“How do you engage students?”

Picture by Pablo Bogusho

Often in the presence of teachers the following question comes up…

”How do you engage students?”

I received that question again this week.

“How do you engage students?

I always have an answer, but it usually focuses on what kind of activities to do.  I try to share those “can’t miss” activities and the philosophy behind them.  This time I started thinking about why someone would ask that question.  What is the personal baggage behind the question?  Why isn’t doing certain things with kids obvious?  I thought back to the most fantasticly engaging activity I ever did.  I immediately shared it with another teacher who watched it fail miserably in their class.  I did the same activity the following year with mixed results. So it can’t be about the activity, the lesson plan, or the integration of technology.  What was different between the year I did it and it was incredible, the teacher who did it and had it fail, and the year I did it with mixed results?

I started jotting down some random thoughts while waiting for my daughter yesterday…and here they are 🙂

I think there is a dark side to the question “How do you engage your kids?”  The question is not about class activities, or what rubric or technology to use.  It is not about being student directed or how to implement Project Based Learning.  The real problem behind the question is hard for teachers to admit, so it comes out as “How do I engage my students?”

The real question is “Who are my students?”

I am finding more and more that teachers that engage kids know who their kids are.  They know where they went over the weekend, they know that their baby brother kept them up all night, they know what makes them laugh, and they know when they are afraid.  They know when they need a high-five,  they know when they need to back-off, and they know that sometimes kids get mad and snap at them but it’s ok, because teachers  sometimes snap too.

Teachers who engage their students know that they don’t like sitting in rows for 7 hours a day.

They know that the kids don’t want to hear you talk for more than a few minutes.

They know when they are bored.

They know that they should not be the one asking all of the questions.

They know that the kids don’t like to make things that are just going to be thrown out.

They know that kids are not motivated by grades to do things they previously thought were impossible.

They know that kids do like to take risks.  They just don’t like it when their risks are compared and judged by grades and others.

They know that they do want choices, but too many choices sometimes overwhelm them.

They know that they want to self-direct their learning, but they want to know someone will hold their hand when they take the first step on their own, and be there when they fall.

They know that kids want you to think that they are pretty cool, even when they are the biggest thorn in your side.

They want you to know that your class is not the most important think in their life.  It is their new puppy, the cute boy that they stare at during lunch, the bully that pushes them in the hallway, the news of their parents’ divorce, and sometimes, maybe just once-a-week if you are lucky, it is indigenous people who are living in the Amazon.

And teachers that engage kids know that kids do not want to be taught, they want to be moved.

How do you engage your kids?  Get to know them.  It is not up for YOU to engage THEM. You cannot make your kids drink your cool-aid.  It is up to you to provide the salt to make them thirsty.

How do you engage your kids?  Let them get to know themselves.  They have been probably spent years being told what to do, when to do it, what is acceptable, and what to do when something comes back unacceptable.  They don’t know who they are!  In a conversation with my kids after our first project that became crystal clear.  Every class brought up the fact that they have been powerless in their education.  They have been treated like students who need to be given everything, instead of learners who are capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for themselves.

How do you engage your kids?  1. Stop trying.  2. Sit and talk with them.  3. Make them a part of the learning process.  Let them figure out what the next engaging thing is that you will do.  4. Be who you want them to be, and stop telling them who you want them to be.  Learn alongside them.  Stop teaching and be the lead learner.  5. Repeat over and over again until you get the results you want because if you are asking the question and try this, the results the first time will probably look and feel like a terrible messy failure.  If it is not messy, then you need to repeat the process because you somehow got in the way again.  Expect chaos, orchestrate it, put parameters on it, put them in a box and make them kick their way out.  It is a giant misconception that kids need “out-of-the-box” thinking.  During their lives they will constantly be put into a box and need to figure their way out.  No one gets a job and is told do whatever you want.  People get a job and are told “solve this.”  Putting kids in a box increases their creativity and power–especially when you lead them to build it themselves.

How do you engage your kids?

Stop teaching.

Kids do not want to be taught, they want to be moved.

And you can only move them when you are connected to them.  Learn with them and eventually follow their lead.  Focus on making yourself useless.

How do you engage kids?

Be authentic.

Be vulnerable.

Be connected.



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