Can You Whistle and Yawn at the Same Time?

Can You Whistle and Yawn at the Same Time?
Engaging students has always been a challenge, and in this day and age, it is more than ever. As educators, we are competing against a digital age in which students are growing up with social media and Internet algorithms that keep them clicking and offer immediate gratification with chemical shots of dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with our reward-motivated behavior) when their Instagram post gets another like. 

Online gaming feeds into the need for immediate gratification and visual engagement and has become a worldwide obsession with eSports offering young winning gamers the opportunity to take home millions of dollars. Other streaming services like Netflix and YouTube also play into our students’ immediate gratification. We’ve got to face it, long-term goal planning as an executive function just isn’t what it used to be with on-demand Internet gratification at our fingertips. To be honest, we as educators fall victim to this need for instant gratification as well.

So, wouldn’t you agree that the task of student engagement is almost as difficult as it is to whistle and yawn at the same time?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend some professional development (PD) on engagement and its impact on behavior. I was reminded that in nearly all cases, desired behaviors including academic outcomes are directly tied to your students’ levels of engagement in the classroom.

Yet, engaging students is no walk in the park. In fact, genuine student engagement is layered, making it more complex than finding the perfect “hook” for your new lesson topic.

The essential first layer and building block requires a genuine relationship with each of your students. They need to know that you care about them as people in and out of the classroom. I find it staggering that according to the PD session led by Susan Hentz, 56% of learners don’t believe that their teachers care about them as people. While upsetting, we should let this motivate us as educators to do better using the following exercise. 



First, let’s zero in on our relationships with our students and get real with ourselves, possibly pushing us beyond our comfort zones. Think about your students who are easy to get along with and easy to like. Next, picture the students who often push you to your limits. Can you name students that exist in the gray area in between, too? They are the ones that may have actually fallen off your radar because they quietly comply with requests and are getting decent grades. Finally, let’s map these thoughts on paper. 

Start as an individual, with your colleagues, or with your entire school’s staff. Put up pictures or names of all of your students on the wall and identify the students that you have positive relationships with using paper clips, stickers, or something of the like. Next, look closely at the students that don’t have any markers. Warning, this may be shocking. 

Now take some time to discuss and record the positives and strengths of these students on the wall. With your team (or by yourself if working alone) devise a plan to reach out and create a positive relationship with each of those students. Learn more about how to create meaningful, positive relationships with your students in this article from EdWeek.

Positive relationships with students can be supported in countless ways. Consider these strategies on your next school day:
  • greet your students at the door
  • ask them to share something they like about themselves
  • give them the time to talk, while you genuinely listen
  • attend their after school drama, sporting, extra-curricular events 
  • share good news about your students with their parents/guardians
  • set your students up for success and give them the credit
  • be genuine and avoid sarcasm when prompting on-task behavior
Once positive relationships are established or being built, you can focus on the second layer of engagement - ways to hook your students into the curriculum content:
  • Designing a year-long bulletin board that only requires changing the topic, and allowing students to share anonymously on Post-Its what they know or what they want to learn about the topic
  • Asking students to make and share predictions on a Padlet wall (or another backchannel) about what they will learn or what will happen when 
  • Connecting your content to use in their daily lives (i.e. - connect ratios & proportions to cooking)
  • Creating lessons that solve real community problems in or out of the school while tackling multiple standards at once; students want to make a difference!
  • Offering your students opportunities to respond approximately every 5 minutes. Think:
    • Thumbs up/down/sideways
    • Individual whiteboard responses
    • Head nods/shakes
    • Stand up/sit down
    • Think/pair/share 
  • Getting students moving and incorporating music into your lessons
  • Taking virtual field trips with Google Cardboard
While genuinely engaging students takes intentional design, effort, and creativity, it is worth it. Engaged students are more likely to have a positive perspective of their classroom experience and to feel like they belong because they know their educators care and are listening. They are more likely to persist, participate, and achieve. You, too, will experience the benefits in and out of your classroom.

Read more about the positive impact of student relationships from the American Psychological Association.

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Monday, 18 November 2019

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