The Engagement Evolution

Education is constantly changing. Ever evolving in the midst of varying pedagogies, changing models, and new technological trends. And we, as teachers, continue to look at our curriculum to determine if so much of what we do, is making any difference at all. And the one constant- that seems to be negated – and we try ever so hard to fix, is student engagement. The status quo, in regards to student engagement, isn’t working. So we continue to look at ways to change this trend. To engage our students and to reinvigorate life into the classroom to a captured audience. It’s hard to get someone’s attention… But even harder to keep it. And with everything going on in a student’s life, sometimes school just seems to take a backseat. So how do we continue to evolve and succeed in engaging our students in the classroom?

Consider for a moment this question: Are the changes you are making in your classroom meaningful enough that students can actually FEEL the difference in your classroom? I want you to think of something that is so attractive, and so appealing, that it has subdued you to a state where you lingered and yearned to learn more. Something you’ve connected with. Something that INSPIRED you. This is what we need to create with our students. So I beg to ask the question: What does engagement look like in your classroom? Feel like? Sound like? Engagement needs to be attractive.

Let’s start by looking at the following model.


This is the Triforce. Remember it. It’s a trifecta of powerful elements that when combined, create something new. Each of these elements plays a vital role in fostering student engagement. When I talk to teachers about student engagement, I want them to consider these 3 elements, and the role each of these plays in their classrooms. You cannot have one without the other…

The student + Content = Relevance

Content + the teacher = Expertise

the teacher + the student = Relationships

Content +the student + the teacher = Meaningful engagement. 

So what does this mean? It means we need to shed old habits in lieu of engagement through the 3 pieces above. We have to be willing to reflect on ourselves and what we are doing in the classroom. Broken down, the above looks like this:

  1. Are we building relationships with our students? (Because people don’t learn from someone they don’t like)
  2. Are we finding content that WE are passionate about teaching?
  3. Are we finding content that the STUDENTS find relevant and current?

These are powerful questions. Ones I beg you to spend the time answering. But be honest with yourself. (It might just be what is standing in your way.)

From here, we need to consider ALL of the reasons your students might be disengaged. Create a list of these reasons. You need to consider this list when you’re planning your units and lessons. Every student enters our classrooms with their own set of detractors. Things that stand in the way of their learning. Some of these are school related- like sports, and homework, and grades, and content relevance. And others are more personal-  like family issues, lethargy, boyfriend/girlfriend problems, apathy, and pressure. Every one of these detractors stands in the way of engaging our students in the classroom.

It’s only after we have answered these questions and been true to ourselves, that we can begin the evolution. And it starts with content…

What we teach plays a big part in student engagement. The students in our classrooms today, aren’t the students of our classrooms past. These students are savvy. They are creative, and inventive, and multi-dimensional. And with that, we need to be savvy, and creative, and inventive, and multi-dimensional as well. We need to create NEW experiences that the students haven’t become accustomed to yet. We need to create awe-inspiring moments:

The video above brings up a good question: How do we move beyond over-stimulation to the same thing? We need to create new content. New ways of teaching the lessons we have taught in the past. And we need to make it relevant. No one ever said worksheets are fun. And creating digital versions of the worksheet is a step in the right SAMR direction, but it’s still a worksheet. So we need to be creative… to think outside the box.

One of my favorite books to teach was always Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This isn’t a fun book. It’s deep. It’s intellectual. It’s gritty. But what I loved about the book, was that I had fun making it relevant. I found ways to get my students interested in the content of the book, while always engaging them in fun, new activities, while still teaching them the skills they needed to learn. For me, it always was and always has been about the skills- not the content. So what did I do?

I let my creative genius flow. McCarthy’s The Road is about an end of the world scenario in which a father and son traverse a barren landscape in hopes of survival. Then I made connections. So I tied in something students are into today- THE WALKING DEAD. And we compared it (both show and graphic novel) to our core text. We watched episodes from the tv show and read excerpts from the graphic novel. We played the board game Pandemic (which does a terrific job at building collaboration and teamwork, and fostering engagement). It was a terrific lead-in to this unit. After reading the opening to the text, we discussed possible end of the world scenarios. My students conducted research on these, and then showed their work in an infographic. We listened to episodes from the podcast We’re Alive in connection to both The Road AND TWD. Then we read science articles about various topics that related. And finally, we tied everything up with a project that got students to create and tell their own Post Apocalyptic story in the medium of their choosing. There only task? To use the various storytelling techniques of McCarthy, and TWD, and We’re Alive, in order to tell their story. That’s it! I received wonderful projects. Podcasts, short films wth script and storyline, a journal written from the survivors’ various point of views. It was a hit. And something students from following years asked about.

So let’s bring this back to the triforce model above. This unit incorporated each of the elements above. We built relationships. The content was relevant and intriguing. I was passionate about both the text and heck… the show (my students knew how big of a TWD fan I was/am). It had choice. And when put together, it was engaging.

Which brings me to the second and third elements: you the teacher and them the students. Fostering relationships is IMPERATIVE to the learning atmosphere and I feel all too often gets overlooked. This isn’t something that can just be done on a whim. It needs to be fostered from day one. Find that time to meet personally with your students. Ask them about their day. Ask them about that big test they had or the game over the weekend. Show them you care and they will be more engaged. Win the crowd… and you’ll win your freedom.

Another way to build these relationships is to invite the students to be partners in their learning. Ask them questions. Give them choice. Let them create and learn WITH you. Then ask them again and evaluate what went on. The more that they feel they are involved and a part of the learning, the more receptive they will be to try out new things in your class and give you their full attention.


At some point, we need to realize in education that we cannot continue to teach the same way we did in the past. We have to try new things. The students WANT to try new things and they are demanding more and more of us each day. Just as we hold them accountable to complete the work we set before them, we need to hold ourselves accountable for the work we give. Is it something you would enjoy as a teacher? Does it pass the sniff test? And if so, then we can ensure that we have done everything we can to turn education around and evolve. It’s ok to take risks and change. But do it with your students in mind.


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