“Because I said so.” Many parents have uttered these words in exasperation at their children, trying–usually in vain–to motivate obstinate offspring to perform some kind of mindless chore. This phrase rarely works for parents, yet for decades educators also tried to use this phrase to justify hours of homework, double-sided worksheets, and complicated projects. This approach may produce results, but it doesn’t foster a personal connection between a student’s experience in school and their own future aspirations. To connect the dots between school and life, educators have now begun take into consideration student engagement factors: the intellectual, emotional, behavioral , and physical factors that inspire students to pursue, persevere, and progress in their educational lives.
In the sea of professional development and educator blogs, many tools and strategies have been touted to increase student engagement. “If you’re looking for increased attendance, buy video games!” If increasing student engagement were that easy, then it would also be easy to pinpoint what student engagement looks like. Unfortunately, that’s up to the stakeholders of each education site. For some, it may be an increase in test scores, and for others it may mean persevering through an internship program.
We’ve put together a few pointers on how to develop student engagement, whether you’re looking to impact the smiles on your students’ faces or trim down the amount of students showing up for lunch detention.
“Use It or Lose It”
For years, scientists have been scaring adults into crossword puzzles and brain teasers with the hopes of getting the most out of their brain capacity (and preventing it from going to mush). As an educator, you’re dishing out some high quality learning, but it only gets its value when you show students how to practically use that knowledge. Addition would fly out of the heads of every second grader if they didn’t see for themselves how it can be useful in real life—adding up all those quarters from selling lemonade. Go through your curriculum and “life lessons” you’re teaching this year and pick out the ones that you don’t want your students to lose. Use your creativity to create student-centered ways of demonstrating these lessons. I’ll never forget how my math teacher communicated the value of fractions by tapping into my love of baking. Instead of completing a bunch of word problems about Billy and how much flour he needed for a recipe, she actually had our class double a recipe, cook it according to our calculations, and serve it to the class. It was painfully obvious who knew the difference between ¼ and ½ of a cup.
It Takes a Village
School is more than just bricks and books—it’s also the smile from the security guard as you walk in the door, the high five from a friend in math class, and the “congrats” from the chemistry teacher. For a student, school is a social experiment, a place to practice the behaviors necessary to continue building relationships outside of school. As an educator, you play a vital role in this experiment. You are each student’s window into interacting with adults, as well as an integral part of their support network. Students who are truly engaged in school don’t just raise their hands in class, pass in homework, and head home. Engaged students attend basketball games, buy brownies at the school bake sale, and know how to utilize the human resources at their school. You don’t have to sponsor a school club to foster this type of engagement—although it doesn’t hurt. Checking in with students to see how they’re handling the stress of finals or making yourself present at extra-curricular events can make your students feel you—and the school—care about their well-being, not just their G.P.A.
Set Up the Brass Ring, and let them reach for it
I’ll be revealing my literature-loving tendencies here, but bear with me. At the end of The Catcher in the Rye, the main character and narrator, Holden Caulfield—an apathetic and antagonistic teenager—finds himself at a carousel. Holden is the prime example of a disengaged student: he fails at school, is unconcerned about his future, and has no support network to draw on. At the carousel, however, he finds himself in awe of Phoebe, his little sister, reaching for a brass ring. He remarks, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” As an educator, it’s your job to set up a brass ring for each student, and let them reach. It’s not your job to get the ring for them, just like it’s not your job to get them into their favorite college or acing the calculus test. But you do need to take time to figure out what they would be willing to reach for, and create the opportunity to reach. On the carousel of school, every student is on a different horse going at a different pace, but to keep them along for the ride, give them something that they can sit up, reach out their hand, and take a swipe at.