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Knowing how to engage students can be a difficult task, but learning how to will benefit you for years to come.

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Unit 1 Rules and Procedures

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First, let’s understand how to engage students

Have you found yourself attending a teachers meeting where a few of your other colleagues were obviously not paying attention to the speaker or the matters discussed?

It is very likely you may have spotted a few grading assignments, having a private conversation with another member of staff, or worse yet, flat out texting and actively not paying attention.

So, if we see and accept this behavior in adults, we must allow for the fact that kids are very similar in this way. We cannot expect kids to be absorbed in something that, very plainly, does not interest them. They will tune out and find something that does entertain or interest them instead; like chatting to others, doodling on paper, or even scrolling through their social media accounts.

Merely attempting to get your students to focus on your lesson or make them eager to try out the task you are giving them from the start of any class is going to present you with challenges. A much more problematic issue is watching your students begin to slowly drift off into space, start doodling or pass notes around the class. Unfortunately, this is very normal, especially for kids. Anyone sitting through something monotonous or disengaging is going to find themselves drifting on some level throughout.

When a student tunes out it is incredibly difficult to pull them back from the brink. So, unless you can actively capture your students’ focus, as well as keeping this focus on you, at some point in your lesson, you will not be able to get through to them.

Learn, avoid dead time

This student disengagement has been referred to by some as dead time. This dead time is particularly dangerous for teachers because not only will it affect one student, but like a contagion, it will spread to others who are also susceptible. The reason this happens is the perceived notion that other people around are not paying attention, causing students to ask the question, Well, why should I bother?

When students are actively engaging and actively listening to each other or the teacher, this is known as active learning, which is ultimately the opposite of dead time. Merrill Harmon and Melanie Toth write in their book, Inspiring Active Learning, that there are four levels of student motivation that are described in relation to a ladder.

Level four represents the lowest level on the ladder, and the children in this group are known as the work avoiders. Level three represents the students who are described as half-hearted workers. Level two represents responsible students who want to learn. Level one, the highest level, represents those students who are entirely actively learning.

Teachers should pay close attention to their students’ engagement levels and know when to try and inject an activity that will improve focus. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult for the students to maintain focus if the lesson is being taught directly from teacher to student as it may be quite a dry topic. However, it can be just as difficult to maintain engagement within a group setting or team project-based lesson if they are not accustomed to the independence of this style of learning yet.

More often than not, it is a single student who finds it most difficult to become involved in the task, but it can also be true of entire groups. But there are tried and tested ways of getting rid of this dead time, engaging your students and helping them to move up the ladder into the active learner category.

Activities and routines

To begin to eliminate dead time, a teacher must create and use their very own arsenal of activities and routines. These can range from a more general all-purpose activity which can be used in many areas of teaching or for content specific activities that will allow the kids to tap into all of their individual bits of intelligence within the group, in a way that is different from the normal listen and recall.

Some of these activities can be physical ones, allowing the students who need to release some of their pent-up energy to do so in a constructive manner. Other methods can be quieter, more private activities, which allows and encourages independent and personal thinking and reflection. It is also worth having well-managed communication between the students which will actively engage as well as guarantee that they are concentrating and thinking about the task at hand.

While it can take considerable time to create and develop these activities, the rewards in both learning and management of the classroom are worth double the work you put into it initially. Creating and curating a backlog of activities from which you can draw on at any point will leave you with the upper hand when your students start to veer off track.

After a while, your students will become aware of these activities and strategies and may even come to look forward to certain ones which can either calm or energize them at certain points within the lesson and help to re-balance their focus.

10 tips to engage students

1. Begin class by cultivating

A perfect mind warm-up is to get the kids to look for any mistakes which have been planted into written materials or on the board by using a mix of competition and collaboration rather than working quietly on their own. This will help to eliminate dead time while actively getting the kids to focus on the lesson at hand.

An example of this would be to get the kids to break into teams of three and work quietly together – once they have found all the mistakes they can raise their hands. When the first team raises their hands, give a little more time for the other groups to catch up and once enough time has passed, on the count of three, have all the teams show on their fingers the number of mistakes. Then pick the group with the most mistakes found and ask them to describe what these mistakes are and let the other teams disagree or agree until all the errors have been discovered.

2. Teach teamwork

Doing any project learning or team-based work can lead to a lot of dead time if the kids have not been shown how to work in this manner. These skills can be taught quickly and effectively and will help to lessen the opportunity for dead time to arise.

A simple way is to present teams of students with two sheets of paper, ten paper clips, a pair of scissors, and a piece of tape ten inches in length. Then ask them to create the tallest unconnected tower within 20 minutes.

Split the team into two further groups, so while half of the teams are building the tower, the other half stand around them and quietly observe what they do. Once completed, ask the observing group to give some positive critiques before negatives ones, such as I like when they did this, but maybe next time I would do this. Then get the groups to switch roles to see if the second group can build a more structurally sound building and have the others debrief as before.

3. Use multiple teaching styles

To keep your students engaged and on their toes, try to move between teacher-centered learning to student-centered active learning, and vice versa.

Introduce a presentation by having students pair up and talk to each other about their prior knowledge of the subject. Make sure to compile a list of four key questions that they’ll want to know the answers for later. Make sure to do a few quick rounds of the groups which will remind all your students to stay focused on the task.

Encourage active listening by providing students with a handy list of essential questions in advance. You can even interrupt the presentation with a quick write request, and have the students pair-share by requesting they compare their answers with their seating neighbor. Be sure to pull out popsicles from your fairness cup to choose a pair of students who can explain their answers to the rest of the class.

4. Teamwork for accountability

Insist that students adhere to the ask three before me, rule. Make it very clear that you expect them to ask all of the members of the team before they decide to ask you.

When reinforcing this rule, it is very important to suggest to the student asking the question, that you, the teacher, always ask another team member if they know what the question is or what it means. If they do not know, simply walk away from the group and they should quickly understand what is expected of them.

5. Use quick writes when you want quiet time and student reflection

When you feel that interest is beginning to wane in your presentations, or you need to settle the students down after a noisier or active teamwork activity, it is good to ask them to do a quick-write which is a short journal style writing assignment.

For primary-grade students

You can ask them to follow this style of question:
  • What was the most interesting thing about [blank]?
  • What was the most confusing thing about [blank]?
  • What did you understand best?
  • What did you find boring about [blank]?

For intermediate-grade students and above

Try prompting questions such as:
  • Summarize what you have just learned.
  • Predict an exam question about this material.

6. Use your authority

Before you speak, it is critical to ask for complete silence, total attention, and eyes, knees and chests facing you. Ensuring the kids adhere to these rules can make a huge difference. The Knowledge is Power Program for middle schools includes the detailed SLANT expectations which are to Smile, Sit up, Listen, Ask, Nod when you understand, and Track the speaker.

When you first introduce this routine to your students, you should do it five times over. Let them know that in a moment, you will briefly allow them to talk among themselves, and once you give them a particular signal (for example, clapping your hands or ringing a bell), they must wait silently until you are ready to begin.

During the first two weeks of this routine, keep reminding the students what is expected of them. Make sure to hold every student accountable for listening to you the entire time. Also, make it very clear that you will never be repeating your instructions once you have finished explaining them.

7. Fairness for support

If you can effectively manage your classroom so that it is a supportive environment, where your students feel encouraged to take risks without any fear of being teased or ridiculed, the smoother the transition into utilizing the fairness cup regularly will be, without creating the feeling of setting the kids up for failure.

Write all of their names on popsicle sticks and put all of the sticks into a fairness cup. Each time a question needs an answer, pull a random stick to choose someone, keeping the students on their toes. It is essential that when you start using the fairness cup, you prepare a broad range of questions which all of your students can answer. This tactic will allow the bottom third of the class to become involved and answer your questions without feeling put on the spot.

8. Movement as a focal point

Using movement is a simple and effective way to motivate kids into giving you their full participation and focus. You can ask them to stand behind their chairs and mimic a physical movement you do. By inviting the kids to move instead of being restrained to a desk with the potential to switch off completely, they will be invigorated, and it will be easier to see who is giving their full participation, effectively killing any dead time that could have arisen.

For the primary grades, you can teach a hand-clapping pattern which may accompany a chanted or spoken verse of poetry or perhaps some simple math equations or facts. Try to add in some foot-stomping rhythms or extra partnered hand clapping to create more of a variety.

For the middle grades, you can create a single rhythm by snapping fingers as well as hand clapping, firstly demonstrated by you and then echoed back by the class. Vary the patterns and rhythms every 20 seconds to challenge their attention.

For any grade, including high schoolers, offer a mid-class stretch. Allowing the kids to get up, stretch and walk around allows any disengagement to be shaken off and helps to get rid of some of the unwanted, pent-up energy they may have from sitting still for long periods of the day.

9. Signal turns

To help make sure that all of your students are thinking actively, it is useful to regularly ask questions that everyone must have prepared at least one answer for, then wait for all of the students to signal that they are ready to answer.

For example, in a math class, you could ask your students:
  • How many different ways can you subtract 54-17 in your head?

Subtract 10 and then 7, subtract 20 and then add 3, and so on.

Or, to review a student presentation, you can ask:
  • How many of your bullet points are you prepared to describe?

By asking these types of questions, which have multiple answers, you are making sure that this is a different instruction than normal. This way everyone has to think up a least one answer to the question, but some other students may choose to offer up more than one. Those who wish to share more can signal that they would like to volunteer, where others may choose not to share more than one.

10. Minimal supervision

When there are tasks that must be carried out that may only need minimal supervision, you can add an activity during these moments that could end up becoming dead time. They come in handy during situations such as working with a small group of students, passing out papers, speaking to students who did not complete their homework, dealing with unforeseen interruptions or providing extra work to students who have finished assignments before the rest of the class.

While passing out papers, ask your students to do a quick-write journal entry or pair up to quiz each other on whatever the last lesson was. Make sure to encourage an environment where the students confess if they don’t do their homework and instead of handing out punishment, you can ask them to do further study on the lesson. Asking them to study from a review sheet, read the assignment ahead of time, summarize a reading passage, or create and study some other content may make students keener to do their homework rather than deal with this extra work.