Six Steps to Engage Students

One of the outcomes of the growth mindset movement is a dedicated focus on student engagement.  Schools are recognizing that teaching the standards requires the active participation of students.  This is an exciting and refreshing movement away from more traditional teaching methods.  Schools should feel unfettered when planning for instruction that combines both the rigor of higher standards with a pedagogy that excites young learners.

In his article, Engage Kids With Seven Times the Effect, Todd Finley identified the benefits of engagement for students.  He noted that they:

  • experience improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • are more likely to persist through academic struggles
  • earn higher standardized test scores
  • have better social skills
  • are less likely to drop out of school

Teachers naturally want their students to be engaged in the instruction they provide.  They want their students to be absorbed in the learning process because their instincts tell them it supports long-term understanding.  The “how” of engagement can be challenging, even for experienced teachers.  Planning for active student engagement requires meticulous preparation as well as a willingness to change direction when the moment calls for it.  Most of all, it requires that teachers truly know each student.

Teachers who know the strengths and needs of their students use that knowledge to raise their success.  They put their students in learning situations where the rewards are high and the risk of failure is low.  They don’t try to manipulate the end-result, but they narrow the number of potential outcomes.

Here are six suggestions for how schools can increase student engagement:

  1. Develop an “engagement” culture

Like most significant initiatives, change starts with a school’s culture.  If you want to focus on student engagement then you’ll have to develop a collaborative vision with teachers and staff that celebrates the benefits of engaging instruction.  The collaborative approach lends itself to enduring change.  You don’t have to build consensus or “buy-in,” you need a commitment among the staff to grow strong instructional practices around the standards you are teaching.

  1. Have them teach each other.

See how high the level of engagement goes when students are told that they will be teaching a new concept to their classmates.  It’s not about the fear factor, but students certainly become more engaged in classrooms that include opportunities for them to teach each other.  Of course, it should be genuine, not contrived.  While this approach may take more time, it leads to greater retention of the material and deeper understanding of the concepts.  Students often listen with a greater focus when their peers speak.

  1. Assign authentic tasks with meaningful final projects.

Students are quickly motivated when their learning is related to topics they are passionate about.  In turn, passionate teachers can easily motivate their students by selecting lessons that focus on real-life problems and issues.  The final projects associated with problem-based learning should be meaningful.  The simplest question teachers should ask before determining the focus of an investigation is, “Who will we share what we’ve learned with and how will we do it?”  Great teachers share their passion for learning and pass it on to their students.

  1. Promote working together.

While it may be hard to know what careers we are preparing students for, we can assume that collaboration will be a key skill for their success.  Students need training in how to work with others.  It is not a natural talent.  Consistent structures and practices lead to collaboration that flows and seems natural.  Teachers can begin with highly controlled practices and, as students assume more independence, they can exercise a gradual release of responsibility.  Most importantly, teachers should expect some failure as they foster collaboration.  Through that failure, they will build student resilience and a deeper understanding of how the whole is often greater than its parts.

  1. Incorporate technology.

The modern teacher has many choices when it comes to using technology as a teaching tool.  Teachers must become comfortable with learning about technology alongside their students.  Blogging, file sharing, digital media, digital citizenship, project-based learning, Genius Hour, the maker movement, curation and many more terms have made their way into the current educational lexicon.  Technology allows schools to connect their students with others across the globe.  Small school districts can provide opportunities that their students might not otherwise have.  Start investigating the newest technology.  If you don’t, you can bet your students will.

6. Get students moving.

Students should be sitting as little as possible during the school day.  If your students aren’t moving every fifteen minutes, they probably aren’t learning as much as you want them to.  Brain-based research has clearly linked the role of movement in learning.  Where does the blood pool when you’re sitting for long stretches of time?  You can bet it’s not in the brain.  Movement breaks and physical activity re-awaken the brain’s synapses and make students available for new learning.

Once engagement becomes part of a school’s culture, it needs nurturing to sustain its benefits.  School principals can develop look-fors based on the specific needs of their students and staff.  The challenge for observers is to distinguish between student activity and student engagement.  Robert Marzano is recognized as an expert in student engagement.  His book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, is a good starting point for school leaders seeking to foster student engagement.  Marzano offers several tips that provide a good foundation for assessing engagement in schools.  Based on his tips, school principals should look for evidence of:

  • the quality of relationships in the classroom
  • a variety of teaching methods being utilized
  • the level and source of questions asked (teacher and student generated)
  • student choice
  • acceptance (teacher to student; student to student)
  • effective pacing
  • the use of wait time
  • positive and respectful communication (verbal and non-verbal

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good starting point for schools focused on improving student engagement.  If one of the tenets of ESSA is to personalize learning for students, then targeting student engagement may be the vehicle to success.  By maintaining high expectations for all students and offering rigorous, engaging instruction, we can at least get children more excited about coming to school.  That’s a good start!

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Principal magazine.  All rights reserved.

Most People Are Good

“I believe if you just go by the nightly news,
your faith in all mankind would be the first thing you lose.”

-Luke Bryan

I recently had the chance to travel to the Midwest and back from my Maryland home.  It was a long “guy” road trip of over 3,200 miles.  We journeyed to Sturgis, South Dakota for their annual biker rally.  The rally itself was an awesome experience, one I’d recommend for anyone who enjoys riding a motorcycle.  This post, however, isn’t about the rally, it’s about the people we met along the way.

Traveling across the United States and meeting people from all walks of life restored my faith in humanity.  As we rode, I kept hearing Luke Bryan’s song, Most People Are Good on the radio.  The song and lyrics resonated with me because they’re true.  Most people ARE good, it just took a trip across the heartland to remind me.

We met people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  We traveled through big towns and small towns.  We met waiters, waitresses, bartenders, tattoo artists, bikers, firefighters, police officers, sales people, hotel staff, and many fellow travelers along the way.  They all shared one thing in common.  They were good people.

I’m not a Pollyanna nor am I a cynic.  I tend to take people as they come.  We, of course, ran into people who were less than polite or respectful, but they were few and far between.  We were shown kindness by strangers, respect just for the sake of respect, and compassion without condition.

I did something on this trip that I don’t always do when I travel.  I asked people questions.  I don’t know why.  I just wanted to hear what they were thinking.  It didn’t take much to get people to open up.  Maybe some have never been asked.  Each had their individual stories, but they all spoke about their aspirations, their struggles, and their families.  They all remain positive and hopeful even though some are faced with significant challenges.

Maybe that’s why this trip was so important.  It got me away from watching the news and reading the paper.  Taking the time to talk with people was surprisingly cathartic.  We all get caught up in the daily grind of our lives.  Learning a little about others can provide a healthy perspective on what really matters.  Skeptical? Take a long road trip, ask a few questions.  People will surprise you.

Luke Bryan- Most People Are Good

Organizational A.D.D.

Even the best organizations can suffer from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).  In his 2001 book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uses an analogy that illustrates how organizations succeed and fail based on what they focus on.  He calls this phenomenon the Flywheel and the Doom Loop.  He paints a vivid picture of pushing a massive metal disc weighing 2,000 pounds.  With effort, there is eventually a point where the flywheel gets easier to push, a breakthrough period where the momentum kicks in.

Collins connects this analogy to organizations that succeed after a cohesive effort focused on growth.  It comes with consistency and a commitment to clearly defined principles and goals.  The “Doom Loop” is what happens when the organization is tempted to change direction.  Picture trying to change the direction of the 2,000-pound flywheel.  Progress must slow down for the turn to begin or the wheel will fall over.  Momentum is lost and, in many cases, organizations stall.

This is the current state of many school systems across the United States.  Two and a half years after the signing of ESSA, we continue to wait for its impact at the local level.  The flywheel is stalled.  In the meantime, states are developing new rating systems and local school systems are rolling out their plans to meet the new guidelines.  It is a huge responsibility.

One of the by-products of modern school reform is that the number of people with their “hands in the pot” has increased.  This creates challenges that reach directly to the classroom level.  School districts, in their attempt to meet the needs of all children, are all over the place with their initiatives.  Organizational ADD leads to school districts doing many things to support students, but none of them particularly well.

Schools must support students through holistic approaches, but their focus and efforts should be their choice.  Our role as administrators should be to make sure that the “toolbox” that teachers use is filled with every tool they need to help students.  Once we’ve done that, teachers should be empowered to use those tools at their discretion.  We must stop micro-managing our schools and our teachers.  If we get stuck in the “doom loop,” it is the students who will be run over by the flywheel.

School Leadership Lessons from Great Generals

In June of last year, I began working at an elementary school that sits on a military post.  I am slowly learning about the needs of our military families.  It is an honor to be closely connected to those who serve our country.  The more I learn, the more I realize that there are significant connections between the beliefs of our greatest military leaders and effective educational leadership practices.  Let’s look at how some of their individual philosophies lend themselves to school leadership.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower understood that integrity is the defining characteristic of a leader.  School leaders who seek to make a difference for all students must stand as an example of integrity to their communities.  They must be seen as fair and consistent.  The decisions they make should always be centered in what is best for children.

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do.  You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example that they’ll follow.”

-General Colin Powell

Colin Powell takes Eisenhower’s quote one step further by reminding us that leaders are constantly being watched.  School leaders should be aware that while their words are important, what they DO is even more important.  While that can cause great stress, it’s simply a matter of asking ourselves, “Is what I’m doing consistent with what I’m saying?”

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary, an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.”

-Gen. John J. Pershing

Pershing (originally a teacher of local African American children in Missouri) was a military genius who trained some of the greatest generals of the 20th century.  His point here is that being competent matters.  You can’t just show up.  School leaders can build the capacity of their teachers through a strong, enduring commitment.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

-George S. Patton

Patton (who incidentally served as Pershing’s aide) understood that “group think” can kill an organization.  School leaders will benefit from listening to others even when their views differ.  If school leaders foster distributed leadership, then everyone knows their opinions matter- that’s a good thing for schools.

“We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”
–General Omar Bradley

Omar Bradley (the son of a school teacher) reminds us that we need to “stay the course.”  School leaders who are attempting to make significant changes must be vigilant in protecting the mission, vision, and goals of their schools.  Once you decide on your course of action, make sure that everything you do aligns with and supports that plan.

“Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower (who marched behind Pershing’s coffin with Omar Bradley in 1948) learned that successful leaders plan for the future.  They don’t wait around to find out what the future holds.  They anticipate and plan for it.  Effective school leaders do the same.  The energy it takes to plan for the future is much less than the energy required to react to unknown or surprising turns in the road.

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

-General Norman Schwarzkopf

Schwarzkopf states a plain truth.  Most of us know the right thing to do.  School leaders who are reflective are able to put their egos aside when making important decisions.  It’s part of the integrity piece that Eisenhower spoke of.  Sometimes doing the right thing means more work for us.  That’s okay.  That’s probably what makes it the right thing to do.

 “When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”

-General Bruce C. Clarke

Finally, Clark’s message is that we don’t have to look far to find out where things went wrong.  Start with yourself.  School leaders who seek to assign blame will make those around them miserable.  Take responsibility, even when you don’t think it all rests with you.  More importantly, get past the blame phase and start working on the solution.

So much wisdom from our military leadership.  We can certainly learn from them and apply their knowledge to supporting our teachers, students, and communities.

Full Disclosure:  I am a big fan of General Pershing’s and recommend you read Jim Lacey’s book, Pershing.  Some of the background for this blog post came from the book.