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March 28, 2010 Student Engagement: Active Learners Versus Passive Observers By Justin Lim
Grades 9–12

    As class sizes grow and curricular demands compound, it seems that meaningful instruction is becoming increasingly difficult to implement. Many teachers I talk to feel as though they are in a permanent state of playing catch-up and frequently feel forced to teach lessons they know are not as engaging in order to stay on pace. For students, this troubling trend has taught them to be passive observers. By the time students arrive in high school, most of them have learned they can get by if they turn in work, look like they are paying attention, and stay out of trouble. Fortunately for them, responsible teachers will not be satisfied with this way of learning!



    Here are some tips to get your students engaged and actively learning:

    1. Choice - Providing students with choice is a great way to get them involved because it gives them a sense of empowerment. I am currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my sophomores and I decided to slightly alter their homework assignments by offering them a choice of three options. Students can either complete a set of comprehension questions, fill out a graphic organizer, or write a chapter summary. As soon as I introduced the options, the completion rate and quality of their work noticeably improved. I also began introducing choices based on different learning styles to include: illustrative comic strips, mock character speeches, and comparing themes to current events.

    2. Connection to Real Life - I recently nominated four of my students to become Read 180 All Stars. The nomination packet required them to share some of the reasons why they liked Read 180. Three of them mentioned how the curriculum was concerned with real life. Indeed, the Read 180 core text focuses on subjects like juvenile crime punishment, racism, offensive music, and financial management.

    I noticed a similar trend with my college-prep sophomore class. I discovered that even when the task was more challenging, my students experienced a higher level of engagement, and consequently success, when I used articles from to generate interest. Most recently, I used an article about a teen who was arrested in a Walmart racial incident to get students to think critically about one of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    3. Strategic Seating - One of the best ways to keep students engaged is to use other students! Take kids who normally finish tasks early and sit them next to shy students who might need a little extra help. This way, you keep the over achievers from becoming a classroom management issue and you've given your shy students another resource. Also, give positive reinforcement to your student helper by acknowledging his contribution. This will create empowerment and a sense of ownership for that particular lesson.

    4. Notice the Small Things - Remember that positive reinforcement is a tool to get students to do what you want. This means that you should praise students for improvement and not perfection. One commenter from a previous post called it "catching people doing things right." You can do this simply by observing any behavior that you want your students to exhibit. For instance, when I see a student proofreading and editing a written response, I might comment, "I like how __________ is taking the time to edit his response to make sure that he does not have any errors. Outstanding job." Within the next few minutes I can expect to see a good amount of my kids erasing and rewriting their responses. 

    As class sizes get bigger and pacing plans become more rigorous, it's going to be a challenge to keep our kids from settling to be passive observers. What are some ways that you keep your kids engaged?

    Warm regards,

    Justin Lim

    Rosemead High School

    El Monte Union High School District


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