Reflecting on Student Engagement: What are some of the conditions that make it happen?

I got to spend a gorgeous three days of Fall with about 95 sixth graders at the Pocono Environmental Education Center. OK, I’m going to say up-front that I wanted a cocktail about seven times a day for the three days we were there. It was pretty exhausting.

It was also amazing to see my city-kid students engaging with nature and with each other in such playful ways.


This is where we were. 

After a quick pond ecology class we went outside to dig in the mud and see what kinds of living things made their homes near the edge of a pond.

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I’m thinking: Engagement happens when the classroom teaching we do is accompanied by real application.

I’m wondering: How can I create this condition when I’m teaching about something we can’t touch, like Ancient Mesopotamia? (I’m mulling over some ideas of how to make abstract content more concrete, which I’ll report on later. If you have ideas, please comment!!)

We got to touch a lot of animals, many of which students thought were gross to begin with. Being able to see them in or near their actual habitat somehow eliminated the gross factor and awakened students’ curiosity and empathy.

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I’m thinking: Context shapes learners’ attitudes about content, and inspires them to want to engage with it, even when they didn’t think they wanted to.

I’m wondering: How can I make sure to provide context for things I need to teach (like using subject and object pronouns correctly), when my students express little interest in it? (I’ve got an idea up my sleeve about this one, too. Stay tuned to see how my making-pronouns-relevant-and-exciting works out. And of course, if you have ideas, please comment!!)

We learned about orienteering with topographical maps and compasses. Our educator (Ryan– he was great!) gave out the materials and gave a quick lesson in how to use them. Predictably, few kids were actually following along, instead playing with the materials and talking about them. When we went out into the woods to find our targets, many of them weren’t sure what to do. He did a couple of demonstrations, but also let them fumble around and figure stuff out on their own.

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I’m thinking: Engagement is lower when I’m telling students how to do something. It’s higher when I’m showing them. It’s highest when they’re working it out on their own, learning from mistakes.

I’m wondering: Do I let my students make enough mistakes in class? Do I sometimes get frustrated that kids aren’t listening to my very clear and complete explanation, when I should be sending them off to try it out, even when it’s something I know they don’t know how to do yet? (I’ll be working, as I always seem to be, on reducing my own “air time” in class and increasing students’ work time, following workshops with student-centered shares on how they’ve struggled and what they’ve learned. I’ll probably post about this, too. But, as always,if you have ideas, please comment!!)

So I’m working with three conditions for student engagement (which I think I kind of knew but kind of didn’t), and I really want to see if I can bring them back to my urban, not foresty or animal-filled, classroom. Wish me luck!

I’m not even going to go into what I learned about engagement at the evening campfire, the pitch-dark night hike, or the way kids spent their hour of free time. Yet.

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