Better Class Participation?

Today’s post comes from a recent email from a member of our community (used with permission); also, there’s a video version of my answer at the end of the post if you prefer to listen rather than read.

Thanks for your great videos and materials. I implemented your essay codes this year and am very happy with the results! I was wondering if any of your videos cover class participation? I’m constantly running into the issue of trying to motivate all kids to participate rather than just the usual suspects.
Thanks again,

Thanks so much for checking in with me, Ryan. Oh, if only I could crack the code of 100 percent engagement. Even after 20 years and trying every technique I can find, I still have The Floater, the kid who’ll participate only when directly called on and, even then, only with minimal energy or enthusiasm. I’ve decided some kids are just observers – or “bumps on a log” on days I’m feeling less generous. Maybe, I think sometimes, those kids will be future cubicle workers, quietly clocking in and out everyday without ever finding passion in work. Sad, right? Even with 20Time (the ultimate in self-directed learning), there are always a handful of kids who just go through the motions.

Does this mean we stop trying to hook those kids? Of course not. But it is a truth that we can’t light everyone’s fire. Maybe, Ryan, you’ll find comfort in Jack Canfield’s classic maxim, “SWSWSWSW – Some will. Some won’t. So what. Someone’s waiting.” It helps me, anyway.

Happily, those “some won’t” kids are rare, not more than two percent of all the kids I know. Most want to play and laugh and work hard – once they know we’re on their side. So how do we win the 98 percent? Here are some ideas:

• Engaging curriculum – Are we teaching skills that are relevant to their lives? Are they disengaged because the material is…well…boring? Think of our own time in professional development classes. I’ve endured plenty of presenters who made me want to push a pencil through my skull because the material had no direct effect on my actual work in the classroom. The best one ever, though, was led by Duane Habecker, a middle school math teacher at Pleasanton Unified School District who introduced my cohort to flipped lessons, gave a quick overview of the basic tools, and then set us loose to build videos for all of our different disciplines. I was inspired and equipped to make something that held real personal value. As you know from your own time as a student, engagement almost always is connected to relevancy, so let’s find ways to increase that for our kids.

• Variety – Are we mixing up our approach? I start with bellringers (see last week’s video), but the bulk of the daily lesson will vary widely in terms of structure. On Monday, we’ll use a think-pair-share that leads to a full-class debate. Tuesday is built around stations. Wednesday is a video creation challenge. Thursday is a classic sage-on-the-stage lecture and solo writing activity. Friday is Quarter Trio games and SSR. If you’re looking for fresh ways to present content that’s starting to feel stale, click here for a list of 10 ways I try to combat study question fatigue.

• Menu of options – Are students regularly given a choice about how they demonstrate mastery of material? Obviously, this can’t happen with every lesson, but a menu of options goes a long way toward getting kids excited about their work. For instance, let’s say the class is reading The Catcher in the Rye and you want to focus on CCSS RL.11-12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. You could offer the following choices:

1. Create a Venn diagram of at least 20 pieces of teen slang from the late 1940s included in the novel and 20 pieces of today’s slang for the same objects/emotions. Then, students willl analyze three of the words in short paragraphs. What’s different about the tone of two different words from two different eras that mean the same thing? What creates that difference for the reader?

2. Write lyrics in Holden’s voice set to a popular song’s background music (you can find karaoke versions for most popular songs on YouTube) and perform the song for the teacher with a written copy of the lyrics so the teacher can follow along. The song doesn’t have to be performed in front of the whole class – yikes, that’d be a whole different level of scary for kids! After the performance, discuss some of the vocabulary choices with the teacher and explain how they impact the listener. How would a modern singer express the same idea?

3. Create a Quizlet or Kahoot game where players test their ability to match Holden’s slang with the actual modern-day meaning. Then, rewrite 10 sentences from the novel, changing an important word in each sentence. Finally, explain how the new sentences differ in tone and/or meaning from the original ones. Students could write this reflection in a paper or play the game with the class and then give a quick presentation on three of the rewritten sentences.

4. Write a diary entry describing your school day in the voice of Holden. Then, write the same content in your voice. Finally, write a paragraph analyzing the differences. How does the tone differ between the two pieces of writing? Which writer is friendlier? How can the reader tell?

5. Propose their own project. I always add this as my last option because students are a well of untapped creativity. Within reason, I try to find a way to say yes to every request.

• Fun factor –Are we having fun with our classes? When life started to feel like a drill-and-kill testing drag a few years ago, I launched a quarter-long in-class competition where I pit teams of three students against each other and keep a running tally of points on our class website. It’s called Quarter Trios and has brought fun, laughter, and a strong sense of community to my classroom. Plus, I get to unleash my inner game show host. I wrote about Quarter Trios here, including a list of 25 wacky challenges:

• Personal connection – Make every kid feel noticed. Find The Floater and talk to him. Pretty basic, right? On my prep period, I’ll visit the kid’s Spanish, history, whatever class and pull him out for just a few minutes. The kid is surprised to see me outside of our usual routine. Then, I explain that I’d love to see him participate more and wonder what he needs from class that he’s not getting. Usually, that’s all it takes. The kid realizes that I see him, care about him, and am working hard to make class meaningful. Ten minutes out of your prep period might be all it takes to flip a kid. For sure, it doesn’t always work or sometimes it works for a little while and then the kid slides back into his default setting of Indifferent Teenager. Still, it’s worth a small time investment to try, no?

Thanks, Ryan, for getting me to organize my thoughts on this topic. I even turned your questions into a video for my YouTube folks. WARNING: The video is just me saying everything you just read, but some folks know me only on YouTube and haven’t yet found the blog. Silly, I know. Feel free to skip this and save 16 minutes of your life.

I hope these ideas help us reach more of the 98 percent. If anyone out there knows how to grab 100 percent of kids 100 percent of the time, good grief, send along that magical secret and I’ll fill out your application for National Teacher of the Year.

Any other tips or ideas to help Ryan and, really, all of us? Drop those knowledge nuggets below in the “Leave a reply” box. Teach on, everyone!

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5 years ago

I think a really important quality to cultivate in class is the habit of *curiosity*. I don’t know exactly how to do this, but any time I can ask a question to raise curiosity and attach it to something else (making a connection) the better. I’m trying to figure out how to approach this in the fall. My significant challenge is that I teach ESL so I do a lot of direct instruction.

Marc M
Marc M
5 years ago

I am so happy that I found your blog, Laura! About three weeks ago, I started researching different educational blogs as part of an assignment for my “Technology & Science of Learning” graduate course at Johns Hopkins. Perusing many blogs related to pedagogical strategies and educational technology use, I found many dormant blogs that seemingly had a burst of activity over the course of several months or a year but lacked consistent postings. Your blog is so refreshing because it has engaged and active readers with lots of activity AND your topics are extremely relevant to me as a high school English teacher (who has been teaching for 20 years and now looking for ways to innovate and invigorate my classes with technology).

Such great ideas on this post related to finding ways to engage every student. Certainly will be sharing these with my colleagues who need to remember ways to incorporate fun factors and also provide a menu of options so that they don’t get stuck in the same routine day after day.

I look forward to reading more posts here,

Lara Dieckmann
Lara Dieckmann
5 years ago

This has something to do with class participation and a bit to do with management, but it always helps me to engage a kid with a job that fits his or her personality. I’m thinking of a kid–let’s call her Ellie. She always finished her work early, and the enrichment activity I had planned.I’d like to say I appreciated her alacrity, but frankly, she bugged me. When she was done with her work, she talked to others and bragged that she had finished her work. It was bad for morale. Instead of gritting my teeth any longer, I asked her to help me with a daunting project: dusting and reorganizing my classroom library, and when others finished early, they asked ME if they could help Ellie–by all means! It took them weeks. I ended up with a gleaming, fabulous looking library (though I had to help them with alphabetizing), they were engaged with a project after their work that helped our community, they came across books they became interested in reading, they talked about books while they were working on it, and best of all, I genuinely appreciated Ellie’s leadership, so our relationship was strengthened. This isn’t exactly on classroom participation, but I think it captures the spirit of your post. I hope it helps Ryan and others who are trying to think about how to engage all learners…Lara

Kristi Moore
Kristi Moore
5 years ago

Thanks so much for this post! Some great reminders and wise words!

Kendall Childs
Kendall Childs
5 years ago

Hi Laura . . . one of the ways I have engaged students who are shy or have an IEP is to give them a heads up the day before a lesson that I am going to call on them in class and I tell then what I am going to ask so they can prepare their answers. I got this from a PD that had a lot of good ideas. You can also do this before class when you are reviewing homework. I know that ” wait time” can be a challenge in class but it is important; however, if the student knows they are going to be called to give an answer and can prepare before hand it cuts down on the “wait time”. One last thing, I use my class list to keep track of the students who have already answered questions and who hasn’t so I can call on students who haven’t answered. I hope you are having a good summer and looking forward to your next video.

Megan Jones-Schiebel
Megan Jones-Schiebel
5 years ago

Hi, Laura!
One thing that I do in my classroom is that I have an over-arching, top-of-the-mountain goal for all of my students for the year. It might be something like, “Our goal is to become strong readers and precise writers.” That’s just an example. Anyway, I post this goal at the beginning of the year. Every time we launch into a lesson, I incorporate how the work that we are doing now – together – puts us closer to the goal. I feel that when students know that there is a direction for our work and that I’m not going to abandon them to puzzle through a tricky piece of material on their own, they are much more invested. When they are more invested in my class, they are more engaged. It’s not a perfect system, but I encourage kids to ask about a topic’s relevance in class when they find themselves wondering why we are focusing on lesson A (or B or C). When students feel as though they are part of a process instead of passive on-lookers, their engagement and participation take on a new look. The “why” of what we do isn’t a secret to us, and it shouldn’t be a secret to them.

Laura Randazzo
5 years ago

Thanks, everyone, for sharing all of these great ideas! I’m so excited that our community is getting more vocal. There’s real value in today’s comments section, for sure. Sorry I was offline for most of today and am just now getting to enjoy all of these ideas. If y’all keep reading, watching, and commenting, I’ll keep posting. 😉 Keep the comments comin’, everyone! 🙂

Sylvia Hooks
Sylvia Hooks
5 years ago

Laura, I own almost everything you have created! You are the number one teacher to me. I would love to be a teacher like you so I have been using your work. My kids are more engaged and interested. I loved this video because it inspired me to be more creative in assignments. I have an idea for you! Why don’t you do what you did in this video with all the standards and give us five examples of assignments for each so we can inspire and engage our kids like you! Sarah Wesson used to be my favorite teacher from the teaching channel, but you have surpassed her to me. Her job makes her well-known and her intelligence in the classroom makes her inspirational, but your passion and your compassion for other teachers make you the greatest! Thank you for so much help in the past. I have two more years to retirement. You have made my life easier for the past 6 years. Sylvia

Laura Randazzo
5 years ago
Reply to  Sylvia Hooks

You are too kind, Sylvia. I love the idea of fleshing out multiple strategies to use for each of the standards, but – my goodness! – it might take me a lifetime to finish such a video series; there are SO MANY entries in the CCSS. As for Sarah Wesson, I’m excited to look her up and enjoy her Teaching Channel ideas. With so many years and experiences under your belt, maybe YOU should start a channel, too, Sylvia. I’m certain you have plenty of wisdom to share and YOU could be the next to join the online cohort of teachers working hard to help the next generation of teachers find their footing. 🙂

1 year ago

Nice post and thanx for providing such details. Thank you for sharing.

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