How do we keep our lessons engaging?
A thought about engagement:
“More recently, student engagement has been built around the hopeful goal of enhancing all students’ abilities to learn how to learn or to become lifelong learners in a knowledge-based society,” (Gilbert, 2007, p. 1, As cited by Taylor L. and Parsons, J., 2011).
The first step in engaging our students is getting to know who our students are; not just who the students are at school, but who they are outside of school as well. Dave Burgess speaks about building rapport with students. One of the “Big Secrets” he shares “is to spend less time trying to get students interested in what you are presenting and more time making connections between what you are presenting and what they are already interested in,” (Dave Burgess, p. 347). In order to know what students are interested in, we have to get to know the students. We can do this by creating a safe, supportive environment where our students feel valued (Burgess). Furthermore, “Students want stronger relationships with teachers, with each other, and with their communities…They want their teachers to know them as people,” (Taylor L. & Parsons, J., 2011). How can we, as teachers do this? How do we get to know our students? This can begin on the first day by greeting our students as they enter the classroom. Or, by asking students what their hobbies are, or what they did over the summer? We can continue doing this as the year goes on.
I often run into families outside of school, and I always make a point to say hello and ask the student about something I know they might be interested in. I can think of one particular instance when my students realized how much I love to run. The kids would often see me running outside. During one particular run in my housing area, I saw a few of my students. On my second lap around I saw a few more students and noticed that they began running with me. I slowed down a bit, and by the time I finished a few laps I had about 4 or 5 of my students running with me. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about during our run, but I do know the kids talked about it at school for weeks. Establishing good rapport with students is the first step in creating engaging lessons.
Along with getting to know our students we need to create a positive learning environment. Dave Burgess says that a positive learning environment is critical in order for higher level thinking to occur (Burgess, 2012). Willms, Friensen, and Milton state that, “Students who describe their classroom disciplinary climate as positive are one and a half times mores likely to report high levels of interest, motivation and enjoyment in learning,” (2007, as cited in Taylor L. & Parsons, J. 2011).
Once you have established a positive learning environment and you have taken the time to get to know each student you can begin the creative process of making your lessons engaging. Of course, hopefully up to this point you have worked diligently to implement engaging lessons to get to know your students. I am not going to pretend that I have all the answers on how to make lessons engaging. I can tell you some things that have worked for me, though. In Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess discusses finding your own passion and using that passion to help you teach. One of my passions is exercise; ultimately, I prefer running, however running around the classroom is not always feasible. So, one way I incorporate my passion into math is by skip counting while doing exercise. Generally we will do this during our warm-up; however, sometimes my students will begin to look tired or distracted so we will stop what we are doing and skip count while doing jumping jacks or some other exercise. My students love it and after we have done it a few times, they will even ask to do it if they feel like they need to get some wiggles out.
Besides using your passion to engage students, teachers can use exploration to engage students. “Just as we want to learn about the Web by clicking our own path through cyberspace, we want to learn about our subjects through exploration. It’s not enough to accept the professor’s word. We want to be challenged to reach our own conclusions and find our own results. The need to explore is implicit in our desire to learn,” (Windham, 2005, p. 58 as cited by Taylor L. & Parsons, J. 2011). Students today seek the opportunity to explore problems and find their own solutions, either independently or collaboratively.
Does innovation play a part in engagement?
Innovation certainly plays a role in engagement. As teachers, we have to be willing to look beyond what we have done in the past, and instead be willing to learn what our students need NOW. This isn’t always the easy option to choose. It is much easier to create lesson plans and use them year after year. However, in order to reach our students we need to be willing to teach with passion and be willing to use our “creative genius” (as Dave Burgess refers to a teacher’s ability to create) to develop engaging lessons.
In order to create innovative, engaging lessons we need only to begin by looking at our students. Donna Fry, secondary school principal in Northwestern Ontario states, “This [the kids] is the essence of what drives innovation in the classroom. It begins with kids. What do they want to learn? What questions are they asking? How can they find the answers? It can only be cultivated when a teacher is given the professional freedom to let them go, to give up some level of control over where the learning is going.”
Another part of being innovative is being willing to make mistakes. As we embark on this journey to create engaging lessons, we need to be willing to try new things and to fail sometimes. Failure should be viewed as feedback (Burgess, 2012).
Creating engaging lessons can be challenging and requires creativity that we often feel we may not have, however if we are willing to embrace our own passion and open ourselves to new ideas we can create truly innovative and engaging lessons. I think the first step in doing so is committing to doing it.
Burgess, Dave. (2012) Teach Like a Pirate. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. San Diego, CA.
Fry, Donna. (2012) Classroom Innovation Means Giving Up Control. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from
Taylor, L. and Parsons, J. (2011). Improving Student Engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1).
Retrieved February 7, 2014 from http://cie.asu.edu/ojs/index.php/cieatasu/article/viewFile/745/162