Kids Will Be Kids: 8 Easy Strategies for Engaging Students

As an educator, speaker and blogger, people send me articles on a wide range of education topics. My husband’s grandmother sends me articles in the mail, my father-in-law forwards interesting NPR segments via email, and my neighbor down the street leaves newspaper clippings in my mailbox.  Last week when I met up with my parents in Avignon, France for a shared holiday Mom mom presented me with an article titled “The Drugging of the American Boy,” published by Esquire Magazine in April.

Not only do I teach teenage boys ranging from 14 to 16, but I also have a 5 year old son, so the topic was relevant to me as both an educator and parent. The article begins with the shocking statement that “if you have a son, you have a one-in-seven chance that he has been diagnosed with ADHD.” The article documents the dramatic increase in both the number of children being both diagnosed with and given prescription drugs to treat ADHD. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “released data revealing that 11 percent of American schoolchildren had been diagnosed with ADHD, which amounts to 6.4 million children between the ages of four and seventeen.”

As I read the article, which questions the causes of the 42% increase in ADHD diagnosis since 2003, I could not help but think about the traditional classroom setting and how “unnatural” it is for young children, particularly those who are high energy, to sit for long periods of time.

My own son transitions from his Montessori preschool to kindergarten this year. I am both excited and nervous for him. At his preschool, he is given the freedom to decide which “work” he will do in the classroom, and the kids are taken outside several times each day to play. He is often running hot laps in the yard with other little boys when I arrive to pick him up.

My son is active, energetic, and curious. These should all be wonderful qualities that are celebrated. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Too often teachers are working in overcrowded classrooms that don’t allow for much movement. Many teachers are also forced to teach without the necessary supplies to stimulate, engage, and challenge students. I face these same obstacles in my own classroom, which does not lend itself to movement or exploration.

For the last four years, I’ve focused on creating a student-centered classroom. I’ve tried hard to create a space that facilitates conversation, collaboration and creation. This is not easy to do with with fairly traditional desks and classes of 30+ students, yet I make it a point to get kids moving around the room during our 90 minute block period. There are several strategies I use to do this. I wanted to share them with other teachers who, like me, work in traditional settings but want to provide students with more opportunities to engage with their peers to enhance learning.

1. Four Corner Conversations

Every day I break students up into four discussion groups. I call it four corner conversations since each group sits in a circle in one of the four corners of our classroom to discuss the previous night’s reading or online discussion. As you can see in the picture below, there isn’t a ton of room, but we make it work. The conversations get students out of their chairs and are more intimate giving everyone a chance to share their ideas.

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 11.23.52 AM

2. Tea Party

I have no idea where this name came from as there is no tea served, but the idea is a fun one. Give every student a quote on a related topic. For example, during Fahrenheit 451 the quotes relate to conformity and nonconformity. When we read Lord of the Flies, the quotes are all about human nature. The students have to read their quote to as many classmates as they can in 5 minutes. Then we have a follow up conversation as a class about the quotes they found most interesting and powerful. Just the act of standing up and moving around makes this activity fun for students.

Screen Shot 2012-11-19 at 11.23.31 AM

 

3. Learn by Doing or Building

I wrote a blog about incorporating elements of the Maker Movement into my English class this year. For example, instead of telling my students everything I know about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, I had them do research and build a replica of the Globe Theatre. It was incredible to watch them face challenges, problem solve, and create. Kids are incredibly creative if we give them time and space.

photo 3

4. Visit a Computer Lab

My school only has 2 computer labs for a campus of 1750 students, but I reserve a lab as often as possible so students can learn in a different setting. Since I have no actual technology in my classroom, save my students’ devices, I use these times in the lab to do synchronous editing or allow them to work in real time collaborating on projects using a range of web tools and Google apps.

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5. Crowdsource Instead of Lecturing

It’s not fun for students to sit still, listen and take notes for a prolonged period of time. I’ve tried to replace some direct instruction with crowdsourcing. Instead of telling students about Shakespeare’s sonnets or life during the Great Depression, I allow them to work in groups with their devices to research information and share it with the class. The energy in the room is so different when students are asked to generate the information!

Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 10.10.58 AM

6. Go Outside

Throughout the year, I ask students to go outside. I’ll ask them to go to the quad and leave me a voice message (using my Google Voice number) about their four corner conversations. When we are reading a Shakespeare play, they rehearse their lines outside before they perform in the classroom. Simply going outside gives them more room to move around and more space to make noise (away from other classrooms, of course).

Google Voice message17. Lights, Camera, Action!

Get students performing. Yes, teenagers can be shy, but they also have a flare for drama. Tapping into that can be thoroughly entertaining. During our Othello unit, my students don’t read Shakespeare’s play, they perform it! If you are thinking…but I teach science or history or math, how can I do this? If you teach science or math, have students create their own YouTube channels featuring cool demonstrations and funny commentary on science or math modeled after Veritasium, Vi Hart or Vsauce. If you teach history, have students perform and record reenactments or create short History.com style documentaries.

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 11.56.50 AM

Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

8. Storytime

Every week I ask students to sit on the floor for a children’s story. At first they think I am crazy, but they love this routine. Regardless of the subject you teach, there are awesome picture books on a related topic. I’d make time to read to your students.

Screen shot 2013-07-16 at 2.25.37 PM

My efforts to encourage movement, conversation and collaboration have been incredibly rewarding. I don’t have classroom management issues and my students often comment on how quickly our 90 minute period flies by. I wonder…if more classrooms encouraged movement and embraced the chaos involved in creativity, would the number students being diagnosed with ADHD be so high?

Kids will be kids. I believe we will get more from our students if we remember that many of our students need to move to learn. If we want to cultivated excited life long learners, we need to create an environment that sparks curiosity and fosters creativity.

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22 Responses to Kids Will Be Kids: 8 Easy Strategies for Engaging Students

  1. Vanessa Martin says:

    Awesome tips. Sad news about our boys though.

    • Agreed. As a parent, I plan to be hyperaware of this diagnosis. As a teacher, I plan to do my best to make learning an engaging and interactive experience.

      Catlin

  2. Christie Hammons says:

    Thanks for the great ideas! I’m curious about the children’s stories you use. I am looking for some ideas to get started myself. I always loved it when my teachers/professors would use children’s books in the classroom, but I’m not sure where to start. Any recommendations?

    • Hi Christie,

      To be honest, I raided my own children’s book collection. I’ve read most of the classics (The Giving Tree), tons of Dr. Seuss, and some newer books that I’ve fallen in love with as a parent (Odd Velvet, The Sandwich Swap, Tango Makes Three, The Dot, The Frank Show, and I Need My Monster). I’ve invited students to bring in their favorite books from childhood, and I’ve read those too. My objective with storytime is to remind my students of a time when they enjoyed reading (since many proclaim not to enjoy reading). There are also books that have great historical references in them which are fun to read.

      Good luck! Here is a link to NEA’s teachers top 100 books for children.

      Catlin

  3. Joddie McClain says:

    I am very interested in this article! I love the idea of four corners and even Crowdsourcing for possibly an end of a lesson review for Math. Instead of students taking a quiz maybe each student could contribute to a KWL of the lesson and standard learned.

    Thoughts?

    • Absolutely! Finishing up with small group discussions is a great way to cement learning. Then maybe they could crowdsource their final thoughts. Socrative also has “exit tickets” which could also be a fun way to end your class and engage students in a quick reflection of the lesson and what they learned.

      Catlin

  4. Karen says:

    Love your ideas, I teach upper elementary, and always have my students moving and talking (it makes for a very positive classroom). I am glad to see your use of picture books, teens are never too old. Favs I will try: Four Corner Conversations and Tea Party.

  5. Pingback: Kids Will Be Kids: 8 Easy Strategies for Engaging Students | Catlin Tucker, Honors English Teacher | Have Fun Learning English

  6. Jess Kaufmann says:

    Great article! I think suggestions like these can be useful in training settings for adults, too.

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  8. robin says:

    I agree with all of this!! If your room has movement, novelty, and joy, while tackling challenging topics, kids will be engaged & more involved in their learning. I teach 7th grade math & I periodically post 10-15 math problems around the room for them to walk around & solve in partners or small groups. They never complain about doing the work & I love hearing them share their problem solving strategies with each other. I can’t sit for very long myself & try not to force them to either.

    • Hi Robin,

      I think it’s wonderful that you get your 7th grade math students on their feet. I bet their conversations are fantastic! I’m always amazed by my students insights and questions when I am observing their interactions with their peers. Math offers so many opportunities for experimentation and building. Have you explored http://www.YummyMath.com? It has some great real world exercises. You could even print them out and post them around your room for students to engage with.

      Thank you for your comment!
      Catlin

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  10. Great read. Thanks for sharing. I love #8 (storytelling). This method probably takes them back to the days of laying in bed at night while mom or dad read them a story. They probably love it for that reason (as much as they wouldn’t admit it.

    You may find this article interesting if you haven’t already seen it (Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD) – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/suffer-the-children/201203/why-french-kids-dont-have-adhd

  11. Pingback: Engagement in the Classroom | The Study Helper

  12. kiina says:

    Absolutely LOVED this article! I can’t wait to try Four Corners, Crowdsourcing, Lights, Camera, Action!, Learn my Doing and Storytime for sure (we have a class set of Chromebooks so I will be incorporating ideas from your article “8 Easy Strategies for Keeping Parents Involved”). My 13 year old son would love your class:) Thank you for what you do!

    • Thank you for the comment, Kiina.

      I hope these strategies are as helpful for you as they have been for me. I’m jealous you have a class set of Chromebooks to work with! I use my students devices, but I definitely fantasize about how nice it would be to have a class set of Chromebooks since we do so much with Google apps.

      Take care.
      Catlin

  13. Angela Funk says:

    I love the idea of using Children’s stories to teach events/key people in history.
    I often have my students write children’s story books about events/topics in history, which they share with each other as well as younger kids.

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  15. I completely agree with letting kids move around as much as possible. I use many of the ideas listed in this post and also do Scavenger Hunts where the kids have a list of questions and I put books / articles around the room and they have to move from place to place to read up and find the answers.

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