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Improving Student Engagement

A Quick and Dirty Strategy and Resource Guide
Emma Pebley





Table of Contents
Introduction A Mini Psychological Profile: Low-Achieving Students & Their Teachers Easy Engagement Strategies Resources Conclusion Works Cited 3 4 6 7 7 9


In my classroom experience both as a student and as a pre-service teacher, I noticed that students in lower tracked classes seemed far less engaged in their classroom experiences than students in more rigorous classes. These students, even in ninth grade, were uninterested in school, and were convinced that the opportunities that lie beyond a high school diploma are out of reach. They are unwilling to accept challenges, resistant to reading, and completely ignorant of writing and speaking skills beyond what they use every day. I spent a good deal of my pre-service teaching experience dealing with students like these, and I wanted to get these students into what was happening in the classroom. I wanted them to think about the things we were learning in a critical way that translated into their real lives. I needed them to respond to me and to their learning experiences in a way that made school interesting and engaging for them again. I yearned to see the spark for English in their eyes that I see in mine. I needed to find a way to get them to stop being teenagers in chairs in my classroom and turn them into students, willing and hungry to learn and experience in my classroom. I was at a loss as to how to help them. In school, I was a student who jumped at the chance to do a more challenging project, to tailor assignments to my strengths and interests, and to work hard on the things that were presented to me, even when I wasn t interested. I was an honors and AP student, and I thought that was the kind of teacher I wanted to be. In looking at these struggling students, however, I realized that I was a good student so that I had the knowledge and the time to spend with these students, helping them find themselves in a school curriculum that just wanted them to pass. These students needed a guide to make

4 school interesting; they needed a teacher to connect with them while enjoying what we were doing together in class. In order to guide them, I needed to learn about why my students were so disengaged and removed from the school experience. I poured over resources about lowachieving students psychology, strategies for teachers to help make class more interactive, and strategies for engaging students. My purpose for writing this resource guide is to make this same process easier for other teachers. Spending the hours scouring websites, journals, and books for strategies that sound like they might work with your particular class of students is counter-productive. Those hours should be spent implementing those strategies into your lesson plans, and, after lessons, thinking about whether or not it worked like you d hoped it would. This guide is meant to free up the time to try things, to analyze what s happening in the classroom, and to give teachers the freedom to relate to their students on a more individual level.

A Mini Psychological Profile: Low-Achieving Students& Their Teachers
Children aren t born hating school. They don t hate it on their first day of kindergarten, and many of them don t hate it through elementary school. For some students, school stops being enjoyable because it becomes too difficult. For most, however, school loses its appeal because teachers lose interest in actively engaging with these students. Between tracking and standardized test scores, students are falling more and more readily into categories of behaviors instead of being recognized as individuals. Judy Lehr and Hazel Harris provide a comprehensive list of the qualities that lowachieving students possess (or are believed to possess) and the consequences that result in the classroom in their 1989 book, At-Risk, Low-Achieving Students in the Classroom. Teachers

5 commonly recognize these students as nonachiever[s], low ability, less able, and

remedial. These teacher-provided labels can result in a different relationship between teacher and student than exists without the labels. The behaviors and expectations that result from the use of these labels commonly manifest when students are given less direct instruction, asked to do less work, given less praise, given less feedback, and

interrupted more often (Harris & Lehr, 1989). These behaviors and labels can be evidence of self-fulfilling prophecies. Lee Jussim explores this theory in Teacher Expectations: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies (1989). Teachers sometimes interpret students behavior only in ways that reinforces the ideas that the teacher holds about the students. By reacting based on that biased interpretation of information, student behavior begins to follow the patterns of low-achievement, low-engagement, and disruption that the teacher initially associated with the student (Jussim, 1989). To illustrate this relationship, a graphic from Jussim s article follows:

6 This chart helps illustrate the possibilities of self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom. This is not to say that no students who are low achieving are, in fact, low-achievers; some of them will be. It is important to recognize, however, that treating students in ways that reinforce to them that they are low achieving, remedial, or less able improves the likelihood that they will become those things. Making a conscious effort to avoid the labels and teaching behaviors in this section will go a long way in starting to bring low-achieving classes back into engaging learning.

Easy Engagement Strategies
In a discussion on the English Companion Ning, (a resource I recommend to any teacher looking for quick, intelligent colleague response to problems), several teachers shared several strategies that I used on my classroom successfully with my students. These included: y y y y y y Relating the reading and writing to students lives Scaffolding reading themes with contemporary examples Providing numerous opportunities for students to move and be out of their seats Sharing personal experiences wherever possible Asking students to share writings (homework, essays, thoughts, etc) wherever possible Utilizing multiple intelligences when putting together unit-length assignments, such as: o Music (Singing, Dancing, Listening) o Speaking (Discussion, formal speech) o Drawing and Diagramming o Web Technology o Film and TV

7 Each of these activities helped me reach some of my students, and by the time I had used them all, I had found a way into a relationship with each of them. Given the opportunity to break from the note-taking, listening- and reading-intensive English curriculum, students will respond honestly and creatively to you, the teacher, as well as to any assignments and challenges you might pose to them.

Resources y Strengthening Student Engagement

This publication provides a general summary of

the issues surrounding improving student engagement as well as pedagogy strategies and relationship frameworks for understanding how engagement is progressing. y Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement This article is an easy read, and it actually provides some practical strategies for improving engagement in your classroom. The author is a former teacher, and the website on which the article is posted,, has a wealth of information on similar issues. y What Every Teacher Should Know About Student Motivation This book is a great resource for in-depth information about student motivation and engagement in the classroom and how to improve it, but you do have to have some time on hand to read it. It is worth it, however.

I realize the list that in resources is rather short, but these three resources really helped me connect with my students. All of these resources stress how important it is to offer up something of yourself to students, and to give them an opportunity to show you the individual

8 facets of themselves. More than the different activities these resources offer, it really is the time you put in to forming relationships with students that makes the difference between highly engaged students and teenagers in seats in a classroom. In the eight weeks that I spent in the ninth grade classroom, it was the minutes before and after class when my students had a chance to get to know me that really made the difference. While I was teaching them, I noticed that the students with whom I had found something in common were more willing to try for me. Gradually, all of my students were clued in to trying harder and making an effort in class and on assignments. They became more engaged as I gave them more of myself and gave them the opportunity to give me some of themselves. The moments when the classroom became a place for meaningful conversation with a group of children who had previously been unwilling to do anything involving English made me realize that engagement, while a daunting concept, is not an impossible thing that requires tons of research and countless hours. Students respond when you re engaged, as a teacher. They re interested when you re interested. It s kind of remarkable, but it s really not the intangible I thought it was. When you take the time to get to know them, they ll respond by trying for you, by engaging with you.


Works Cited
Harris, H. W., & Lehr, J. B. (1989). At-risk, low-achieving students in the classroom (Analysis and action series). New York: Natl Education Assn. Jussim, L. (1989). Teacher Expectations: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(3), 469-480. Retrieved April 22, 2010, from Frondeville, T. d. (2009, March 11). Ten steps to better student engagement | Edutopia. Improving Public Schools & Public Education | Edutopia. Retrieved April 25, 2010, from Jones, R. D. (2008). Student engagement Creating a culture of academic achievement.

Rexford, NY: International Center For Leadership In Education. Tileston, D. E. (2010). What every teacher should know about student motivation (Second Edition ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.