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The Monster Named, ‘Student Engagement’

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There it was, shouting up at me from the column labeled, “Student Engagement”. DEVELOPING.

Of course, my immediate reaction was to defend myself, frantically scanning the rest of the rubric, grasping for any 3s or 4s I could get my hands on. But no matter what I found, the 2 shouted louder. Had it been in a different area, like “Classroom Management”, I don’t think it would have rattled me as much, but Student Engagement?!

How could I, a teacher who spent hours each night planning my lessons, receive a “2” in ‘Student Engagement’?

Little did I know, this tiny moment in time (and yes, it was only one post-observation report) would shape the rest of my career in education. After all, this was when I learned to name the monster, Student Engagement.

Naming the Monster

Once you put a name to something, it automatically changes the situation. Remember the Pet Rock that came out in the 1970s? Yeah; genius marketing right there. If you found a rock on the sidewalk, it was just that — a rock, but if you received Pet Rock in its “carrier” (complete with what looked to be breathing holes), it took on a life of its own. In my experience, the same goes for student engagement. So, let’s start there.

Student engagement can be hard to identify, because it can falsely wear the name tag, “Compliance”. As an instructional coach, I work with teachers on honing their craft and frequently ask the question, “How did the students respond?” This can be in reference to a new teaching strategy, lesson plan, or specific piece of content. Without a moment’s pause, a typical response might be: “They were so engaged!” It’s only when I follow up with, “How do you know they were engaged?” that I will get a true sense of the students’ response.

“They were all sitting at their desks and it was quiet. They did the reading and the responses without needing any help from me.”

What part of that statement spells out student engagement? None. What it’s really showing us is that the students were compliant. They did the work, but that’s about it. Did they show real excitement for the content? Were they appropriately challenged by the task? Did the new information spark their curiosity to continue their learning? While the students may have completed the activity, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were engaged. So, as we move forward in this post, let’s be careful to name it appropriately.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defined engagement in their publication by examining what motivates people (children and adults). In their research, they discovered that people were truly engaged in work that “…stimulated their curiosity, permitted them to express their creativity, and fostered positive relationships with others.” In order for students to feel truly engaged, they must feel appropriately challenged, be given opportunities to show their learning in various ways, and collaborate with their peers.

Feeding the Monster

Now that we’ve given it the correct name, it’s time to figure out what it eats. (It is my understanding that the Pet Rock came with detailed instructions on teaching it new tricks, but never mentioned anything about food. Interesting…). Okay, so you received a “developing” in Student Engagement. Let’s take a moment to unpack this by identifying some reasons why your students might be disengaged. It’s important to note that the list below is not exhaustive and merely covers a few “typical” reasons for disengagement and tips to make the shift towards more authentic student engagement in the classroom.

Too Easy vs. Too Hard

The reason: We all know that students come into the classroom with individual strengths and needs, but this also plays an important role in engagement. The “symptoms” of a task being too easy or too hard are often similar — frequent trips to the water fountain/bathroom/pencil sharpener (the list goes on), distracting peers, slow start to working, incomplete work, etc.

The tip: Differentiate when you can by scaffolding difficult tasks (sentence starters, graphic organizers, modeling, use of manipulatives, etc.).

4th grade students utilize a digital graphic organizer to compare/contrast different Native American nations.

Tech programs like Newsela, CommonLit, i-Ready, and Zearn are great for differentiating texts and offering other adaptive content to students on a individual basis. Adventurous teachers might also enjoy exploring more project-based learning opportunities, like the ones found in this blog.

Sage on the Stage

The reason: If we’re not careful, that 10 minute “mini lesson” we planned to deliver turns into 25 minutes of us on the stage, our students as passive audience members. This type of disengagement often shows up when they transition into independent work and are unable to complete…any of it.

The tip: Avoid being the “sage on the stage” by encouraging students to actively participate during lessons. A simple favorite is the integration of the personal dry-erase board to use throughout the lesson. This can be very liberating for students, as it allows them to create the lesson with you, rather than it being delivered on a “silver platter”. Feeling techie? Then check out Pear Deck or Nearpod — both excellent options to up the interactivity of the lesson itself.

Pear Deck is a Google Slides add-on that can be used to capture student response in a variety of ways throughout a lesson.


The reason: Yes, there will be things we have to teach that will warrant the, “When will I ever use this in real life?!” question, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. If students are not connecting with the content on some personal level, they can easily become unmotivated and lethargic (yes, even your “best”students).

The tip: Offering students choice is an easy way to promote a personal connection with learning.

Tic-Tac-Toe menu, used in a 7th grade Math classroom

Many of the teachers I work with have successfully integrated menus into their classrooms, allowing students choice in different areas of their learning. (i.e. Working with a partner/group, drawing/creating an illustration of their new knowledge, content delivered in multiple modalities, sequence of tasks to complete, etc.). Resources can easily be posted and accessed via programs such as Google Classroom, Google Docs, Symbaloo, and Padlet, to name a few.

Have any other ideas to boost student engagement in your classroom? Share them with us here, or in our online community, the Innovative Teaching Co-op. We are better together!

To learn more about student engagement through ASCD, visit the full article online at:




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I am an Instructional Coach and Client Success Manager at Educate LLC. I believe in the power of communities to fight for equity and access for all.

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