Top 5 Ways to Drive Authentic Engagement in the Classroom

Today’s guest blogger here on Minds in Bloom is Gretchen Bridgers from Always a Lesson. She’s sharing her insight–gained from experience–on the top five ways to drive authentic engagement.

It's an innocent belief: Independent practice is authentic engagement. While that may be true, there are a many more ways to engage your students in the classroom. Our experienced guest blogger shares her top five ways to drive authentic engagement, and her tips will have you improving your instructional methods in no time.

It is no secret that when students are actively involved in their learning, not only does their motivation to succeed increase but also their level of content mastery increases.

When I first started teaching, I thought engagement meant giving students activities to complete so that they were physically involved in the lesson. Sadly, that portion of the lesson (now referred to as independent practice) is only a small piece of the whole lesson. I was missing out on numerous opportunities to engage my students because I didn’t understand what engagement really looked and sounded like.

Luckily, I did not negatively impact my students’ progress with my lack of knowledge on engagement. Have no fear: If you are like I was, you still have time to turn it around, too, and with no harm to your students!

Let’s refer to ‘engagement’ as:

The art of actively involving students in all parts of the lesson to drive ownership, accountability, and understanding.

As I mentioned before, educators must avoid the trap of only engaging students for one portion of a lesson. Thoroughly planning a lesson can ensure students have authentic opportunities throughout the lesson to engage with content and with each other. Be sure to think about both student and teacher actions for the following sections of your lesson:

  • Opener (i.e. Do Now, Bell Ringer, Starter, etc.)
  • Direct Instruction (i.e. I Do)
  • Guided Practice (i.e. We Do: I Do, You Help + You Do, I Help)
  • Independent Practice (i.e. You Do)
  • Closure (i.e. Exit Ticket, Discussion, Assessment)

To help get your brainstorming powers in motion, below are my top five ways to drive authentic engagement in the classroom while taking into account all sections of the lesson listed above.

5: Students as Classroom Leaders

During a lesson opening, one way many teachers get students more involved in the classroom is to enlist their help for daily duties, such as attendance taker, paper passer, materials organizer, homework checker, and numerous others.

One particular task for the opening of class that engages a student in a classroom role but also ties in content is to assign a daily objective tracker. This student will be in charge of announcing the lesson objective and tracking its progress throughout the lesson on the board. Teachers can break up the lesson objective into bite-sized chunks outlined in a check list form, and as students master parts of the lesson objective, this student reminds the class what they have been working on and checks it off as a sign of accomplishment before moving on to the next part of the lesson. This could look like:

Objective Before:

Students will be able to fluently add and subtract fractions with like denominators.

Objective After:

Students will be able to:

  • Identify fractions with like denominators
  • Fluently add the numerators in a fraction
  • Fluently subtract the numerators in a fraction
  • Fluently add and subtract fractions with like denominators

As students work through the guided and independent practice portions of the lesson, the checklist objectives are small, actionable steps they are working toward. In the list above, identification is a lower level skill but required before working up to interchangeably adding and subtracting fractions.

4: Students as Clarity Partners for Peers

Direct instruction is a time geared toward teacher delivery of content, often seen as a mini lesson. This part of the lesson is the most important to ensure students are engaged, because if their level of understanding is limited, then there is no reason to move on in the lesson. The only way to know the level of student understanding is to ask!

A variety of ways to engage students during direct instruction include:

  • Parroting: After explaining a concept, ask a handful of students of mixed ability levels to repeat key points verbatim. Now they have heard you say it, and they are saying it themselves. You can even incorporate a turn-and-talk where student pairs say it to each other. The foundation of understanding is to repeat the model before taking it to a deeper level of comprehension and analysis.
  • Paraphrasing: Take the parroting up a notch and ask students to explain the concept in their own words. Be sure to ask a handful of students of mixed ability levels so that you can get a true reading of level of mastery. You can also include a peer turn-and-talk, as long as you circulate and take anecdotal notes. Have those handful of students pre-picked, and be sure to walk by to hear their thoughts. Or you might do a combination of both and after the turn-and-talk, call on those handful of students of mixed ability levels to share. Now students have heard you explain the concept, formulated their own understanding of the concept, and shared it in their own terms.
  • Giving a Clue or an Example: While delivering new content, insert checkpoints, like asking a clarifying question, to ensure students are up to speed and thoroughly understanding before proceeding. Sometimes students cannot successfully answer your question. Before you take the reins, have students step in and help out. Instead of giving the answer, they can give a clue or give an example, pulling from visuals or explanations you provided in your instruction to trigger their peer’s memory.

3: Students as a Team

Guided practice is an extremely helpful time in a lesson to collect informal data on students’ level of mastery of new content. As mentioned earlier guided practice starts with the teacher showing examples and students helping but then transitions to students taking over the work and the teacher helping. This gradual release of responsibility allows teacher support to diminish as students get the hang of the new content.

One unique way to drive engagement here includes the teacher providing the answer and the student providing the rationale and/or process. This working backwards method takes the pressure off students to get the “right” answer and focuses more on the thinking and strategy behind the new content delivered in the lesson. Spending time having students demonstrate a variety of strategies to reach a conclusion or answer is time well spent!

2: Students as Instructional Models

Independent practice is a time for students to shine! They are now able to grapple with examples of the content in a variety of contexts to solidify their understanding and to increase their level of mastery.

One way to drive student engagement during this portion of the lesson is to have students model the practice activity. They can run through the directions or show step-by-step actions so students have a visual of what is required academically and behaviorally. Its encouraged that halfway through work time, have a group of students who are successfully completing the assignment come up to model or share their progress for the class. This peer showcase is powerful: Students are interested in watching their peers succeed, students have numerous pathways to complete the assignment in a creative outlet, and students are in the driver’s seat spending the most amount of time dealing with content instead of the teacher.

1: Students as Discussion Leaders

During the closure portion of the lesson, a discussion allows students one final opportunity to hash out their thoughts of the new content. This can be totally driven by students, since the majority of students have mastered the daily skill during independent practice.

Instead of facilitating the discussion, pass it off to students. Ahead of time prepare questions or question stems that review the key points of the newly learned content and allow students to ask and answer during the discussion segment. If you are using some sort of exit ticket, do that first and have the discussion afterwards; that way the exit ticket data reflects what students could do on their own without the influence of the discussion. Following up the mini assessment with a discussion allows any last minute confusing thoughts to be cleared up by peers without skewing the data.

Now that you are off to the races with ideas flowing out of your ears for how to actively and authentically engage your students throughout your entire lesson, I created a helpful lesson engagement organizer to ensure you consistently do just that!

Snag your FREEBIE here!

You are now empowered to motivate and engage your students all throughout instruction so that they can become more successful in reaching their potential!

What are ways you authentically engage your students in your classroom?


Always a LessonGretchen is a teacher trainer and educational consultant with a background as an elementary educator of a decade in both urban and suburban environments in Charlotte, NC. She holds a master’s degree in Curriculum and Supervision and earned her National Board Certification in 2012.

Always A Lesson is Gretchen’s educational blog where she shares her classroom experience with her audience. She has since taken this blog and turned it into a website, featuring webinars, educational resources, and a podcast that she refers to as her ‘audio blog.’ Hop on over to iTunes or Stitcher and subscribe to Always A Lesson’s Empowering Educators podcast to hear inspiring words every Monday morning on your commute to work or the gym.

If you are a new teacher, check out her first published book “Elementary EDUC 101: What They Didn’t Teach You in College” for tips on starting your first year off ahead of the game!

You can also connect with Gretchen on TpT, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google+.

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