would cause more students to sit up and take the task more seriously than the other?

In order to elicit whole-class engagement, we need to ensure that we are implementing a series of factors that elevate our students’ focus and level of concern. We’ll refer to this series as “TAPN”. After all, our goal is to get all of our students to “tap in” to the lesson. “TAPN” refers to the words time, amount, public, and novelty.

Notice how when the teacher above said “you have one minute 45 seconds”, it grabbed your attention. Not only is that a relatively short amount of time, but it makes the listener perceive that time as something precise and deliberate. It is clear that students need to do the task now, and with some urgency. By contrast, telling students to just read five pages creates no sense of urgency whatsoever. Further, by assigning a chunk of work that students will only be accountable for at some unknown future time, there is a perception of low accountability. Keeping times short and precise and announcing the time students have to complete a given task will contribute to raising the level of concern related to completing the task.

Along with giving shorter and more deliberate times, we need to be conscious of the amount of work we give the students. If we give them too little, their intensity will drop, and they’re more likely to go off task, particularly if they finish before the time is up. If we give students too much work to accomplish within the allotted time, they are more likely to get frustrated or not even try. Assigning just the right amount of work will increase the odds that a student will stay focused and on task.

Work to establish a classroom culture in which it is understood that, with every task they perform, students know there is a strong possibility that they will have to share out their results in front of their peers. When calling on student to share out, avoid calling on the hand raisers, and make it a point to regularly call on students you think are at risk of not being engaged with the lesson. Along with the use of time, knowing that their work will be made public is another factor that raises the students’ level of concern.

The poet Thomas Hood once declared, “There are three things which the public will always clamor for... novelty, novelty, novelty.” Your odds of keeping your students on task go up when you mix things up and keep the energy feeling fresh. Alter your activities, occasionally rotating partners and changing up your students’ modes of response. The first time you ask them to turn to a partner and share, you’ll feel a fresh energy in the room. The sixth, seventh and eighth time in a row that you ask them to do so, however, you’ll likely hear a growing sigh. You can mix it up by having them write their answer down and be prepared to share it with the group, write it on a mini white board and be ready to hold it up or just think to themselves for a few moments before they share out. Small changes of routine increase the motivation to attend to the task at hand.

Keeping all students on task at all times can be a challenge even for the most seasoned teacher, but by incorporating all the elements of TAPN, as you progress through a lesson, you will notice a difference not only in the percentage of your students who are engaged the activity but in the urgency of their attention to the task.

Response From Pérsida and William Himmele

William Himmele is an associate professor of education and the coordinator for the ESL Certificate Program at Millersville University. Pérsida Himmele is an associate professor of education at Millersville University. The Himmeles are the authors of the ASCD books, Total Participation Techniques: Making every student an active learner, and The Language-Rich Classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners:

Total Participation Techniques are teaching techniques that provide teachers with evidence of active participation and higher-order thinking, from all students, at the same time. One of the things to remember is that not all participation is qualitatively equal. We don’t simply want behavioral compliance. In as much as we can, we want all students participating using cognitively intense prompts that cause them to grow each other’s learning.

Students benefit from explaining their thinking. However, with the traditional Q & A, teachers call out a question in order to gauge understanding. Although 3 or 4 students raise their hands to respond, the students who are responding are rarely the students who don’t understand what is being taught, or who most need the comprehension checks. The ones who most need it are often allowed to be passive observers, complacent in their non-understanding. Total Participation Techniques frame the context so that all students are responding to higher-order prompts in low-risk settings.

Here are a few of our favorite Total Participation Techniques (TPTs):

The Chalkboard Splash:

This TPT requires that students respond to a prompt and then find any open spot on the chalkboard or whiteboard where they can record their responses. In order to make this activity run smoothly, where students aren’t needing to wait for each other, students should be asked to try to limit their answers to 15 words or less. See the next two activities for examples of how you might use this activity.

The “Pause, Star, Rank":

This technique works well at the conclusions of lessons or units that have packed in quite a bit of information or concepts. It allows students to pause and review all the things that they have learned by reading over their notes and reflecting on what the essential concepts are.

Here are the steps for Pause, Star, Rank:

1) Pause: Review any notes that you’ve taken during this unit.

2) Star: Place a star on the concepts that you believe were the most important for understanding the unit.

3) Rank: Number your top three concepts and be ready to explain why they are your top three.

Once students have been given a suitable amount of time to star their concepts, alert them that the time for placing stars on important concepts is coming to a close, and then ask students to rank their top three starred concepts. After students have been given a suitable amount of time to rank the concepts, they should then get into pairs or small groups in order to share their top three concepts and explain their rationales for selecting their top three. You can cap off this activity with a chalkboard splash where students summarize their number one concept (using fewer than 15 words) and write the number one concept anywhere on the chalkboard or whiteboard. This can then be a springboard for a mini-review led by those concepts that students selected as the most important.

The A-Z Sentence Summary:

This technique provides a quick and easy way to have students wrap up what they’ve learned. At the end of your lesson, pass out one A through Z magnet or die-cut to each of the students in your class. Ask students to wrap up what they’ve learned in one sentence using the letter they’ve been assigned as the first letter of the sentence. Then, call out the letters in alphabetical order. When each letter is called, the student who was assigned that letter should read their sentence out loud for the class to hear. Duplicate letters for classes with more than 26 students. We also use this activity as a chalkboard splash, where students attach their magnets to the chalkboard or whiteboard and write their sentence. As a wrap-up we’ll often ask students to work with their table groups to come up with categories for the summary sentences.

Using activities that require total participation not only is more interesting for students than a traditional teacher-directed lesson would be, but it also puts the responsibility on students to actively focus on what they are learning, and repackage it in a way that demonstrates deep understandings.

Responses From Readers

Many readers sent their comments via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect their tweets (also, one of my students left a comment on my Facebook page saying that I could promote more student participation in our class if I “gave out candy” :) ):

Thanks to Jim, Pérsida and William - and to readers - 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.

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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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.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting the next “question-of-the-week” in a few of days....

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