Million dollar question! I have taught 8th grade for 19 years and I am still trying to perfect the art of keeping them engaged. Remember that this age group is very egocentric...
Make things relevant. Look for things in the news or in your area that they might find interesting. Then use this item as a hook. For example "lead water" in Flint and how this effects the teenagers. This topic could be used as the focus for any subject area.
Also, remember that they are still kids. Allow them to be active, collaborate, share their point of view, etc.
IMO the worse thing that we can do is try to have them sit down in a silo and give them seat work. Very few of use would respond well to that type of environment. Especially when we were 13/14 years old.
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It's about knowing your students. What motivates or demotivates them? Do you include some type of a rewards system? Fairness goes a long way and that puts a lot in this age group on. Incorporating parents can help too. After all they are the students primary teachers so they might share strategies about their own kids.
Give the students that are doing their work a day off and take an inspirational trip somewhere once a week. The lackers stay behind and does regular desk work.
Making it relelvant at this age is definitely important. Even doing simple things like using students' names in your word problems or incorporating local hangouts, pop culture, movies, or anything else that you think they like into word problems or test questoins. Being silly can go a long way!
Tom is right! Some things I do is give them some choice in the work you expect them to do. You select the problems/selection of readings, but let them choose from there. Another thing I think is important for this age group is to get them up and moving during the class period. Strategies like gallery walks help students get their bodies up and moving and this helps them stay engaged and focused in the lesson.
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