Student Engagement Strategies

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We know Generation Z is different…and we know that teaching in the era of 2020 and beyond is different, too. If you’re struggling with student engagement in the classroom (in whatever form that may be), you’ve found the answer you have been searching for!

Below is the transcript for the Student-Centered World podcast, Episode 301: Student Engagement Strategies

To say this year (2020) has been a roller coaster is an absolute understatement. Every moment, it seems like something has changed, something has been altered, something has been thrown at us: some type of curveball that we had no idea was even coming in the first place. 

And it’s been hard. 

It’s been really hard to be a human right now, let alone to be a teacher. I feel like we’ve gone through such a roller coaster of respect and disrespect in the field. We’ve been trying so hard to find ways to strike balance to do our jobs and to teach our kids all the things that we normally do. But now we’re wearing masks, or maybe now we’re doing it through a screen. In March when the school shutdowns first started, we created our mastermind Facebook group, and we were trying to help one another in there and just figure out how to manage this. While we’ve found a lot of ways to manage it, we’re still trying to figure things out at the same time. One of the issues that have come to the surface and it happened in the spring, it’s happening in the fall, even as some schools are going back to school full time, it’s still an issue is the idea of classroom engagement. 

When you’re all digital, the concern is are the kids even there? Are they logging in? Are they doing the assignments? What’s going on with them at home? When they’re in school? Maybe it’s hybrid, so they’re only there for a short period of time you want to get the best bang for your buck…but maybe they’re not interested or when they are home and they’re doing online work? Are they really doing it the way that you envision it? If they’re in the classroom? Are they distracted because they have to wear masks or they have some type of shield between them and their friend and they can’t be within three or six feet of one another and they can’t walk down the hall or use the water fountains? 

There’s just so much going on right now. 

I really felt that in this first episode, I should hone in on the stuff that I have been saying about classroom engagement. There are ways to certainly focus on this. If you know me at this point, you know that I say everything to be successful just takes a mindset shift, and then putting it into practice. This first podcast is the audio from our Hacking Student Engagement webinar. The teachers who have listened to this advice are finding themselves much less stressed and their students much more engaged. I hope you find the same.

Achieving 100% Student Engagement

I want you to consider what it would be like if you could have 100% of your students engaged in class. Now for many, this seems like it would be a pipe dream. You might think, “I’ve tried everything, nothing works.” Or maybe there’s just a handful of students that you feel like you can’t get to. That is what we’re going to be going over today. How you can reach every single student in every class.

Now, as a disclaimer, there are going to be days where kids are off. We’re working with children here; not every single day is going to be rainbows and butterflies. But if you have enough in your toolkit, which is what I’m going to be explaining to you today, you can always ebb and flow with how things are going and had it were as close to 100% of your students are engaged every single day.

I reached out on social media to teachers that were all over the country to ask them a simple question, “On a scale of one to ten, how concerned are you with student engagement?”

The responses that I got back were not surprising based on the conversations that I’ve had, but they are still incredible.

82% of the teachers that responded said an eight or higher.

I had an infinity, I had a 73. But 82% said eight, nine, or 10. That is concerning.

That is really a stressful question to be asking and to be trying to find an answer for on top of everything else that we have to be doing as teachers.

Frankly, there’s a reason why we can’t just trust our students to do the right thing when it comes to their education, and this is a piece that a lot of times is missing from that puzzle of understanding, but that’s what we’re going to take a look at first.

Child talking with teacher

Because we are so digital, because we are so tech-heavy, because we are now in instant gratification society, because of where we have gotten to, the average human attention span is now eight seconds. Eight seconds before you can get distracted or before something else pops into your mind or before you want to be doing something else. You probably if you sit back and think about it, have had this happen.

Hopefully, it’s not happening yet. Hopefully, I’m leaving you engaged.

But you know, our minds travel because we are so used to having that instant gratification of, “Oh, I forgot to look this up, let me look it up really quick.” And then you jump on the internet and you think of something else that you have to do. Or you’re jumping around from here to there. Because you need to take your kids to sports practice and a doctor’s appointment and you have to get your lesson plans in. We’ve got so much going on that our attention span has shrunk.

The Modern-Day Attention Span

In the early 1900s, the average attention span was somewhere around 22 minutes and now we have gotten to eight seconds. That’s one of the reasons why you can expect a student, especially a younger one that has less of an attention span than an adult, to be able to focus as students 10, 50, 100 years ago were able to.

Some people read this and say, “Oh my goodness, you know, we need to stop with the technology, we need to rewire their brains, we need to back up.” While that’s a decent point, the truth of it is that technology is not going anywhere. If anything, it’s advancing more and more every day. So we don’t need to try to make it stop. Because that’s not realistic. We need to make sure our students are able to use it properly, to embrace it, but doing so the right way. And that’s something else that we’re going to be discussing.

This is a quote that I pulled out from a really great article on Business Insider, and it is from a 15-year-old explaining how their generation is in fact different, how it’s not really their fault, but how we should understand it and be able to run with it. So she says, “Everything in our generation is immediate. Since we have been raised in an age where texts and messages can be sent in the blink of an eye. We are less patient than other generations because we are used to having instant gratification. But our generation is also very determined to show that we are capable of real thoughts and using the technology and communication methods we have been given for making change despite what older generations expect from us.”

So you can just listen to the news. You can listen to conversations and knowhow “ok Boomer” has run or you know, “oh, these millennials” or “these kids today”, the constant bickering almost it goes back and forth between generations.

Three generations working together

And this youngest generation is a little bit misunderstood. Yes, they expect instant gratification because I don’t know about any of you that have children, but my kids are in elementary school and when we were grocery shopping when they were little and they would get antsy, you know, they would be allowed to play an educational game on my cell phone. Or my son when he was two knew how to Skype my mother. Or we had a DVD player in our car for really long car trips. This is how they have been raised, to no fault of their own. It’s made everything easier. But at the same time, you can’t expect a child to undo that when they’re in one setting when it’s like that.

And they are a very, very passionate group. They want to be able to use what they have at their disposal for good. If you’ve ever seen a teenager who gets really into something, it’s all they want to do. It’s all they want to solve. It’s all they want to take care of. And we need to find ways to embrace that and not try to fix it because it can’t be fixed. Technology, again, is becoming more readily available. And it’s out there. And sure, there are places that are still very rural, and they don’t have internet access. And that was a huge issue during the the COVID-19 shutdowns for sure. But those discrepancies were pointed out. And now the big providers are trying to provide Internet in rural areas, and so on and so forth. So this isn’t something that is going to go away; it is going to advance and it’s something that we really need to be conscious of.

So when it comes to engaging these students, as I mentioned, there are three secrets to making sure that they are active in the classroom, that they’re excited about the classroom. Just on a basic level, they’re doing what you’re asking them in the classroom. Now we’re going to take a look at them.

Eliminate Confusion

So the first secret is to eliminate confusion. Now we look at that and we might think, “Well, obviously”, or it just seems like common sense. But this is actually the number one mistake that teachers make. And there’s a reason for that:

When we’re coming up with assignments or instructions or directions or what have you, most times we’re thinking about them from a teacher perspective…they make sense to us

We need to make sure that we are turning that into making sure that is easy for the students to access and understand or their parents to access and understand. So for instance, when you’re giving out an assignment, you want to make sure that you have everything just at a minimum linked in one location. So say you think oh my gosh, I have this together, I have a Bitmoji classroom, and I have a teacher website, and I have a Google Classroom, and I have a newsletter that goes out every week, and I have the PTO stuff, and I have extra credit.

But everything is in a different spot.

So yeah, you send out everything you send a note to your parents and saying, like, “make sure you’re checking out my newsletter”, but where is that? WE think, “well, it’s on our website, they should know that or they go to google classroom that they should know that”, but we need to stop making the assumption that they should know that.

If you’re in the classroom every day and you have a written down and you go over the same exact process every single day, you ever noticed there’s always still some students that have no idea? That’s because we need to streamline that.

So if for instance, you have a Bitmoji classroom, make that the place that everybody goes to where you have the link to your newsletter, the link to the Google Classroom, the link to the PTO website. You need to create a hub where everybody parents teach other teachers if you work with them, students all know you go here, and you could find everything.

iPad, computer keyboard, headphones, and notebook

That’s the number one complaint from parents during the Coronavirus pandemic: there was so much stuff all over the place.

So even though it might make sense to you, you need to make sure that you hone it in so even if you do have 17 different platforms that you are using, everybody always starts in one spot, and then knows how to go to each spot from there. With all the teachers that I’ve worked with, I always say that once you get into, student-led instruction, hands-on instruction, the flipped classroom, all of the things that I teach about, it’s a well-oiled machine.

But the step that is first in that well-oiled machine is making sure that there is no question on behalf of the students on where to go.

They have to understand to be able to get into this almost, you know, Pavlov’s dog that they know they come in, and then they do this and then they do that everything has to be consistent. But consistent doesn’t mean redundant. And this is the part that people also struggle with.

So they say, “okay, we’re going to make things consistent. So they’re going to go to this website, and then they’re going to work on this program. And then they’re going to do a reading and then they’re going to do reflection, and then they’re going to have questions, and then you’re going to go through and through.”

Keeping Students on their Toes

If you want to keep your students engaged, you have to keep them on their toes.

Now I know that there is a lot out there. And this is just common sense as a teacher to know that you have to have repetition in order for a student to understand. It’s something like seven to 10 times a person a human being needs to hear something or see something or touch something or do something in order to have it stick and it’s 21 days, I think to start a habit, but repetition doesn’t mean the same activity over and over again. So you can have the same content, just keep presenting it in a number of different ways so when the students sign in or come in or go to do their work, they never quite know what is waiting for them and it creates a little bit of intrigue, a little bit of excitement, a little bit of “Oh, my goodness, what do they have planned for us today?”

So you can go through again, with the same type of content, but you can have a Nearpod, you can have an EDPuzzle, you can have a simulation, a virtual field trip, they can build something, you can create an escape room…and this can all be from stuff that you already have assignments that you already have, but you just start giving them out in different ways (and a lot of these programs already have your content material created in an assignment in an activity on the platform already than some other teacher has made that you can already use).

So for instance, if you’re going to use EDPuzzle, you don’t have to film your own video, do the voiceover, create the questions. A lot of times, if you go in and search, you’ll find one that’s already created. And it’s exactly what you need for your students to know. You can go and create your own stuff, creativity is awesome. And you can, you know, create themes around things. But that doesn’t mean that you have to work harder.

young boy looking at tablet at school table

So I always say work smarter, not harder. You’re making sure that your kids are getting the content, but you’re crazy about how you’re giving it to them.

I know I had a World History class that I really went all in one year, and I created pen pals in different parts of the world. So I found a teacher in Germany, and we did a World War Two project together where the kids were going back and forth with letters about what the stories were in their families in the United States versus in Germany. We had pictures, a lot of the kids became friends on social media (high schoolers, just to disclaim there.)

Then we ended up doing a whole unit on Imperialism, where we were talking with students living in Africa, about what the benefits and what the detriments to Imperialism in their country were.

I had them create a simulation where they had to go through the Industrial Revolution and they had to create a persona and go through what their day to day would be like.

It’s all the same content, but my students literally would come in every day and be like, “what do you have planned for us today? What in the world have you come up with today”, and I pull out this stuff that just seemed crazy, but it was still the same content.

And it was FUN for me to come up with that content and watch them get so excited about it.

So that’s certainly the number two secret and it is not hard, you do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Creating the Right Kind of Accountability

The third secret is creating accountability…and that doesn’t mean grades. Now, the number one reason that kids end up not doing the work, not engaging in the work, not wanting to come to class, not wanting to sign in, is because somehow they have come up with the idea that it doesn’t matter.

It might be that your class doesn’t matter. It might be that, you know, they know that they’re not being graded on something, so it doesn’t matter. And when we think that a student feels like it doesn’t matter, the first thing that we do is we go to the grade to make it matter, somehow, we may get more points. Or if you don’t do this, it’s going to pull your grade down. And as teachers, we have a tendency to jump right towards grades to try to fix that problem.

But here’s the issue with that. I want you to let this marinate for a minute let you digest it.

When you do that, it stresses out the good kids.

Now you might have some opportunities where they ended up getting a little bit extra credit or something, and that’s great. But for the most part, when you add more great incentives, it makes the really high flying kids stressed out because they feel like they need to do better than they already are.

I’m not saying that pushing every student to achieve their best is a bad thing. But when you put that letter on it, when you put that number on it, it creates undue stress. And on the flip side, the kids that you are trying to target the most, it makes them back off more and makes them realize more that it’s just not worth it to them.

Does it work sometimes? Yes, but for the most part, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by trying to make them accountable via their grades, you know, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s a perception of whether or not something matters or the reality of where they’re not something matters. The kids make their own decisions, and they go forward from that.

You have to come up with ideas…and again, this is going to be very specific to your students and figuring out what makes them tick. But something that makes them realize that their participation matters to the whole group, that everything is bigger than just them.

A lot of times when we’re trying to come up with this accountability, we’re focusing on the individual students, but when you’re going through that, you’re trying to make them realize that things matter to the whole group, and it doesn’t matter to just them…they’re going to be letting down their classmates, a lot of time, that’s kind of what I call “positive peer pressure”, that they don’t want to be that guy or that girl, that kid that lets everybody else down.

It might not matter how they feel about themselves, or what their parents are going to think, or what you’re going to think. But if they’re letting their peers down, that might make a difference.

They’re still going to probably be a handful of kids, 2, 3, 4, whatever, that still don’t want to engage, that still don’t seem to care. You need to find a way…and you can!

Making Those Difficult Connections

Again, if you’re going through a hands-on or a student-led or a flipped environment, you have the opportunity to be able to talk to every single student in your class. That’s one of the big draws of that type of instruction; you need to be able to pull these kids aside in ways that their classmates don’t notice. So when everybody is engaged in something, you know, you take them aside, or you can call them or Zoom them individually, trying to have a one-on-one conversation to find out what the problem is.

It’s not a matter of discipline or talking down to them or you know, giving them the business. But there’s always a reason why and it’s not just, “I don’t care.”

There’s a reason why they don’t care. It’s not just “Well, I don’t understand why this is important.” There’s something underlying there that’s making them question, “why it’s important?” And when you have those one-on-one conversations, especially when you’re not talking about their grades, but you’re talking about them, and why they are having an issue, you start creating a relationship with them that frankly, that student might not have with anybody else, or has never had with a teacher before, or anybody in authority.

You’ll start to see a change here and there, you might find out that home is a disaster, or, you know, their mom has left or somebody has passed away or just nobody’s ever believed in them before or there’s an undiagnosed learning disability. The things that come out during these conversations are always so much bigger than the kids just not doing their work.

It’s not until they feel like they can trust you and that you care about them that you get to the root of the problem…and the earlier you can get to the root of the problem, the more transitional this will be into them engaging more in your class.

They might not engage in other people’s classes still, especially if you have older students, but they might engage more because they can trust you and they know that you care about them.

There might still be a tough nut to crack. I can still think of a handful of kids that I tried and I tried and it still breaks my heart, but I couldn’t get through to them. But that’s not on you. You’ve got to know that you’ve tried and you’ve done all the things, but holding them accountable is so much bigger than the grades that you are giving them, and that’s something that you really need to remember and consider.

Yeah, but…

So in going through all of these, I have a feeling that some of you were going through the attack of what I like to call the “yeah buts”, going through all of these ideas, going through these notions and these concepts. In your head, you may be thinking, “Yeah, but…” or, “Oh, I can try this in the classroom, yeah, but my students…” or “Yeah, but my administrators…” or “Yeah, but the helicopter parents…”

As teachers, we are afraid of failing.

We are afraid that if we try something new, and then it doesn’t work, we’re going to throw off our entire school year or we’re going to have to go back in and reteach all of this stuff and it’s going to take so much more time.

As much as we preach growth mindset to our students, we are some that are the most resistant to it. On top of that, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to the other teachers around us. We see that teacher down the hall who seems like they’ve got it all together and kids love coming to their classroom and they don’t seem to have behavior issues…and they have the bitmoji classroom and they have the beautiful bulletin boards and they have all of this and it seems like could we will never be that way. We can’t be that way. “Yeah, but…”, “Yeah, but…”, “Yeah, but…”

Let me share a quote with you that has always resonated with me:

If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

So if you are the “top” teacher in your school that has it all together, and everybody seems to know that you’re “the one”, then you should probably be looking for ways to share that with others. If you’re a teacher that you feel like, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been doing this forever. And I just can’t catch up with these young kids” or, “everything just seems overwhelming with the changes in education and Generation Z and all of that”, you’re actually in a good place because you have room for growth, you can learn, and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

One of the big issues that we have in our schools is they give us professional development, but a lot of times it’s not what we individually need. That was a huge, huge, huge conversation, heated conversation, that I was seeing people having on Instagram not that long ago, where there’s all this professional development, but it’s not actually what you need, it’s not actually what’s going to help you.

So you go through that. And then you try to research some stuff on your own. And you have not necessarily the guidance that you need from your administration. And it all just kind of spirals into this concept.

Here’s something else…this is a phrase that I like to use with people who freeze and get into a spot where they’re like, “I can’t go forward” or “Yeah, but…” or “I don’t know what to do” or “I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m too stressed to think about it” or “I’m just going to do what I’ve always done, because I know it used to work, so it should just work again”. To them, I say:

Most people who freeze haven’t been given the tools to defrost.

So they haven’t been sat down and told, “you just need to do XYZ”, “you just need to change this, and that”, “you just need to make this tweak here or that tweak there”.

We all get observed, but a lot of times it’s trying to pinpoint little things that your district is looking for or it’s not long enough to really get an overall sense of the things that you can change or do better.

Some districts are phenomenal with this. But unfortunately, so many of them are not and you’re not actually given the tools to be helped. You’re just told you’re doing this wrong, figure it out.

That goes into this concept that most people who freeze are being told by someone what to do, but not how to do it.

You need to change, you need to update your technology, you need to find this, you need to do that. But they don’t say, “Listen, why don’t we try to find you a professional development that’s going to help you” or “Why don’t we work with a mentor teacher” or “You know, these are different ways that you can be helped”.

That’s not really an option in most cases, but it should be. Nobody is perfect. This stuff is always changing, always advancing, and unless you have somebody helping you to do that, and helping you find a way to alleviate the stress of trying to figure it out on your own. It’s just this vicious circle.

Embracing the Right Resiliency

Another piece of this, and this kind of goes into the concept of being afraid to fail, is the kids are really resilient. It’s the adults that are not. So when we’re worried about kids being able to adapt to something new, or “Oh, they’re not going to be able to learn if we do it this way”, or “Well, how am I going to make sure that they’re doing this that the other thing”, that’s us, that’s not the kids.

It might take a little bit of buy in, and I always laugh that when you’re changing instructional methods, and you’re becoming more hands-on and doing the things to create student engagement, it’s almost like the stages of grief. At first, the students think it’s awesome…and then they’re complaining, “we always have to be doing stuff”, but then there’s this tipping point where another kid buys in, and another kid buys in. Next thing you know, it’s a well oiled machine, like I had mentioned that they’re all doing the things, they’re all engaged, and it is so awesome to watch.

The kids will get it, it’s the teachers that are afraid to and that’s something that we don’t like to think about, but it’s true. That’s why I always say you need to work smarter and not harder. We have a tendency when we’re trying to figure out something new, to be doing it while we’re trying to do something old. And all of the other things that are coming together in our life. It’s overwhelming and our brains can’t take it all in; our brains can’t come up with the ideas, our brains can’t do the things because we’re not giving it a chance to as much as we think. We need to sit there and research in and do this and do that and try to piece it all together. It’s overload and that’s when you start burning out and you start giving up and you start just doing the same things that you’ve always done. And if you’ve ever heard the definition of insanity is doing things the same way hoping for a different result. It’s not going to change.

happy older man teacher holding stack of books with an apple on top in front of a chalkboard

Personally, I know my best ideas come to me in the shower, or in the car if I’m driving by myself (if my kids are with me, forget it). But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the shower and all sudden, it’s like ::poof::, it comes to me, or I’m driving in the car, and I’m like, “oh my goodness, why don’t I blah, blah, blah”.

It’s because, in those moments, you’re not trying to think about it; you’re not overloading your brain, you’ve given it a chance to take a breath, you’re relaxing your body, you’re doing something else. That’s when your brain is like, “got it”.

I have this wonderful, wonderful garden bathtub; I love taking baths in my bathtub. I listen to a lot of podcasts while I’m in there. (If you don’t listen to podcasts, you’re missing out, you get a lot of great ideas.) But anyway, I’ll be listening to something, and all of a sudden, the pieces of whatever that I’ve been trying to come up with, and I just can’t seem to figure out will go, “boom, boom, boom, boom”. They’ll come to me, and I’ll have to jump out and write it all down. So I don’t forget, and then I’ll go from there.

We can’t keep pushing ourselves so hard, without appropriate guidance, without the mentors without people helping us out, and expect to come up with the results that we’re looking for. As human beings, we just can’t; we have the eight-second attention span to begin with, which we know and we are cramming more and more and more on our plates and in our brains, that we can’t move forward without a plan without somebody telling us to sit down to breathe. Let’s go over this together. In order for our students to be engaged, we need to be engaged in ourselves in what we are doing.

Mentors for *Not* a First-Year Teacher

That is a big missing piece of the puzzle as well, that a lot of people don’t want to consider because they just want to be able to figure it out. This is a huge reason why new teachers have mentors.

So you know, when we first begin teaching, just about every school district, at least everyone that I’ve worked with, has a new teacher mentor program. You have an older teacher that works with a newer teacher.

Now a newer teacher is fresh out of school, they’ve gone through the classes, they’ve done the student teaching, they’ve done it before, but they have somebody who’s walked the walk and talked the talk in the school that they’re teaching, because we know every school is so different, to help them answer questions, to bounce ideas off of, to help troubleshoot issues, to share plans, to give advice, to give encouragement, and to be a confidant that understands this specific struggle.

Now, sometimes people do come close with their mentors, and you know, throughout their teaching journey, they’re able to go to them. But a lot of times they don’t, or they find that they have different teaching styles or that mentor teacher moves on, and you don’t have the designated time any longer to meet with them. When you’re trying something new, when you’re trying to fix a problem, when you’re trying to tweak something that you know isn’t quite working, it’s hard when you don’t have somebody to help you through that.

That’s one of the reasons why I started Student-Centered World in 2018. It took me a really long time to understand this “student engagement code” and how to crack it, and how to have kids hands-on and how to take me out of the front of the classroom to make sure that they’re engaging in what the content material is. We’re preparing our students right now for jobs that don’t exist yet, and that’s also another hard concept for people to wrap their minds around.

Using student engagement to prepare for the future

We’re preparing them to go out into this world that is unlike any world that they’ve gone out to, I would even venture a guess that society hasn’t been this different since back in the industrial revolution, where all of a sudden you have all these factories. When education first started, it became huge during that industrial period where we needed our students to understand how to sit in rows and do what they’re told and complete a task and move on to the next one, because we were in an industrial society. Now we’re more entrepreneurial. Now we’re more tech-savvy and we need to be preparing our students for that.

As teachers, we need to be shifting how we do things to prepare our students for the world that is actually awaiting them. We’re not just teaching them content. We’re teaching them how to go out there and be successful human beings. Think about it back in the day, people would get a job and they would work there until they retired, and then they would move on. It wasn’t like that in every situation. But that was the vast majority.

Think about some of the biggest businesses out there right now. We’ve got Uber and Airbnb, and all the social media channels. That’s where our future is. That’s where our future is heading. Just 10, 20 years ago, none of that stuff even existed. How many of your friends were excited to get a job as a social media manager when they were in middle school or high school and started thinking about jobs? It didn’t exist yet. That trend is still happening and we need to make sure that we’re prepared are students for it.

When I created Student-Centered World, I created our signature course called A Passion for Progress: Becoming a 100% Student-Centered Educator. And every single teacher who has taken this course has said that it is the game-changer that they have been looking for. I decided that I wanted to be the mentor teacher for all of these educators that weren’t getting what they needed.

I really hope that helped you kind of hone in on some ideas on how you can increase student engagement, understand Generation Z, be less stressed out in the classroom, find ways to interact with every single student, every single day creating those relationships and that your wheels are turning right now with all of the things that you can do to better yourself as a teacher. If you have any questions, you can feel free to ask. So thank you again for joining us. I hope you had a great time. I know I did getting all of that information out there.

I hope to see you soon. Take care