How to Engage Students in School

I recently read about the Sequoyah Shool in Pasadena, California, where engaging students is the school’s primary concern.

Engaging students through curiosity
By Josh Brody
director, Sequoyah School, Pasadena, CA
from Pasadena Star News

I recently sat in on a parent-teacher conference led by a 6-year-old student. She was presenting her tree notebook.

She eagerly turned the page to a map of her school, pointed to a spot on the page and said, “Here is the patio, and there is the pepper tree, and that’s my favorite. The ash tree is over here by day care and it has lost all of its leaves. The tree by the library has leaves that look like fans, it’s a gingko tree, but the one at the park has bigger fan leaves.”

She turned to another page titled “Ash Tree.” The page contained a pressed leaf, a photograph, a bark rubbing, and the definition of the word “deciduous” was written in the corner. That page was one of seven similar pages about trees that were highlighted on her campus map.

While education reform over the last decade has focused on accountability and test scores, we may be overlooking one of the most critical aspects of learning: student engagement.

After years of curriculum, policies and incentives geared to raise test scores that narrowly measure and, indeed, define student achievement, we still have too many students in our schools bored, disengaged and dropping out.

In fact, less than half of the students in Los Angeles public schools who begin high school will graduate after four years.

There are many factors that lead to such an unacceptably high dropout rate, but one that is seldom discussed is whether or not students find school meaningful.

We must ask ourselves the question: How can we better engage students in school?
The example above does not illustrate the accomplishment and engagement of an exceptional, supercharged student. Rather, it shows what genuine curiosity can do for any child when it comes to seeking and retaining knowledge.

More importantly, it shows the type of experience and level of engagement all students can and should have, if we are willing to explore methods beyond those more routinely used in classroom instruction.

The next section of the student’s book was titled “leaf rubbings.” She pointed to a rubbing of a Russian mulberry leaf and informed her parents, “This came from the tree we planted last year. Look, you can see the veins and the rib.”

She turned past photographs of trees at a local park to a letter addressed to her class from the office of the city park supervisor. She told her parents, “We tried to figure out how many different trees there were at the park. We weren’t sure so we had to ask the park supervisor. See, he said there were twenty-eight different kinds of trees at the park! He says there are 101 trees all together, but we haven’t counted them yet.”

One way that teachers have found to successfully engage students in school is by using the campus and the surrounding community as the context for teaching and learning.

This approach to education is called place-based education. Here at Sequoyah School, a teacher took advantage of the student’s natural curiosity about her surroundings to explore a particular topic.

In studying trees on campus and in the neighborhood, students had opportunities to apply knowledge and terms they had learned about trees, watch trees over time and observe the cycle of change, and compose maps and surveys of local trees.

They collected and pressed leaves for art projects, practiced speaking Spanish by talking about the colors of the leaves, and wrote creatively by telling stories from the trees’ perspectives.

After spending months learning about local trees, students took on the task of watering some of the school and nearby community garden fruit trees. According to the students, the young fruit trees need five gallons of water per week, one gallon per day, or, if you have a partner, they explain that you each pour half a gallon.

Since John Dewey, educators have made the case that learning that takes place in school is meaningless unless it connects to other parts of students’ lives.

Given the alarmingly high number of students who continue to drop out before graduating high school, students are sending a clear message that, indeed, schools are not meaningful to their lives.

It is time to move away from teaching and learning driven by curricula preparing students to succeed on standardized exams but failing when it comes to engaging students’ creativity and curiosity.

It is time to move toward more place-based and project-based learning that builds knowledge by taking advantage of children’s natural curiosity about and love for the world around them.

29 thoughts on “How to Engage Students in School

  1. “While education reform over the last decade has focused on accountability and test scores, we may be overlooking one of the most critical aspects of learning: student engagement.”

    Hey, who let a sane person in? But…we MAY be overlooking? Doesn’t this concept go without saying?

    When I was a child, we didn’t “overlook student engagement.” So deciding student engagement is key to learning and involvement is nothing new. It’s as seminal as apple pie. Just why did we ever decide to abandon something so central, so endemic to learning? It’s like saying your sushi will sell better if people like it. No kidding.

    But…what goes without saying needs to be said. Repeatedly it seems. Lest we forget. Which apparently we did.


  2. Hear, hear!

    I am stunned at the beginning of every school year at how negatively schools treat students with their lists of rules and regulations and contracts. They lose the students from day one, and that’s before they even get to the dull, repetitive and often irrelevant curriculum.

    Do teachers and administrators not take developmental psychology classes in college? Do they not have kids themselves?

    I know teachers can’t always control *what* they teach, but they can sure control *how* they teach it (and how they interact with kids) and I find the majority of them simply do a horrible job with it.

    I advocate a year-end student and parent review of teachers that should affect raises and continuance of employment. Yes, teaching shouldn’t necessarily be a popularity contest, but if your students actively dislike you they will never be able to learn from you.


  3. My daughter has done projects similar to the tree study the child in this piece did. She’s about to embark on the study of cherry trees as a matter of fact because they’re studying plants right now. She’s interested because she was able to start her own cherry tree from a pit she spit out last summer. The engagement is there for sure and it makes a difference.
    A few weeks ago they were studying the immune system and “the research” she did on that topic was just a lot of big words that meant nothing. When she read the passage she wrote I asked her what any of it meant and she had no clue. No engagement.
    So while I know that not everything can be outstanding and earth shatteringly interesting all the time, I don’t think the time spent on the immune system was time well spent. It’s a bit esoteric for 28 year olds to study let alone 8 year olds. But it sounds impressive if your kid can read something about killer T cells. And that often time happens with these projects. The kid rehearses big words but a week later can’t tell you a thing about what they supposedly learned.
    I’d like to see that cherry seedling get planted at school somewhere and see if they can keep it growing. Now that would be interesting.


  4. Matthew says:

    I advo­cate a year-end stu­dent and par­ent review of teach­ers

    Right. I’m tired of these one-sided judgements and evaluations. I’m tired of grades, rubrics, and conferences. How about some actual dialogue? And the defensive response I get in reply to a complaining e-mail doesn’t count.


  5. I think I’ll suggest it to our Board…some sort of teacher evaluation by parents and students. I’ll let you know how it goes.


  6. I just got another tiresome email from Education Week.I didn’t bother opening it but the headline said something about what you can do to boost student performance.

    Enough already with student performance. We don’t need boosters. How about what we parents can do to boost teacher performance?


  7. Chiming in from the point of view of a public school teacher…

    The idea that we have control over how we teach is not accurate in many (most?) cases. I am lucky to work in a building with an open minded principal. Her attitude is that we are free to deviate from the district curriculum and do whatever we need to do that is in the best interest of the students to produce results. Not all are so fortunate. Less than a mile from my school is one that is very different. Their administration has said, “When we walk through your classroom you are to be doing an activity that is specified in the district curriculum.” The teachers in that building have no freedom to modify lessons.

    In the end, if we want things to change the government adminstered standardized test system must go away. As long as students, teachers, principals, schools, and districts are being evaluated on the basis of these tests we will do what is necessary to produce the results. It is no different from any other job. If one is hired for a job and told they will be evaluated by criteria X, Y, and Z, I promise the person will make sure X, Y, and Z look good.


  8. Jason, I hear your frustration. And I agree that we must all fight to eradicate this desiccated dry dreary way of teaching. It is urgent that we demand our schools back because we do not want to send our kids to a giant test prep factory every day.

    I can’t help wondering, though.Why have teachers not been more outspoken? C’mon, it’s been years now, we’ve had NCLB under our belts for some time now. Do something already! Understanding that there’s risk, why not sign petitions anonymously? What is your union leader doing to help you? Whenever I read or hear Randi Weingarten, she sounds like more of the problem, not the solution.

    I’m sorry to sound a bit rough around the edges. I’m just a little tired of this, I’ve been around the bend too much. I know there are good teachers. You certainly seem like one of them, Jason.

    But it’s our children. It’s their lives, their passion, their hopes, their dreams, their creativity. Teachers protect their jobs, parents are too timid to speak up, principals and superintendents are obsessed with numbers. Everyone’s covering their ass (pardon the French). Who speaks for the children? Because at the end of the day, our children need an education, not an excuse.


  9. “As long as students, teachers, principals, schools, and districts are being evaluated on the basis of these tests we will do what is necessary to produce the results. ”

    Jason, understood. But I ask you. What happens to the kid who aces these tests from day one? I’m working with you here, I understand your hands are tied.

    So, for example, what if you’re teaching a “mixed ability grouping” class (whatever that is)? One kid is highly gifted. The tests are way too easy for her. She can nail those results in her sleep. The child sitting next to her is struggling. Which child is going to get your attention?

    Obviously, struggling students will demand more of a teacher’s time. That’s nothing new. But in this test-drenched culture, the gifted kid in your class is at great risk for receiving no education at all. The child sits in class, bored midnight blue and then comes to a stack of homework. The worst of both worlds, tons of work, zero educational value.

    In a situation like this, time and time again, the teacher resents the capable kid for being unable to plow through tedious work that is too easy (what professional adult would ever put up with meaningless labor?) and the teacher becomes hostile to that child.

    That’s the picture we have when testing and data drive everything. And from where I sit, it’s an awfully grim picture. And as teachers, as professionals, what are you all going to do to save your profession? Surely you talk about this amongst yourselves. Please share, we are eager to know your plans.

    “Who cares if the light goes out in their eyes so long as the numbers are good.” Anna Quindlen


  10. I understand the frustration of teachers who feel that they have to teach to the test, but I also understand the frustration of parents whose children’s teachers do have quite a bit of discretion in how they teach, and fail to exercise it. (I also agree that it would be great if teachers could join with parents in being more vocal about these issues.)

    I had a meeting this morning with my daughters’ teacher about projects–not project-based learning like what is described in the original post above–but run-of-the-mill, excessive, pedagogically dubious projects. The teacher listened politely, but then said she had to cover the curriculum, and it was either projects or having the kids copy information from the board. I suggested that there might be other ways to make the material interesting in class (that’s her job! but I didn’t say that), but she didn’t really respond. In the end she agreed to a few compromises for my daughters, but without conceding a whole lot vis a vis the bigger homework/project picture.

    Oh well, the fight continues. . .


  11. Forgive the grim gallows humor here, but it sounds like, would you rather be hacked to death or killed with a single bullet? Gee, lovely choices here! This is the best teachers can come up with? Do silly useless projects of dubious educational value or copy from the board?

    Don’t get me started on “copying from the board.” Why do I want to send my daughter to school to copy from the board when she could stay home, read a book and learn more?I pulled my daughter out of 8th grade GT Center class when I heard, the summer before, that the science teacher wasted all period making the kids copy from an overhead and then sent everything he should have taught home.

    A mother here recently argued that homework is practice for what was done at school. No, homework is shaping up to be all the stuff that should have been done at school but was not. As I said before, a dumping ground for all the detritus of school.

    I agree with northTOmom. I’m losing patience with teachers, if I haven’t lost it years ago. The other day, my daughter left a Buzz chat window open. I peeked at a classmate’s comment: “Dear Teachers: Please teach. Your student, Chris.”


  12. HomeworkBlues: I love your gallows humour. Thanks for making me laugh–it needed it today! There’s been a lot of buzz among parents in my daughters’ class about my somewhat heated meeting with the teacher this morning. I wish at least one of them had agreed to come with me; instead my husband came, and although I obviously appreciated his support, he was much more blunt with the teacher than I was. Whether that was a good thing or not, remains to be seen. (I was making the same points but trying to be diplomatic.)

    As for copying from the board, I think this teacher was subtly comparing herself to last year’s French Immersion teacher, who seemed to think she was a university lecturer; she had the kids take copious notes, so much so that one of my daughters developed severe eyestrain. I think the current teacher pats herself on the back for giving projects instead. But of course you’re right, what a ridiculous choice (and this at a top-rated school in a highly regarded immersion program!).


  13. You got to it before I could. I was going to make a joke, northTOmom, about advising you not to let them dehumanize you. You’re not an IT!


  14. Jason, I think you missed my point on what I was saying about the “how” of teaching because your post really focused on “what.”

    I see so many teachers (in middle school and upper elementary school…we haven’t started high school yet) who talk down to students and sometimes are simply obnoxious. No adult would tolerate being treated the way students are in our schools and it isn’t conducive to learning.

    I also agree with the other posters that it is time for teachers to either speak up or stop blaming others. They have a union and it is time to use it for change and not just protecting the jobs of the bad teachers.


  15. ****
    I was mak­ing the same points but try­ing to be diplomatic.

    @NorthTOMom, if the teacher doesn’t pay attention, don’t start blaming yourself (or dh) for not being diplomatic enough. In my experience, the culture of the school is such that parents get listened to, or it isn’t. Teachers like to say that they don’t listen to parents because they’re so obnoxious, but that’s just an excuse. They don’t want to listen to parents, because they want to be in control.

    Of course, I’m not encouraging anyone to go in and start cursing or calling names. But if teachers want to be treated like professionals, they should be able to respond to straightforward complaints.

    As I’ve posted before, if your doctor prescribes medicine and it doesn’t work, you don’t have to be careful to be “diplomatic”. You just go to the doctor and say, “the medicine you prescribed didn’t work.”

    If you go to the teacher and say, “the homework load is stressing my kid out and not helping her learn”, she shouldn’t be allowed to blow you off on the grounds that you didn’t bow and scrape enough.


  16. FedUpMom: You’re right of course. I’m still working on trying to be assertive enough with teachers to achieve what I’m hoping to achieve, without being rude. Honestly, if I pussy-footed around a little in yesterday’s meeting, and tried, perhaps too hard, to be diplomatic, it’s only because my daughters themselves were mortified that I was even speaking to the teacher, whom they actually like, and I was fearful of jeopardizing their relationship with her. If it weren’t for that fear, I would probably have been as blunt as my husband. (In normal circumstances I’m not afraid to speak my mind.)

    In general, I think that’s why so many parents grumble amongst themselves but don’t say anything to teachers about homework and other issues. The teachers have our kids for so much of the day–if they don’t like a parent and they take it out on the kid (even unconsciously) they can do a lot of subtle psychological harm over the course of a year. But I think we have to resist giving into that fear. In the end, the daughter who was most opposed to my going in to see the teacher left me a very sweet note (on a small whiteboard that we keep, strangely enough, in the bathroom) thanking me for “sticking up for what’s right.”


  17. northTOmom, that is exactly the fear that my wife expresses to me when I complain to teachers: that the teacher will somehow take it out on our child.

    My theory is this: hopefully the teacher is professional enough to separate the relationship with the student from that with the parent. If not, and retaliation does happen, then document it and that may be grounds for termination. Very little can get a teacher fired, but I suspect retaliation against a student is one of them.

    I have never run into a problem with it, though, and that is a good thing.

    As far as being assertive, remember it is your child that you are trying to prepare for adulthood and your tax dollars going to pay for it (assuming a public school). If the schools are failing to provide the service you expect, then you have every right to let the teachers, administration or your legislators (as appropriate for the problem) know about it.

    OK, now I need to start being nice for the rest of the day…too much pent up frustration!


  18. I actually think it’s unlikely that the teacher will retaliate against the child. As my husband says, “they wouldn’t dare!” You’ve put the teacher on notice that you’re keeping a close eye on the situation and you’re not afraid to speak up. If they’re smart, they’ll be careful how they treat your child.

    I think my daughter and I between us have developed a “good cop/bad cop” shtick. My daughter is very sweet and well-behaved. Her mother, not so much. I wouldn’t be surprised if the teachers say to each other “she’s such a nice girl — poor thing, her mother is so obnoxious!”, and that’s fine. The teachers don’t have to like me, they just have to do a good job with dd.


  19. I’ve gotten the benign smile back in response to issues I’ve brought up and the implication that the message is, “Well that’s nice of you to bring up, but I’m not changing what I’m doing in my classroom.” I’m always willing to be reasonable and fortunately there have not been major problems….but the teachers certainly wield the power when it comes to their students. It may be our children but it’s their students…and sometimes I think they forget that OUR children trump their students.


  20. Psych Mom, maybe pick it up a notch? You’re doing a great job advocating but I still believe if we are too nice, nothing changes.


  21. Thanks, Matthew, FedupMom and PsychMom. Just reading about your experiences and perspectives inspires me to continue speaking my mind when I think it’s necessary (which is often). And you’re right, most teachers are probably professional enough not to retaliate against a child, at least not in any overt way (but it’s the subtle ways that I worry about.)

    I did have a negative experience when my daughters were in grade 2. I confronted the teacher about how math was being taught (still a big problem for me) and other issues, and perhaps in that instance I was not diplomatic enough, but afterward the teacher’s attitude toward me changed, and I thought it subtly changed toward the girls too. This was a teacher who played favourites anyway, so it was hard to be sure. But one day, when I was scheduled to volunteer in the classroom, she told me she didn’t need help that day and to go home; I later found out that another mom who volunteered on the same day was allowed to stay. This actually upset my daughters, and at that point I did go to the Principal. The teacher later apologized to me, and things got better after that, but the whole experience left me a little wary of raising issues with teachers, and very mindful of how I phrase things, etc. Sorry to be so long-winded. . .


  22. I disagree that all teachers are professional enough to “not take it out on your child.” I have seen and heard too many instances of this happening. As adults who fund the teachers salaries, again, I ask, why are parents always walking on egg shells when it comes to communicating with their child’s teacher? Vindictive teachers are a problem that parents should not have to put up with. Somehow school has turned into reverse world where mothers kowtow to their child’s teacher. I’m wondering if this was true of our mother’s generation as well. I don’t think so. I think it ties into the intensive mothering norm of today.


  23. I have to agree with Disillusioned…it’s only human nature to react when seemingly provoked. Some teachers treat kids from the same family all with the same expectations. If the eldest was a good student, then the younger ones are expected to be A students too. If the eldest is a problem, the whole family casts a shadow in the teachers’ eyes. So if a parent is viewed as a “problem”, I have few doubts that the child of that parent is going to get negative attention. I’m not saying all teachers will behave this way, but some will.


  24. Disillusioned and PsychMom: I agree with both of you that it is not irrational to worry that there may be consequences for your child if the teacher perceives you as a “problem” parent. As I said above, I was almost certain that that did happen a couple of years ago with my daughters. But I guess I like to give teachers the benefit of the doubt–until they give me reason not to. And I’m trying not to let my fear of consequences prevent me from speaking out.

    Disillusioned mom: I’m curious as to what you meant by your comment “I think it ties into the inten­sive moth­er­ing norm of today.”


  25. I don’t think our mothers gave as much thought to school and teacher relations as we do today. It might just be the culture of our school but it seems as if mothers today are overly concerned with whether the teacher likes them and their children. In our mothers day, stay at home moms weren’t volunteering in the classroom and expected to partner with the teacher. You just sent your child to school and expected the school to educate your child. It just feels to me like we have gone backwards in regards to women living fulfilling, happy lives and an obsession over grades and being liked by the teachers doesn’t lead to happiness, self expression, or empowerment on the part of mothers.


  26. Matthew says:

    I advo­cate a year-end stu­dent and par­ent review of teach­ers

    Right. I’m tired of these one-sided judgements and evaluations. I’m tired of grades, rubrics, and conferences. How about some actual dialogue? And the defensive response I get in reply to a complaining e-mail doesn’t count.


  27. My God. You wouldn’t believe how relieved I am to see this discussion going on. I’ve been feeling so much frustration in the past year or two related to my kids’ education. And I can’t seem to find anyone, especially any teachers, who seems to care about it or who will discuss it with me.

    Let me tell you a story about engagement. When my son was in kindergarten, he initially had some behavior issues. He’s a bright kid and part of it was just testing the situation out. Anyway, I bought him a geode for Christmas. He loved it and wanted to take it in to school to show the other kids. I told him I didn’t know if the teacher would let him but I let him take it in to school. The first day, the teacher said if he was good all day, he could show it at the end of the day, but either he wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t time — he didn’t get to show it. The second day, still no time for it. The third day, again, no time. On the fourth day, I asked again if he had been able to show it and by then he had lost interest. Contrast that with what could have been — that he was allowed to get the geode out, show it around, they could have looked up on the computer to find out what geodes really are, how they’re formed, etc. Sad.

    I have two bright boys — my older son hated school until we finally sent him to private school for middle school. My younger son is so bored. He told me the other day, Mom, I really like my teacher, but everything she teaches, I already know. Now, when you complain that this is not right, you’re just seen as spoiled parents, wanting special treatment for your kid. They think, oh, the bright ones will be OK. Well, this is not OK with me. Every child should get an education that is appropriate to their ability and talents. I could go on and on.


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