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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

‘Student Engagement Means Connectedness’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 28, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

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

Response From Cheryl Abla

Cheryl Abla is a former teacher who now, with McREL International, leads professional learning and coaching for K-12 educators on research-based strategies for effective instruction, use of classroom technology, English-language acquisition, and classroom culture and climate. She’s a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works:

It’s always important to step back and ask yourself, “If my own child, or a niece or nephew, were in my classroom, would they find the content interesting and exciting?” If the answer is ever “no,” then something needs to change.

Student engagement means connectedness—to their lessons, to one another, and to the general principle that learning goals are worth committing to. It’s where attitudes and skill sets collide. Here are some ways to encourage student engagement.

  1. Introduce your next unit with a puzzle or mystery. Humans have a compulsive need to know what happens next; it’s why spy novels are harder to put down five pages from the end than five pages from the beginning. Virtually any topic can be approached this way.

  2. Pause with purpose. A little silence goes a long way! Providing some processing time after questions may level the playing field for students who are reticent and might not otherwise get a chance to participate.

  3. Ask fewer, but deeper, questions. A handful of “What if?” or “How might?” questions will foster mature thought and discussion better than a bombardment of yes/no or true/false questions. Deep engagement is more about quality than about quantity.

  4. Introduce an element of controversy. Debating and persuading is a great way to become invested in a topic. Some rules of the road will have to be introduced—we don’t want class time to deteriorate into a verbal slugfest—but it’s amazing how much effort a person will put into digging up information that supports their position.

  5. Mine the “knowledge gap” by encouraging students to identify aspects of a topic they don’t know and then working toward a fuller understanding of it. Like mysteries and puzzles (above), the goal here is to exploit the natural desire to fill in the blank spots in our knowledge.

  6. Give students a “what’s in it for me?” by connecting content to real-world relevance, such as the effects of public policy on their own standard of living.

  7. Encourage collaboration via small-group work. To teach is to learn, so helping other students learn should be a significant aspect of the school experience for everybody. Your not-so-secret agenda, of course, is for students to learn pro-social skills at the same time as content.

When students can’t wait to come to your classroom each day, you know you have “hooked” them into the joy of learning. It takes a little planning and prep work, but the effort is always worth the time spent in preparation.

Response From Jessica Garza

Jessica Garza @JessicaCGarza is a bilingual mathematics teacher from Pasadena ISD (Texas) where she has six years of experience teaching young mathematicians in grades 2-3. Jessica is a contributing author to one of Dr. Nicki Newton’s books, “Mathematizing Your School":

I watched my mother drive our car for 15 years, but somehow watching my mother drive our car was not enough for me to learn how to be a good driver. However, after three months of sitting behind the wheel, numerous doses of my mother’s encouragement, and a couple of fender benders later, I started to gain some confidence with this new skill. Teaching young mathematicians is a similar experience. I can explain concepts and model procedures over the course of multiple days, but I will most likely lose my students in the process if the process is focused solely on my actions. Student engagement is at the heart of learning and understanding mathematics. There are three critical components to engaging our young mathematicians with mathematics.

The first component starts with the teacher. A teacher who is excited about teaching mathematics will spark a joy for mathematics. If there is a specific skill or concept that might lack “excitement,” then the teacher should collaborate with colleagues to gather engaging approaches or research engaging strategies in available resources. I go through my lesson and ask myself, “If my lesson was a professional learning opportunity, would it grab my attention? Are there components that engage me as a learner?” Be sure to sprinkle in some of your personality! I remember introducing fractions with a fictional story about my giant chocolate bar and my fellow teachers who wanted a fair share. My students could not stop laughing and referring back to the story during our instruction focused on fractions. The story even became a discussion at the lunch table.

The second component is giving students an opportunity to explore. Allowing students to experience hands-on mathematics will provide opportunities to develop conceptual understanding of concepts and make connections between concepts. Reinforce the concept of identifying fractions by allowing students to create fraction models with Play-Doh. Prompt students to build a house with base 10 blocks and then identify the value of the house. Instead of listing the academic vocabulary for an upcoming concept unit, provide opportunities for students to engage with the terms. Giving students the space to explore vocabulary, concepts, and tools through hands-on engaging experiences will provide opportunities to connect concrete understanding to abstract concepts. If students are consistently exposed to mathematics in different ways, then they are more likely to remain engaged and excited to learn. A good statement to remember is: “The person doing most of the work is usually the person doing most of the learning.” Students need to be active during a math lesson to ensure that they are engaged with the concepts being explored.

The third component is giving students the freedom to ask questions and make mistakes. Students need to feel safe to take risks and to learn without the fear of judgment or the pressure to be perfect. Students’ questions and mistakes need to be valued and addressed appropriately. No student wants to be in a group discussion where only one student is allowed to speak or where making a mistake comes with a disappointed sigh from the teacher. Involve students in math discourse and provide sentence starters/frames to promote the use of academic language. Use open-ended questions and allow students to turn and talk with their partners or give students Dry Erase boards to share their thinking. When a student makes a mistake, acknowledge the mistake in a positive way so that all students know that mistakes are part of learning. When students feel valued and safe, they are more likely to participate in mathematics discussions and remain engaged during instruction.

At the end of the day, doing mathematics is the best way to learn mathematics. Give a young mathematician some time behind the wheel, and a couple of fender benders later they will amaze you!

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL coach. She is the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), which shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and what engages them as learners. She is also the author of DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge), She is an 8th grade ELA teacher, a staff blogger for Edutopia, a proud member of the California Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter:@tweenteacher:

Engagement is the key to everything. I think that engagement standards should, frankly, outweigh content standards. I know that my E.D. Hirsch friends and I could debate this for hours, but my respect for engagement strategies are because I also respect content knowledge. Our classrooms compete to engage our students’ attention, and if we don’t home in on the multitude of strategies that can help make information sticky, then we are neglecting the needs of our students. The good news is that there are so many engagement strategies out there that work, that a teacher has a vast toolbox to choose from based on the needs of the student and, let’s not forget, the comfort of the teacher.

We know that engagement positively impacts achievement. We also know that students who are seemingly able to succeed in school find internal methods to remain engaged regardless of intentional practices that are out in place in the classroom. But just because they are internal doesn’t mean those students aren’t accessing that bank of engagement strategies that they have developed for any number of reasons. The trick is to help other students, those who need promoting and coaching, to be engaged as well. And it is unfair for a teacher to assume that students who don’t have those strategies—at any level of education—are apathetic. We have to continue to present these strategies time and time again. We have to be more stubborn in our commitment to get students engaged than the students who are seemingly and consistently disengaged. I promise: Those students don’t WANT to be detached from education; they just need someone to help coach them toward engagement strategies.

Here are just three of the 10 key strategies featured in my book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, which shares the results of my nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders:

  • Make things visual

    - Implementation note: Use literacy strategies of annotation with images and videos, not just text

  • Connect with your students as people by being more human yourself

    - Implementation note: Share stories of your life related to the content area, bring humor into the classroom, share your own challenges and how you overcame them

  • Tap into talking and collaboration - Implementation note: Use multiple methods of collaboration to tap into students’ needs to be social. If collaboration is known to have a huge impact on achievement, the fact is that research says you need to do it 60 percent to 80 percent of the time. Use a small strategy like Turn-and-Talk or a larger one that might allow multiple classrooms to meet online for peer-to-peer reflection

There are so many engagement strategies out there. What students are begging for is backed up by research. Oh yeah, and the additional symptom of focusing on engagement? Teachers are more engaged, too.

Response From Michelle Shory & Irina V. McGrath

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She serves five high schools in the district. In addition to coaching, Michelle designs and implements professional learning experiences for teachers across the district. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., also is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in the Jefferson County public schools (JCPS). She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville adjunct professor who teaches literacy and ESL methods courses.

Michelle and Irina are passionate about good books, meaningful tech integration, andragogy, and classroom joy. They share resources on Twitter and at bit.ly/ell2point0:

Students who are engaged are actively involved in the learning process, they are curious and passionate, and they see value in what they are doing. Engagement is an essential component of learning. In order to promote engagement, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Begin with relationships and understand the power of emotions in the classroom. When social interactions among students evoke positive emotions, students are more likely to continue working with each other and staying engaged. Teachers can promote positive interactions between students by incorporating team-building activities into the lessons. Two Truths and a Lie is a popular activity in which students take turns sharing two truths about themselves and one lie, and the group decides which statement is a lie; afterwards, the students discuss the interesting things they just learned about each other. Do’s and Don’ts is another activity often used in the beginning of the school year: The students create a list of things they like to do and a list of things they do not like to do and share them with the class. Both of these games provide students with positive experiences with their classmates, which can in turn promote student bonding in the learning process.

  1. Make learning relevant. All learners want to know WHY they are learning something, especially older students who are new to the country and may have limited time left in public schools before they “age out.” Making sure students see the value of what they are doing beyond the four walls of the classroom is key. Project-based learning can be quite helpful in this area. Creating awareness campaigns, solving community problems, or starting a small business brings instant relevance to the classroom—and it also provides ELs an opportunity to showcase unique skills they have to offer the community like cultural competence and multilingualism. For example, consider building websites for newcomer families to introduce them to local resources like child care, grocery stores, and public agencies that would be particularly helpful to various cultural groups because of languages spoken and services offered.

  1. Be mindful of the linguistic demands of activities. The more proficient students are, the more able they are to successfully engage in a language-based activity. However, newcomer and SIFE (Students With Interrupted Formal Education) students should be allowed to use other modes of communication such as music, collage, sketches, drawings, films, drama, etc. One instructional strategy that has been effective with ELs is Sketch-to-Stretch (Harste, Short, & Burke, (1988). The strategy asks students to draw a sketch symbolizing what a story means to them. These sketches are shared via the Save the Last Word for the Artist (Harste, Short & Burke, 1988, 1995) strategy where each artist holds up his/her picture while classmates take turns guessing what the artist tried to depict. At the end, the artists gets the last word and either confirms or refutes guesses. When implementing the Sketch-to-Stretch strategy in the classroom, it is important to remember that it is different from asking students to draw their favorite part of the story, which asks for representation, while Sketch-to-Stretch involves metaphorical thinking that promotes a deeper level of engagement.

  1. Support students in becoming independent and self-driven learners. When English-learners take control over their learning, they are engaged and empowered. In his book The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros explains: “Engagement is a good thing, but I’ve since learned that we must also empower students and equip them with the skills to learn. It is imperative that we teach learners how to be self-directed and guide their own learning, rather than rely on others to simply engage them.”

Introducing students to tools they can use independently can engage and empower students. ELs need to know about Khan Academy, a free online platform that offers video tutorials on math, science, and other subjects in 28 different languages. ELs in Title I schools are also eligible for Open eBooks, a library of popular and high-interest free e-books available from First Book Marketplace. Teachers can visit the site and get access codes, which allow students to download up to 10 books at a time to their phones or other devices. By arming students with access to high-quality tutorials on various subjects and a library of engaging books, teachers are able to empower their learners to make choices about their own learning.


Berghoff, B., Egawa, K., Harste, J., & Hoonan, B. (2000). Beyond reading and writing inquiry, curriculum, and multiple ways of knowing. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset: Empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting.

Response From Cindy Garcia

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog www.TeachingElementaryELs.weebly.com:

Student engagement means that students take an active role in their own learning. Student engagement does not mean students are continuously working, complying with instructions, and completing their work. For students to be engaged, they must understand the purpose for learning, want to learn, and are putting forth the effort to learn.

One way to promote student engagement is by providing multiple opportunities for students to speak with the teacher and with their peers. Students need to know that what they have to say is valuable and that they can learn from what others have to say as well. The speaking experiences that students have should vary. Students can participate in group conversations with specific roles, share aloud to a group, talk to a partner, or talk to all of their classmates in structures such as inside-outside circle.

Another way to support student engagement is to encourage them to ask questions. They can ask questions when they are stuck and that will allow them to keep learning. Students can ask questions because they want to clarify information that was shared and will use later. They can ask questions to each other to make sure they are staying on track when completing a partner or group task. Students can ask questions because they are curious and want to extend their learning.

A third way to keep students engaged in daily lessons is having them stand up and move. Exercise has been shown to help people stay alert and be focused. Simply standing up can provide a movement break that can help with paying attention. Instead of having students complete four math problems at their desk, why not post them around the room and have them rotate to each station with their group and talk through their thinking process to determine a solution?

Response From Kim Morrison & Ann Mausbach

Ann Mausbach is an associate professor of educational leadership at Creighton University. She served as a central-office leader for more than 20 years and is the author of multiple books on school leadership.

Kim Morrison is a principal with over 20 years experience in K-8 high-poverty settings. She was named Iowa Middle Level Principal of the year in 2015. Kim has co-authored one book. She presents regionally and nationally.

Follow them on Twitter @kimkaz and @amausbach:

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Henry David Thoreau

One of the biggest hurdles when thinking about student engagement is getting past the tendency to make sure students are busy doing “stuff.” Stuff looks like low-level worksheets, literacy corners where students are doing anything but reading and writing, copying notes from a PowerPoint, etc. These practices are dangerous because they lull us into thinking our students are learning as they appear to be “engaged.” The reality is they are just busy. Engagement requires more energy and commitment from our students.

The level of commitment required for rich engagement is akin to how we act when we own something versus just renting. There is a distinct difference, and our job as educators is not to get kids to buy in but to own their learning. Ownership leads to engagement.

Getting students to own their learning requires teachers to move away from thinking about engagement as an input and move toward what it is—the outcome. Learning experiences must be focused on minds-on rather than hands-on. Students need to be mentally active, and they do this by making connections, formulating hypotheses, participating in in-depth structured reflection, and engaging in collaboration (Danielson, 2009). When we think of engagement as an outcome, it pushes us away from activities that fill students’ time and shifts the focus to student thinking.

Central to promoting student ownership (and thus engagement) is clarity. Teacher clarity—a deep understanding of what to teach and why, how to teach, and what success looks like— helps teachers focus and weed out aspects of instruction that don’t promote learning. Teacher clarity has a significant impact on student learning ( .75 effect size) because it helps teachers identify if students are getting the important stuff or not (Hattie, 2014). Knowing this allows us to provide supports and feedback to students on their learning rather than how well they have completed an activity. When we do this, provide tailored scaffolds to students around clear learning intentions, students can begin to self-assess their progress and identify how near or far they are from where they need to be. This creates fertile ground for ownership and ultimately engagement.

Danielson, C. (2009). Talk about teaching: Leading professional conversations. Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2014). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Thanks to Cheryl, Jessica, Heather, Michelle, Irina, Cindy, Kim, and Ann 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.

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