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March 5, 2021

Five Powerful Ideas For Student Engagement

As students walk into school every fall, I focus on routines and procedures emphasizing classroom management. I have students repeatedly practice these expectations to effectively maintain a safe and engaging classroom. However, over the past few years, in addition to focusing on routines and procedures, I’ve become increasingly interested in the intentional and sustained engagement of students in critical conversations and curious thinking practices. Once students are engaged in the core of my content area, procedures make more sense and become embedded in the learning foundation already established.

The following strategies represent 5 ideas that will help to create engagement while also focusing on a sense of community in your classroom.

A Messy Problem

Often I begin with a problem or an activity I know will be successful for students. This year, I wanted them to understand the value of challenges in their lives. I began with a question that illuminated areas of “soft” understandings. When students enter a state of confusion, it’s the cusp on which new learning can evolve. While this will create frustration (a healthy reaction to quality questions), ensuring students that you’ll come back to this messy problem again and again will allow their minds to rest, while still engaging with the content. In fact, leaving students with a problem yet to be solved will create intrinsic motivation to think of solutions that make sense, increasing motivation and engagement. Take a look at Understanding Fractions Through Real-World Tasks and observe how Ms. Franco allows herself to let go and shift the focus to student learning and investigation.

Graphic Recording

Incorporating the art of doodling, intentionally, into our lessons can allow for focus and engagement. Graphic recordings include words, quotations, pictures, etc., in an abstract, note-taking format. One way to introduce this strategy is to allow students to create a graphic recording of who they are, as a person. This will allow them an entry point into using graphic recording with future units of study. Some quick tips for graphic recording include:

  • Draw simple, quick pictures.
  • Leave space when you need more time.
  • Determine the best medium to use (computer, paper/pen, etc.).
  • Practice “listening and capturing.” Start by sharing a short story or lecture and have students create a quick visual.

Just like anything, practice makes graphic recording easier and more effective. An excellent overview of graphic recording can be found in Rachel Smith’s TED talk.

NOTE: As a self-proclaimed art-injured individual, I tried my first graphic recording at a conference a few summers back and found that when referencing that note, my memory of the professional development was increased when compared to sessions when I didn’t take graphic notes. For more on graphic recording, watch Life-Size Graphic Organizers, where Sarah Brown Wessling uses the graphic organizer of a body to have students makes connections between literature and a body part, an emotion, or movement. The organizer allows students to synthesize in new and creative ways.

Technology-Savvy Language

Last year, I decided to find out what made students read my feedback. After different attempts (writing questions, giving feedback with and without scores, etc.,) I found my most challenging students responded to feedback that involved hash tags (#). In fact, when I would # feedback, they would # back to me. Hashtags helped create open dialogue, which in turn helped us to understand one another’s thinking. One of my favorite moments was when I went to grade a test and a student wrote #unrealisticquestion, to which I responded, #completely #noonebuys243shirts. Instantly, students were reading and interpreting my feedback in fun and engaging ways.

Recently, I started using Voxer to record my feedback and send it to the teacher I’m working with. Email is often open to interpretation, due to the lack of tone in the writing. However, when someone hears my voice, they’re able to understand the intent of my words, causing less confusion. Check out Podcasting To Personalize Feedback on Teaching Channel. Sarah Brown Wessling understands that feedback via voice is more timely and efficient than written feedback. In addition, when given audio feedback, students are more likely to listen to it, whereas on paper, some throw a paper away without reading the teacher’s comments.


Although some of you may be overwhelmed by icebreaker activities, they can help create community. I like to focus on a concept directly related to my content area. For example, I give students straws and tape and ask them to build the tallest, free-standing building. The students have to think about the shape of the base, how high they can build before the structure becomes unstable, etc. In the meantime, they’re also hypothesizing with one another and learning about different styles of leadership.

Celebrate Student Success

Nothing develops a greater bond than when trust, respect, and choice are present in a classroom. Often, educators need to extend positive praise to students as a means of feedback and encouragement. However, empowering students to identify a moment they’re proud of develops self confidence through self reflection. Take a look at Your Shining Moment to see how students need positive self talk to develop confidence. In identifying their successes, students are taking ownership over their learning, while simultaneously giving formative information back to their teacher.

I often underestimate the energy, excitement, and readiness that students have for learning. If this sounds like you, think about flipping how you structure your classroom. Instead of procedures first and content to follow, shift content first, but with engagement strategies that increase community and decrease off-task behaviors.


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