I often wonder why, as a student, it feels like some lessons go on forever, while others fly by. The key, I think, lies in the sometimes vague but crucial concept of engagement. When I am engaged, I don’t even pay attention to the passing time. However, when I am not engaged, it can feel like a class is never-ending.
When my environmental science teacher asks a question, I feel engaged. Tons of people raise their hands, and he makes a conscious effort to get everyone involved. I remember one day we were doing a project on the solar system: we got into groups of three and we picked the planet we wanted to research. Each group researched how far the planet was from the sun, how big it was, and two other interesting facts about the planet. We also found a picture of our planet. The teacher then had us move beyond the classroom, taking our learning outside.
We converted the distance between each planet into steps, starting with the sun at the very end of the sidewalk. Each group then presented their planet and research, and then we physically walked to the next spot in our scaled model. Everyone was taking part in the lesson, we were active, we were thinking. We kept doing this until we finished discussing all of the planets, and then we went inside to review. My teacher asked who could tell him one new fact they learned about a planet. Almost everyone in the class raised their hands.
This lesson taught me that teachers really can affect my interest and level of engagement in the classroom. My environmental science teacher gauged what truly interested each and every student, giving us a stake in the final lesson.
Reflecting on my various classroom experiences, here are three things I have found to be essential in developing an engaging class for students:
1. We can tell if our teacher is engaged with the content they teach. If they don’t find it exciting, we won’t either.
2. It makes a huge difference when teachers try to engage ALL the students in the room, even when students represent a diverse array of learning styles and interests.
3. We love it when teachers go beyond giving us a lecture. I recognize that there are specific principles teachers must teach, but it helps us learn those standard concepts when we can see how they work in the real world.
To show you what I mean, I put together a playlist of the Tch videos that really represented what I believe matters most to student engagement:
“Learn By Leading” shows students who are invested in what they are doing, and you can see how integral the teacher’s role is in this engagement. Rather than sitting at her desk while students work on their project, she goes up to them and asks them questions that help them better understand the material. Also, the project itself seems like a great way for the students to learn the material in a hands-on way.
“Differentiating with Learning Menus” shows how a teacher can find ways to engage all of the students in the room. The learning menu seems like a very creative way to try and address the learning styles of all students. A complex lesson will inevitably reach some students in certain ways, while other students will respond to different methods and approaches of teaching the same information. The menu style helps with this challenge. The students also have very positive reactions to the learning menu, which shows me that it really works.
“Making DNA Concrete & Comprehensible” does a fantastic job of using an engaging lesson strategy. I am sure DNA was something this teacher was required to cover, but he taught a complex subject in such a fun way. This video opened my eyes to the fact that two teachers can teach the exact same lesson but in different ways, and the outcome can be completely different.
Students should enjoy what they are learning, and look forward to coming to school. Students should feel free to ask questions in order to deepen their understanding, and teachers should be willing to answer them. School should encourage students to pursue their interests, rather than discourage them.
Rebecca Williams is a senior at New Trier High School, just outside of Chicago. She was introduced to Teaching Channel this summer through Miriam Sherin, a professor in the education department at Northwestern. She is interested in one day becoming a teacher.