Let Them Speak: Increasing Student Engagement in the Classroom

Today, more than ever, teachers struggle to keep students engaged and focused in the classroom.  And with little doubt, this has to do with the increasing amount of technology and other various options at their disposal. For instance, on one student’s device, they can simultaneously play their favorite game, text a friend, and look up the latest scores for their favorite sports team.  So how can we engage these students and keep them involved in our activities?  The growing response to this concern is to focus on the individualization of instruction, gauging a particular students’ strengths, needs, and interests, and charting a personal course for them.  However, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel for every class period, and we do not need the latest technology to keep our students engaged either.  We need to listen to the voices that come into our classrooms every day, and put more power back in the hands of the students themselves.  This can be accomplished with three simple words- reflect, revise, and relinquish- and it will make a significant difference in the quality of our classrooms.


One way to grow student involvement in your classroom is to give them a voice in your planning and activities.  While your students cannot (and would not want to) sit down with you when you are developing course content, giving them the responsibility of reflection throughout the school year will provide you with the feedback you are looking for.  After every quarter, ask students to reflect on their experience in your classroom.  In college, my professors always waited until the end of the course to ask us our opinions, but what would that same activity look like if students could give us feedback while still taking our classes?  It is okay to admit to your classroom that you are human and you are looking for ways to improve your craft as a teacher.  Modeling this skill for your students encourages them to think about their own learning in the same light.

Reflection does not need to be limited to students, either.  Parents are also important stakeholders in your classroom, and often they have the strongest opinions, even if they have rarely stepped foot into your classes.  Offering them the ability to respond to your performance can help glean some valuable insight into the outside perception of your classroom appearance and operations, based on the feedback they have received from their children, and the previous interactions you have had together.

A word of caution, depending on the questions asked to both students and adults, you may get some feedback that can hurt your feelings.  One of the hardest skills to develop as a teacher is having a thick skin to criticism.  It is also important to note that in general, there will always be an outlier or two in your feedback, and those often have to be discarded as they do not fit in the general experience in your classroom.  However, to the same effect, how valuable would it be for a teacher to quickly know who is struggling in their classroom or who does not feel fully supported?  Using this strategy, it is entirely possible to differentiate for the needs of different learners in your classroom.

Just as it is important to get feedback on your performance in the classroom, consider adding in a reflection activity at the end of each unit of study.  Who offers better feedback on how a unit went than the participants themselves?  I typically ask students questions such as, “What have you learned from this unit?” or “If you could change anything about this unit, what would you change and why?”  Though not all answers are ever the same, overall I can identify themes that emerge from my student reflections and make adjustments accordingly.

You can see an example of one of my unit reflections here: Reflection


This should not end with the participants either.  Make sure to evaluate your own performance at the end of each unit, and if you co-teach or plan with another teacher, be sure to sit down with them and share your thoughts together.  What worked best? Which lessons really impacted the students for the better?  Which did not seem the most effective?  Don’t be afraid to be honest and to open your doors to the input of others.  Collaboration is the only way to continue to grow your art.

Relationships are key, and by adding reflection to your activities, you show your students that their voice matters in your classroom.



Now that you have decided what works best and what challenges you face, don’t be afraid to revise your lessons or make adjustments to classroom operations.   Students need to know that their voice actually counts, so make it clear to them that you have and are willing to make adjustments based on their thoughts and needs.  This certainly does not mean that you need to change everything because one student complained, but rather read the student responses and look for patterns that emerge from the overall feedback you have been given.

Just because a particular lesson or activity worked for you in the past, don’t assume that it will always work for the future.  Every year and every class is bound to change based on the experiences they encountered growing up.  The most common expression I have heard from colleagues is “This class is so much worse than the last year.”  While it is entirely true that no two groups of students are alike, we must also make sure that we are not the ones who have stayed the same and forgotten that they may act differently because their generation is different.  What might worsening behavior tell us?  It might simply be that the lessons or even the classroom format aren’t landing with the same impact as it once did, so we might need to make small adjustments to get them productive again.  From  one year to the next, students’ interests and needs change- which is why reflection must drive instruction.  Your lessons cannot remain stagnant or otherwise they can potentially lose their impact, and there is nothing worse than standing in front of a classroom where everyone realizes the lesson isn’t working.  Don’t necessarily throw everything out, either.  Get a good feel for your students and you may find in future years that one activity is more relevant at a different time.


The best part about revision is that if a new lesson or procedure doesn’t work, you can easily change it back, or readjust again to better fit the needs of your classroom.  Though everything may not land perfectly at first, odds are that the more you work on restructuring to student needs, the better students behave and perform for you going forward.


One of the scariest ideas for many teachers today is to relinquish control of their classroom.  After all, if we are not in the front of the room making the decisions and dictating the instruction, the room will descend to chaos, right?  Wrong.  Students today have choice in everything they encounter, from television programming often in excess of 200 channels to the vastness of the internet down to their personal style, they are used to being able to look up materials and information that matters in their lives.  So why not in school?


Granting students choice allows them to take personal investment in their own learning, which then leads to deeper ownership of their work.  How does one begin this?  Begin by focusing on concepts over content- in a language arts classroom, if I need to teach my students the format and structure of an informational essay, there is no reason I can’t allow them to choose a topic for their essay of their own choosing.  The true skill as a teacher comes in the facilitation of such tasks- as we know if we leave them completely on their own, many will struggle and ultimately fail.  Instead, scaffold instruction, develop lessons to encourage students to brainstorm topic ideas, conduct research, and generate a list with multiple topics that they can then choose from once they have identified the amount of information available, as well as their own continued level of interest, on a topic.  In a reading unit, what skill do I want my students to learn?  Gone are the days of classroom novels, because again there is no one book just as there is no one pair of pants that fits everyone exactly the same, or is important to them at the same time in their lives.   Consider allowing for several choices for your students to pick from or give them freedom entirely to choose a novel, and then focus on what skills or main concepts you want them to identify.  Be the model in your classroom with your own reading selection and encourage students to then try out your demonstrated skill on their own story.  Group students in literature circles to facilitate book discussions on concepts such as themes and allow them to make connections on what is most important to them.  Though the setup at the beginning may feel like more work, the payoff is much larger, and you will find yourself with students much more engaged and excited to come to class each and every day.

This just doesn’t work for one subject area however, in Social studies, if we want students to learn about the difference between communism and democracy, for example, we could encourage them to take webquests or conduct research on different examples of this throughout history.  If your content requires it to be in one hemisphere than limit it, but don’t require all students to stay on the same page at once.  Challenge advanced students to come up with complete lessons or presentations on their topic, for special needs students,  encourage them to create a poster, or a reflection instead that pushes their thinking while still allowing for leeway based on their abilities.  Don’t be afraid to slow down- learning is not at the same pace for every student, decide what they need to leave with to be successful at the end of your time together and make decisions so that all learners leave with this, while pushing your advanced students to go even further.

Though it may feel difficult at first, students encounter instruction in different ways, and giving up total control while still scaffolding learning, helps them develop skills to be successful and productive learners inside the classroom and out.

No one strategy is perfect, but as our students continue to grow and change, we must be willing to as well.  Giving our students a voice through reflection, making needed revisions to content, and relinquishing total control helps students become active participants in the educational journey rather than passive passengers.


One thought on “Let Them Speak: Increasing Student Engagement in the Classroom

  1. Alan – Nice start to blogging! Being your former Principal, I can really see growth in your thinking and proud to see you risk putting your thoughts out there. I like the formatting too 🙂 You have captured many of the primary goals in so-called 21st Century teaching and learning: individualization, management of devices, students as active contributors and producers of content, and the struggles with differentiating.

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