15 Ways to Engage Reluctant Learners

I hit a point yesterday where I found myself overwhelmed by the standards. I was trying to make sense out of how to organize them into units and then how to integrate the topics from subject to subject. I became tense, clenched jaw, deep breaths and all. I had unit plans and a week-by-week framework and brainstorms  of different strategies and I began to obsess about what I was missing and how I was organizing it.

Then I walked away and refocussed. I made a web connecting concepts from one subject to another. I saw themes emerge. Real themes. Meaningful themes. I began to ask, "Why does this matter?" rather than "How do I organize it?" I started to picture myself as a student and then I pictured former students.

I pulled out a sheet of paper (yep, I still use that) and write the words, "Be intentional." From there, I started my own list of what I plan to do to engage students. I'm planning the framework this week, but I plan to look honestly at everything next week and ask myself if my plans have the following:

  1. Be intentional. I understand that I have to teach the standards. However, I don't want teaching to have the mentality of "we're learning this because you have to learn it." I need to have a purpose for what we are doing and students need to see that. Disengaged students are often disengaged because a teacher disengaged. I want to avoid that as much as possible.
  2. Know where we are going. I think this goes beyond simply stating the objective. I want students to see the project framework and know where we are going and why it matters. I plan to let students help develop the project planning before each unit. I want the essential questions to go beyond a question on a paper. 
  3. Connect it to a real context. Students can tell when a teacher is giving them a false context. Use the Pythagorean Theorem so that a catcher can find the distance from home to second base? Really? That's why I tuned out of math as a child. I want the context to be real. 
  4. Or better yet . . . connect it to a really imaginary, creative context. I've been working on my visual prompts that allow for the fictional and fantastic. I'm thinking of how to allow students to explore more of that on their own.
  5. Let them talk. Often. My students are in sixth-grade and they're social. They need a chance to talk in small groups and with partners. 
  6. Allow for mistakes. I think the biggest enemies to engagement is the risk-averse student. Often he or she looks lazy and helpless. But really, that student is terrified of messing up and gives up instead. 
  7. Embed intervention and enrichment. Every lesson should have a way for students to get help when they are struggling and a place they can go if they have already mastered it. Confused students disengage. Bored students do the same. 
  8. Give more choices. I find myself thinking, "I could have students do three different things, but I'm not sure what's best." Why not let them decide? 
  9. Give more freedom. This is different than simply giving choices. Freedom involves creating looser-structured assignments that students can develop on their own. Choice says, "here are your options" and freedom says, "go make your options up on your own." 
  10. Let them move. Create standing centers where students can work on a different task for a little while when they are stuck. Do gallery walks and inside-outside circles and belief walks. Let them change seats often. I know that I disengage when I am at a conference for too long. 
  11. Get rid of Try and avoid punishments and rewards. Avoid the temptation to create systems of rewards and punishments. They can become like crack and ultimately the addiction kills the love of learning. No PAT points. No pizza parties for a job well done (though maybe we'll do a pizza party for the heck of it at some point). (Edited due to some nuanced push back from readers) 
  12. Make it meaningful. This should be obvious, but it needs to matter and students need to know why it matters. It's okay to state the objective, but I want to articulate why we are learning what we learn. I want to ask students why it matters and let them articulate it in their blogs.
  13. Push critical thinking. Learning is naturally exciting. I see this with my kids at home. There is wonder and awe when they pick up a new skill or expand a new concept. I've learned that even at two years old, they are natural critical thinkers.  
  14. Create quiet spaces. I need to respect introverts by embedding moments of silence through the day so that they don't simply tune out and disengage, going invisible and so internal that they aren't engaged with the learning. I'm not sure how I will do this, but I want to allow for extra quiet spaces in the classroom so that introverts can decompress a little. 
  15. Build trust. I used to think team-building was fluff. However, I want to do some team-building exercises, allow them to tell their own story and start building relationships. Students are more likely to engage when they feel like they belong. 
photo credit: familymwr via photo pin cc
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com

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