10 SIMPLE ways to engage; sure

I ran into this blog,  When Students Tell You They Are Bored, Can We Blame the Students as Well?, by Pernille Ripp, while hanging out on Twitter. The title of the blog makes the content obvious; if I am doing everything I can to make this environment as engaging as possible, can I ultimately lay the responsibility on a student if they don’t step up?

I love how what I am thinking and talking about is always being thought about  and talked about by someone else. This is the great beauty of our lives; we are all connected and experiencing this complex world together. By talking to each other, at least we can share in the joy and pain of it, even when we cannot solve things with a magic wand.

Friday, on my way out of school a colleague dropped by to talk over a class of students she is struggling with. We commiserated and strategized for a while. I have also had groups (and individuals) that were tough to motivate; I have a few right now.

Group dynamic is huge in education. I have taught groups rushing forward toward learning with me;  this is the sweetest spot you can ever find as an educator. I have had groups that engage when I can really get their attention, and we get some good things done. I have had groups that I can only really  ‘control’ with bits of paper with marks on them; this is the most depressing place to be. I have had groups where the behaviour is the problem, either too flat, or too aggressive, or too much drama.

Of course, I always have individuals within all these groups that exhibit all the above qualities.

I can conduct a very difficult class and keep them engaged. Don’t misunderstand me; some days I do not manage and as they flow out of the room I am wiping my brow and thinking what a disaster the lesson has been. Then, I start thinking about what to do differently tomorrow.

Generally though, I can arrange the seating, the movement, the timing, the events, the downtime, the topics, the delivery, the ideas and try to keep everyone engaged and moving forward. I can help them learn and think. We can tackle some real-world and complex topics and have some fun.

However, if you want me to teach this difficult and highly resistant group (or student) to read, to show their learning in an authentic or creative way, to make their thinking clear with explanation and analysis, to have a discussion or make a speech, to research and to write, to reference their work, to take a final exam, or to pass a Provincial Exam….now, more often than not, we have a problem.

Because it is hard.

Of course the reasons they find hard, hard, are myriad. We all know what they are.

And the strategies for engaging students are also well known, and I am doing them and increasing their use. They can be hard, but I can do hard.

I can do every single thing I can, using every waking hour of my day, but it isn’t always going to work.

It’s like the front cover of my Clean Eating magazine for March 2012. One cover story is “Live Longer – 10 Simple Steps!” Sure, I can definitely eat dark chocolate. Tick. But what about the more difficult exhortations, like ‘…to get adequate Zs’? Sure, simple. Theoretically. In a perfect world.

It doesn’t mean you don’t do every bloody thing in your power to get enough sleep. However, sometimes, your kid gets sick in the middle of the night. Or, you have an injury and are in pain. Or your sister calls before your planning and marking for the next day is done, so you stay up late. Or, you watch TV too long, because  you can’t seem to dig yourself off the couch. Or, at 2 am, the cat wants in, and at 4 am the dog wants out.

Or, you lay in bed for two hours with your head spinning from all the work that didn’t get done, or because some student is sitting on your last nerve and you can’t figure out how to get him or her to trust you enough to buy in, or whatever.

So, sure, theoretically. Good idea. Exemplary idea. NOT SIMPLE.

As I say, we have similar lists and exhortations in education, and I think they are important. I read them, and re-read them and try to find teachers who are really implementing them in a similar environment  to my own so I can see how they are doing it. I practice them daily.


  • That student still skipped two blocks of Genius Hour, because we ‘…aren’t doing anything’.
  • That student shows up late several times a month, inevitably after the motivating and the instructions and the teaching and the clarifications are over.
  • That student has not read the novel for the dystopia unit and has not written the assessment, which largely forms the basis of the term report.
  • That student has only come to class 5 times out of 20.
  • That student will not do homework and also will not come in after class.

…and so on.

Because I am an idealist and zealot, I take the blame, and try to figure out what I am doing wrong. I think this is a good process to go through, and for every student who engages in these behaviours, I walk myself through everything I am doing over and over. You can see how Mrs. Ripp also agonizes over these ‘failures’ in a similar fashion and shares this with her husband. The response:

We have to agonize over these subjects. However, students, their families, the communities that surround us, and ultimately the governments of our nations must take responsibility for their own behaviour. Are they agonizing?

Mr. Gonzales’ response allows me to take heart as well. 

It’s true; students will grow up. The other good news is that often, if I cannot scoop up a student, another teacher will. Sometimes, they find their success outside of school. We all breathe a sigh of relief.

Before that, however, I still am often very sad at the end of the semester when I consider how little I was able to teach a group or student. That ‘F’ on the final report feels like my ‘F’ as well.

And it would be, if I weren’t working hard daily to figure out how the result could be different. We are also working at our school to figure out how to systemize supports and interventions so that each individual teacher is not in charge of the entire range of solutions.

It is complicated, and making teachers think that we alone are the miracle-workers is counterproductive. But that’s another blog post.

What’s the point, if it’s not for marks?

Today when I introduced Genius Hour, I was a little iffy. Looking around the room, I could see all that could go wrong. That student will head for a computer and log onto an online game. That student has a hard time finding ideas, when presented with choice. That student only wants to research Justin Beiber, and yes, I am going to let her. That student will wonder around and bug other people.

Some students have little to lose, and a lot to gain. The experience of learning something without being led by the nose, or by getting the answer off of someone else. Accountability to themselves, rather than to someone else. Intrinsic motivation.

A relatively strong learner said, “What’s the point, if it is not for marks?”

Exactly. That’s when I remembered I was on the right track.