On the Right Track: A student engagement strategy!

A classroom where every student is hanging on your every word? Absolutely. Focused and learning every second? Without question. Even during whole group instruction? One hundred percent! Interested in what this level of student engagement looks and sounds like? Read on.

Students must be actively engaged for authentic learning to take place, and in a classroom where students track the teacher and each other, the level of student engagement is exceptionally high. What does tracking entail? Let’s explore.

Have you ever seen a primary student read using his or her finger to point at each word as it is read? We teach them to do that at a very young age – it’s called tracking. Tracking the teacher and one another in the classroom is much the same, except fingers are not pointed, eyes are following. Tracking others with our eyes and even our bodies shows focus, engagement, and respect for the speaker.

How do we track? When someone else is speaking, look at that person. Follow him or her with your eyes and your body. If he or she is walking across the room while speaking to you, turn your body to continue tracking him or her. Even lean in toward the speaker to show that you are paying attention and completely engaged.

Who should be tracked? Everyone in your classroom who speaks. Most importantly, students should be tracking the teacher. Any student, faculty member, or visitor in the classroom should also be tracked by teachers and students.

Who should be tracking? Everyone! Each person in your classroom should be tracking others when they speak. Teachers are most importantly the tracking role model! Students will take their cues from your tracking behavior, teachers, so track well if you expect your students to track others. Multi-tasking teachers, this means you! It is ok to multi-task and track at the same time, just make sure whatever you are doing with your hands can be done without looking if someone else is talking.

When should we track? All of the time! Students should be tracking the teacher from the first moment his or her mouth is opened. Students also need to be tracking each other when someone is speaking, whether it is their collaborative pair partner, a group member, or another student across the room during whole group instruction.

Why should we track? Tracking shows that we are aware of and focused on what is happening in the room. It demonstrates that we are listening and attentive to the speaker, and that we have respect for him or her. We track because it is an effective classroom technique that promotes and increases student engagement. We track because this level of focus and engagement inspires academic excellence.

Reward students for tracking appropriately. Give them candy, stickers, positive or reward points in your behavior management system. Rewarding students as a class encourages them to lead and prompt others in tracking, thus building community within your classroom environment.

Tracking is an excellent way for educators to increase student engagement and create a climate and culture that optimizes learning for all. Your students can be effortlessly engaged in instruction at all times when participating in this novel strategy. This ultimately leads to students who not only love coming to school and to your class, but also who are more successful, and perform better on multiple forms of assessments. What more could you ask for from a strategy that requires such little effort?

Signals for Success

What was that?! The bark of a dog? The whinny of a horse? The unmistakable “reeeep, reeeep” of crickets in the classroom? (Definitely not after you have just posed a question!) All of these are included in the plethora of ways you can alert your students that you want their attention.

What should be used to signal students? Any type of animal call or small percussion instrument – even the clap of a hand is easily employed as a student signal. There are literally scads of electronic sound files that could effortlessly be utilized in the classroom as attention alerts as well.

Why use sounds to signal students? Besides being novel, unique, and of high interest to students, audio sound signals for students are an essential classroom management tool. This strategy allows the teacher to gain students’ attention whenever he or she needs it. Signals are also more efficient and respectful than yelling or calling out “Hey, kids”, using too much talk to ask for students’ attention, or turning the room lights on and off. Keep these tips in mind for using signals successfully:

Model how students should respond to signals for attention. Teach them exactly how the signal and their response to it will look and sound, and give them plenty of practice.

Expecting immediate silence may be unrealistic. People have a natural need to get to a stopping point in their conversation or work (5-10 seconds should do it).

Don’t start speaking before everyone is silent. Waiting to speak lets students know that  everyone is expected to respond to the signal promptly – no exceptions, no excuses.

Don’t repeat the signal if it doesn’t get students’ attention the first time. Repeating the signal teaches students that they don’t have to focus and give you their attention right away—they can wait for the second or third repetition before they comply.

Be consistent when using established signals, or the signals will lose their power. A teacher could easily lose credibility as students will wonder if you really mean what you say and say what you mean.

Whether a clap rhythm, a drum, a chime, a rain stick, or a bird call, signaling your students and effectively gaining their attention and focus can be as easy as tying a shoelace. It takes practice, but once this simple and inexpensive routine is mastered it works every time! To learn more about signals, how to use them, and how to teach them, read “Signals for Quiet”, or watch Caltha Crowe in action using signals with a third grade class.


Put on Your Thinking Glasses: A Focusing Strategy

Long division. Government. Figurative language. Complex sentences. Elapsed time. We all know what it is like to try to teach concepts that are difficult for students to grasp at first. It seems that the younger the students are, the more difficulty they have. Eventually, with time and practice, the light bulb comes on. And sweet relief! They’ve got it!

But what about the initial introduction to these challenging concepts? What about the meat and potatoes practice and remediation that inevitably follows? All of that can get a bit tedious and frustrating. Take the tension and pressure off a bit by using a novel focusing strategy that is exciting for students and increases their attention to the task at hand: Thinking Glasses!


“Thinking Glasses” can be found at discount stores marketed as “Nerd Glasses,” but if not, search online. If those are not available, you could alternatively use the cheap sunglasses you find in the dollar junk bins at discount stores. Whatever you choose and acquire, these glasses will be an invaluable “outside-the-box” tool to increase and maintain focus during intense instruction.

Before you introduce challenging curriculum, prepare students for it. Build it up! Let them know that the voyage they are about to embark on requires 100% complete focus, and that you are going to equip them with a tool to facilitate and maintain that focus throughout the lesson. Then dramatically whip out the glasses, making sure that every student has a pair – even save a pair for yourself. Make a big deal about them being called “Thinking Glasses,” and have everyone put them on at the same time. Then…super focused, begin the lesson. Let them continue to wear the glasses through the completion of related performance tasks. You will be surprised at the difference it will make!

Thinking glasses are for occasional wear only. They lose their magic if they are worn routinely! Break them out only for difficult content that requires extra focus, attention, and practice. After the first few uses, if students feel extra challenged by content, they will ask for them. Let them wear them! They are basically asking if you will allow them to increase, sharpen, and maintain their focus while you teach, or while they work. Yes, please! A class set of glasses is a small price to pay for the amount of reward you will get in return.


Teacher-leaders going the distance

Research proves that children learn best from each other. Likewise, teachers learn best from each other as well. We all know that as teachers, when we teach a concept, we personally learn that same concept all over again. We internalize it, and learn it better as a result of teaching it! So why not teach each other? This encourages positive growth for all involved parties.

We have all had those moments in the day-in day-out throes of teaching – those “ah ha!” moments when some new or different tactic worked. When faced with an epiphany such as this, share it with others! We want all children to have the best chance to learn and the most benefit from learning possible, not just our class(es), right? After all, we are all in this together, striving to promote student success and the greater good as a team! As a teacher-leader or mentor, communicate with colleagues in various ways in order to inform, collaborate, and network on best practices to enhance student learning.

Teacher-leaders and mentors are constantly learning, growing, and sharing. They are never the same at the end of the year as they were at the beginning. They are in a “morphic” state as a direct result of their own personal love of learning.

How else can teacher-leaders and mentors be described? They have an extensive understanding of pedagogical knowledge, the curriculum, and the needs of students. They are constantly seeking to add to and enrich the curriculum; guiding others in that endeavor. They continually facilitate students’ engagement in learning, higher-order thinking skills, and the application of learning in current, relevant ways. They guide others to reflect on their own practice and progress.

Teacher role models such as this are charged with the task of encouraging others to set challenging goals for themselves, and tackle new ways to present challenging content. They lead others in the effective use of data to inform instructional decisions. Teacher-leaders continually demonstrate expertise and lead others to determine and develop a variety of assessment strategies and instruments that are valid and appropriate for the content and student population. They are constantly engaging in professional growth, and the application of the methods and skills learned. This contributes to the development of others as well as the well-being of the school community of learners.

Being a teacher-leader or mentor encourages success for all, including students and teachers. This leadership role fosters our collective goal of creating and constructing lifelong learners, which ultimately extends itself to a global community of learners. Serving as a teacher-leader and mentor to others in these capacities merits truly exemplary status.

Keep students engaged through rhythm, music, and movement.

Have you ever known someone who is constantly drumming, or tapping their pen? My brother, a percussionist, was constantly reminded to be still as a child. When asked to stop, leg bouncing became the next option. What my brother really had was a need to move, and so do the students in our classrooms!

Children thrive in a structured environment. Children also need to move. So why not incorporate rhythm and movement into their learning environment in a structured manner? This provides students with the freedom to move as well as the opportunity to interact with each other in a novel and unique way. Drumming builds a sense of community within the classroom as students eagerly wait, actively listening and focused, to positively reinforce others through rhythm, music, and movement.

The first step for implementation is to decide what type of drums should be used. This really depends on the teacher’s preference and budget. Djembe drums work well and sound great, but are more expensive than a simple hand drum. Djembes are ideal for the one or two drum classroom. Hand drums have a decidedly lesser sound quality, but are less cost prohibitive, and easier to store and manage. The lower price point also allows teachers to provide more students with drums if desired.

Drum management is key. Students are only allowed to drum at specific times during a lesson, when prompted by the teacher (or another student) giving someone positive reinforcement for a great idea or a thoughtful response. For example, if a student makes a connection between a text and the real world and the teacher subsequently praises him or her, drumming students would without hesitation give the contemplative student a drum beat.

Drums can be distributed to the entire class so that each child has a drum, or drums could be given to one group of students each day. This increases student focus and engagement exponentially, as students are literally sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting excitedly with bated breath for those key points in the lesson at which they can drum. Research has proven that music, movement, and learning are indelibly linked. Why not capitalize on that?

How do students know how long and when to stop drumming? That is at the teacher’s discretion. He or she must give “the signal,” and all drumming stops. It can be a look, a hand signal (like a snap), or whatever works best. The signal is an integral part of using drums in the classroom. Without this, students lack direction and structure, resulting in a loss of control.

Drums can be a great tool for classroom management as well. Utilize a call and response technique to get students’ attention and help get them focused and ready to work.  Simply drum four beats of rhythm and wait for the students to mimic the rhythm on their drums. Students without drums may even drum on their desks, chairs, legs, or whatever is available. Continue to drum out and listen for a response until all students are participating and where they need to be. Students are amazingly energized and focused all at once.

Take several minutes for movement breaks throughout the day to rhythms the teacher or a student drums.  Have students move freely through their personal space, or play a variety of sounds on the drum and have students mimic the sound with their bodies. Experiment with different dynamics and techniques by tapping, rubbing, striking, and scratching the head of the drum to keep things interesting. “Brain Breaks” such as this keep students fresh, energized, and ready to engage the next dynamic in the classroom.

The use of drums in the classroom as a focus, engagement, management, and community-building tool is definitely an “out-of-the-box” strategy. Well-trained drumming students benefit from the cultivation of a plethora of skills, the least of which include rhythmic movement, positive peer support, and enthusiasm for learning.

The effect of attention grabbers: Classity-class! …Yessity-yes!

Engaging students from the first moment in a lesson is an art form. In a day where students hunger for instant gratification and often require an entertainer as opposed to a teacher, this unique set of student engagement strategies fits the bill.

We as teachers experiment with many ways to capture student focus: counting down, clapping, raising our hands, and so on. With varied student populations at any age or level, in any setting, the “Whole Brain Teaching” call and response technique is truly a best practice. This is an effective attention-getter before or at any time during a lesson. Using call and response, the students respond verbally to the teacher with the same inflection and tone with which they were called. This strategy calls students’ attention to the speaker, allows them to speak while giving the speaker their attention, and requires their response and engagement. At the point of response, students are engaged and open to the information being presented.

For instance, when utilizing the “Class” call and response at any given point during the lesson, the teacher begins by saying the word “class” any way he or she prefers, and the class in turn is responsible for mimicking the teacher’s voice and volume level by responding “yes.” So if the teacher says, “Hey class!” then the students respond, “Hey yes!” Likewise, if the teacher says “Classity-class!” then the students say back to him or her, “Yessity-yes!” This strategy gives students the opportunity to respond appropriately, while giving them a needed verbal release during instruction, and allowing them to enjoy mimicking the speaker. The sillier, the better — student focus increases!

An additional call and response technique to increase and sharpen student focus is ”Hands and Eyes”. This strategy can be utilized at any point during the lesson as well.  When students need to refocus, the teacher simply says, “Hands and eyes on _______.” Students respond in turn by focusing their attention on the chosen person or object (such as the board) and clapping their hands together, leaving them clasped in front of their bodies. At the same time, students are also responding verbally by repeating the words of the teacher in the same manner. This method, again, gives students the opportunity to speak out during a time when they are quiet and listening, and allows them the opportunity to have fun mimicking whomever is speaking, while focusing their attention in a novel way.

There are many other “Whole Brain Teaching” strategies to be explored and utilized within the classroom. These two call and response methods have been proven timelessly effective. In a day when capturing and maintaining student focus is increasingly difficult, these techniques are among the best practices in the educational realm. If you have more ideas, please do share in the comments!

Get creative with formative assessments!

Formative assessment is a vigorous and engaging tradition that we as teachers should be committed to cultivating in every classroom. Why is it such an essential part of learning? It serves as an assessment tool for teachers, probing for understanding, and guiding decision-making about future instruction. Formative assessment creates a supportive environment in which the teachers and students learn and teach each other effectively, and instruction is tailor-made to fit each learner.

Formative assessment is an ongoing, fluid experience – a spontaneous, on-the-fly process that guides teachers toward understanding which resources to utilize with specific students according to their specific needs. Analyzing student work is a valuable part of formative assessment, as it clarifies which pieces of the learning process students might not understand. As an effective teacher, be prepared! Know the content that you’re going to cover, and have an understanding of the progression you want your students to make to achieve that ultimate goal. Utilize a plethora of questioning strategies and focused observations, engaging students in the learning process with a sense of urgency, and closely monitoring their progress and comprehension. Students should be entrenched in the content of the curriculum, entirely present with each other, and focused in the process of learning.

An effective formative assessment system gauges student understanding and nurtures retention. Teachers are able to pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses, down to their most minute need. Formative assessment results are used to drive instructional strategies and resources. These results should be effectively and easily communicated to students, teachers, parents, and administrators in a consistent and easy to understand format. When teachers analyze data and use it as a tool to tweak the curriculum, the curriculum becomes dynamic and alive, not just a static document.

There are literally hundreds of ways and opportunities to formatively assess students. Education today is moving away from the sole use of traditional paper and pencil assessments. Valuable formative assessments now come in a plethora of forms, adding interest and engagement to the classroom while still providing the information needed to differentiate instruction and guide student learning.

A tried-and-true method of formative assessment is the “Ticket-Out the Door,” or the “Exit Ticket.” Students compose a written response to a question posed by the teacher, and are allowed to leave the room (or in many cases, transition to the next subject) only if their response meets the approval of the instructor. Similarly, teachers may utilize this strategy as a pretest, having the students complete an ”Entrance Ticket,” or a “Ticket-in-the-Door” to gauge student knowledge on the topic of the day.

Another quick and effective formative assessment, “Show What You Know,” can also be used at the end of the lesson. This is simply a higher order or critical thinking question posed at the very end of the lesson after the lesson summary. Students write their response to the question in a complete sentence on a sticky note, and post it on the “Show What You Know” board. This gives the teacher an “at-a-glance” view of whether students understand the concept presented or not.

The “Text What You Learn” strategy engages students at a high interest level, and allows teachers to formatively assess student knowledge of a concept quickly and effectively. At the beginning of the class, students use their cell phones to text in a response to a question that the teacher has presented through the Poll Everywhere software. Responses are projected on a SMART Board, and students are given the opportunity to self-assess, and see what their peers have learned. This provides valuable information to the teacher on how to move forward with the lesson.

Edmodo has a free micro-assessment called Snapshot which provides assessment feedback by student and standard. Progress can be monitored by choosing the standard(s) to be assessed, and utilizing the standards-aligned Math and ELA questions (for grades 3-12). Snapshot displays information on student mastery of standards, and with prioritized recommendations, teachers are able to customize lesson plans and improve the performance of individuals. There is even a built-in calendar and time limit selector option, so teachers can schedule Snapshot for the most opportune time during lessons.

Socrative is a super simple tech tool teachers can use to enhance classroom engagement, assessment and individualization of content. This is a free student response system in which students respond to the teacher through a series of educational exercises and games via any web-enabled device: smartphones, laptops, and/or tablets. Socrative takes teachers 3 minutes to set up and takes their classes 20 seconds to load. Easily differentiated, Socrative can be tailored for any learner.

If you don’t have that level of technology in your classroom, you can do a “quick write” at the beginning of your class. Ask students to provide you with a brief summary of what the homework was about, or what the key point in the reading was last night. They can either hand these in to you, or you can have students share them with a Collaborative Pair Partner or group — all to truly pinpoint where the lesson should begin.

Whatever tool or strategy is chosen, formative assessment is a culture, of sorts, that teachers create in a learning community that is dynamic and engaging.

Get on the ball!

Gone are the days of lectures and students sitting silently and listening, completing assignments individually in a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Over the years, the culture of the classroom has changed dramatically. Students are interacting with technology and each other to enhance learning. There is less direct instruction and more small group instruction. Educators are less and less the “sage on the stage,” and have moved more into a facilitator’s role – the “guide on the side.” Teachers are using unorthodox tools and strategies to encourage and sharpen student focus.

One such tool is the stability ball. “Out-of-the-box” teachers are choosing to replace student chairs in their classrooms for stability balls in order to increase focus during lessons and aid retention through movement. Movement and learning are indelibly connected. Children learn best when they are moving, and what better way for them to be focused, learning, and moving than sitting on a stability ball?

A 2011 University of Kentucky study demonstrated that the use of stability balls was effective for students who exhibited hyperactivity and problems paying attention. When the body is engaged, the brain is engaged. Students must engage the muscles and the parts of their brains needed to remain balanced on a large ball, resulting in a heightened focus during instruction, and an improvement in the ability to concentrate. This ultimately leads to improved academic performance for students who are “actively sitting.” Following are tips and tidbits of information for those interested in implementing this new and innovative learning strategy.

Give the stability balls in your classroom a catchy little name that correlates with learning. Continuously saying “stability ball” can be cumbersome, and naming them “focus” or “thinking” balls definitely sets the tone and places emphasis on learning in the classroom.

Compose a set of rules (no more than five) for the balls once students begin to use them, and enforce them. This will give them a sense of ownership and pride in the use and care of the stability balls. They will come up with some great ideas on their own, but encourage them to include appropriate rules for basic safety. For example, the rules below were brainstormed by a group of students on their first day using the stability balls.


Allow students to train newcomers on the use of the stability balls, then reinforce the rules as needed. This gives the students a sense of ownership and pride in the use and care of the balls.

Keep several chairs in your classroom for good measure. Sometimes students get tired, and prefer a chair. They must use core muscle strength and balance to successfully stay on the ball, and may not realize how tired they have become. Retaining several chairs helps the teacher to meet the varying needs of all students as well as the needs of any visitors that might come in.

Be aware that there will be an increased noise level in the classroom as a result of use of the balls. Whether the classroom is carpeted or tile floor, students moving on the stability balls altogether cause a low rumble and/or growl. The less students move on the balls, the quieter it is. Consequently, the more students move on the balls, the more audible the rumble.

Integrating stability balls in the classroom allows students to move throughout the day, and benefits a diverse spectrum of students. Teachers find that after a training period, students will sit with minimal movement, improved posture, and will more consistently attend to task. This innovative focusing strategy will create in the classroom a novel, high interest environment, ultimately promoting overall student and teacher satisfaction.

Constructing a community of learners

Remember the song “We Are Family” by the Pointer Sisters? That has become the mantra for my class as we journey through the school year together, building a learning community as we go. A learning community is a group of students with a common purpose and shared values and goals. Building a classroom community truly enriches the students’ learning experience, and helps them learn valuable life skills they will be able to use and benefit from for the rest of their lives. Here are four thoughts to consider as you build your own classroom community this year!

  1. Research community building games, and help students get acquainted through these activities at the beginning of the year. As time permits, challenge students with various community building tasks related to the standards you are teaching throughout the school year. Learning to work together on a team successfully is a life skill that has many rewards.
  2. Stress to students that we are a family, we are all in this together, and that learning never stops! Just like the armed forces – leave no man behind! Say to students weekly or even daily, “The most important things we do in this learning community are learn and help each other be successful. Any behavior that takes away from learning is unacceptable and has no place here.” Repeated reminders of this ideology will encourage students to take ownership of this belief statement.
  3. Let your students know that their contributions to the lessons and the learning community are valuable and appreciated. Pull a student aside once a day, get on their level, and look them in the eye. Tell them sincerely that you are proud of them and what they have accomplished, how much they have improved, how much you appreciate the support he or she gives you and his or her classmates, and how glad you are that he or she is in your class. The return on this minute-long conversation is invaluable!
  4. When you see that a student is upset, pull them to the side, and ask them how they are feeling on a scale of 1–10, 10 being the best. Ask them what you can do for them to help them get to a 10. Yes, this takes time, so don’t do this in the middle of a lesson… use your judgment about the best time to ask. Not only will you be addressing the students’ needs directly, which helps them feel an important and respected part of your community, but you are modeling valuable empathy and problem solving skills that they will undoubtedly need to utilize as they mature.
  5. Encourage a culture of respect. Encourage students to be sympathetic and supportive. Reward positive behavior such as this through your behavior system, or with positive ClassDojo points! Better yet, customize these behaviors in ClassDojo for your classroom, and weight them heavier than other positive behaviors. You will be amazed at the culture change in your community! When students support and respect each other while learning together within a community, continuous improvement becomes an embedded value.

Building a learning community in your classroom definitely takes more time and effort. The powerful qualities ingrained in its philosophy shape and enhance learning invaluably. Students will undoubtedly benefit from such a rich educational experience, and your love of educating children will grow stronger, guaranteed!


Every second counts!

How time flies! It is the first day of school, and then before you can turn around the end of the school year is approaching. Time in the classroom is a precious commodity. Every second counts! So what are some strategies we can use to improve our time management and increase productivity for both our students and ourselves?

Take a lesson from the Boy Scouts: be prepared. Get to school early and get materials and equipment ready for the day. This way you can “hit the ground running” when your students come in, and no instructional time is lost while you are getting ready.

Encourage a climate of urgency. Have the attitude that every second is precious. Every second wasted is a second that students are not learning, and that is not ok! After all, learning is the most important aspect of what goes on in the classroom!

Have a free choice board available for early finishers. Those who complete tasks early need to be productively engaged. If they are not peer tutoring or helping another group complete a task, they should be actively working toward finishing one of the items listed on the free choice board. This could include studying domain specific vocabulary words, writing in a journal, reading a book, or whatever you deem valuable and appropriate.

Use a timer and/or music for faster, smoother transitions. Give students a time limit. It could be 30 seconds to a minute, depending on what needs to be accomplished. Reward the first group of students that has completed all of your requests. Playing a short clip of music from a computer, CD, or mobile device is also effective and fun for the students. Vary the music to fit the mood and tone of your classroom, your students, and yourself. Challenge your students to accomplish the transition before the music stops. Consider even using this short transitional clip of music as a lead-in to your content lesson. You will be amazed how much time you save!

Time students when they are solving problems or discussing lesson content with partners or groups. This keeps the pace of the lesson moving, and students aren’t as likely to get stuck or distracted. After the time limit has expired, share and discuss the completed mini-task with the class, and move on to the next part of the lesson. This method is effective because it gives students a chance to process and share the content of the lesson verbally with a group or partner in short snippets. This breaks the lesson up, and as a result, keeps students more engaged.

Utilize signals for activity changes. Students love variety, so collect some noisemakers (or even sound files on your mobile device) to use as a signal when you want the attention of the entire group. This is a time-saving, immediate way to focus the group when needed.

Remember that children thrive on routine, so stay on schedule! Even if you don’t get to the end of your lesson, find a “Plan B” stopping point, and move on to the next scheduled part of your day. You can always come back to it later if there is time. If not, at least you are getting everything in that you originally scheduled. Will you feel sometimes like you never finish anything? Yes! However, staying on schedule helps you keep a healthy pace, and exposes students to the maximum amount of content you had planned.

Being an effective time manager in the classroom is one of the characteristics of a highly effective teacher. Remember to keep that sense of urgency about time and learning alive in your classroom!