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?

Connecting to Teens: Develop Your Teacher Persona :)

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on Earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession.

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging – for teaching – but not being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs – and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voicebox. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:


  • Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.


  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

Encouraging Teamwork with Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

Have students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!

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.


Rainy day recess — bring on the fun!

So what’s a teacher to do when it is pouring down rain outside and it is time for recess? There are schools across this nation who may be lucky enough to have some enclosed pavillion which enables the kiddos to get all that energy out. My school doesn’t have such structure. So my students and myself are left with only one option….the classroom!

So when the rain is pouring and the old man is snoring, what can you do? There are a few safe and effective ways students can release the energy and just play for a bit. I have a few things I rotate periodically so the natives don’t get restless,especially when rainy day one turns into rainy day three.

Quiet Ball

To play quiet ball, you’ll need a small soft ball. My preferred choice is the splash balls for pools. It’s like a small bean bag and really can’t damage things if it hits something.

The students begin the game by forming a circle on the perimeter of the room. A “judge” is picked to maintain order and determine whether a throw or catch is fair during the game. Of course, we use the random feature of ClassDojo to choose the judge. After the judge is picked, that child throws out the first pitch to a student in the circle.

The object of the game is to be the last man standing. To be the last man standing, you must adhere to a few rules.

  • All tosses must be underhand
  • You can not toss the ball to the person next to you. Must be somewhat across from you.
  • If you don’t catch the ball, you are out. However, the judge can determine whether the ball was catchable. If it was judge uncatchable, the thrower is then out.
  • Once there are four kids left, they take position in the four corners of the room and the game continues.
  • When there are only two players left, they position themselves across from each other and the game continues until someone is out.
  • Try to stay quiet! If you are too loud or yelling, the judge can eject you from the game.

Now I know the last bullet is extremely difficult when the game gets really exciting. I get really excited when it gets intense. You have to allow for some level of rumbling. You just want to prohibit those “outside voices” from taking over your hallway.


Cards and Board Games

My two boys have outgrown most of the board games we once played together. Instead of tossing them or looking for a good home, I brought them to my classroom. You might think Candy Land and Shoots & Ladders would be untouched by 5th graders. It’s just the opposite! They love those games. I also have decks of UNO and SKIP BO cards they can choose. I have to say there is just something magical about seeing my students spread out on the floor and engrossed in a game.


Go Old School

Sometimes you just have to go back to your days in elementary school.

  • Heads Up Seven Up
  • Whole Group Hangman
  • Simon Says … of course with classroom modification due to space.

I am a strong believer in recess! I’m not talking a 5 minute brain break. I’m talking a full 15 to 20 minutes of time to just be a kid. We as the adults have a luxury of walking away from work when our brain is about to explode. For me to be at my best, I have to leave the thinking at the desk for a good amount of time and focus on something else for a while. I am much more productive and clear headed when I return to my desk. Our students are no different! It takes a lot of energy and brain power to learn. Just like us, they have to step away before their brains ignite into flame.

Having trouble motivating your students? Get to know them!

When I think about teachers who truly influenced me, they all had one thing in common: they knew me. They understood my strengths, weaknesses, sense of humor, encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, and took interest in my life outside of school. They cheered from the stands at my championship soccer game, held high expectations for me academically, and would never hold back from calling me out when I was slacking off.

Of course I also had many teachers who weren’t as influential – they didn’t know me. I remember sitting in their classes, staring at the clock waiting for the bell to ring so I could run off to my next class where I would get a friendly ‘Hello’, was asked how my SAT prep was going, and received a well thought-out lesson that was both engaging and challenging. I had an immense amount of respect for these teachers. They clearly worked hard to master their content, develop creative and effective lessons, and went above and beyond to form real connections with us. That is the type of teacher I want to be.

Knowing your students doesn’t mean you have to be the basketball coach or start a robotics club (although that would be fantastic). Knowing your students means understanding students’ strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what engages them most. Knowing how to push them to be the best they can be. Providing opportunities for students to think outside of the box and show their creative side. Challenging them. Treating them with respect. And of course giving the occasional high-five 🙂 You get the idea.

Remember, school isn’t everyone’s ‘thing’. Some teachers forget that the reason we are here isn’t just to teach students about DNA or the quadratic formula. Although academics might be the reason our profession exists, we must remember that we are also teaching students how to be be hard working, persistent, self-motivated, and respectful individuals – which in turn will lead students to success in life, whatever that might look like.

Screencasts: A great way to assess student understanding!

Students can often have a difficult time demonstrating their understanding of a topic.  When called on in class they might struggle to articulate how they found an answer to a problem or not see the value in showing their work when solving a math problem.  This can be just as frustrating for students as it is for teachers as they try to figure out where a child needs extra help.

Screencasting is a fantastic way to assess student understanding and increase engagement.  A screencast is a recording of the tasks performed on a computer, labtop, or tablet.  It gives children the power to explain their own thinking and show off their thought process.  There are a variety of ways that students of all ages can capture their thinking and screencasting is simple, straightforward and definitely kid-friendly.

One app that helps kids create screencasts is Screenchomp.  With a simple cartoon interface and just a handful of buttons on the screen, students can draw and record their method for solving a problem.  This could be as simple as solving a two-digit addition problem or more complex like drawing a diagram of a square and figuring out the perimeter of the polygon.

ClassDojo asks teachers to record positive feedback and acknowledge students for completing their work.  As students work in partners or individually to create screencasts, make sure to award those who demonstrate great teamwork and persistence!


Tech-shy? Not after these helpful tips!

At my school, 21st Century learning is an intrinsic piece of our philosophy and teaching methodology. We have a 1:1 iPad program, implement a flipped instructional model, use NearPod and Doceri for classroom presentations, and students often create screencasts, Prezis, and iMovie projects. We are always on the lookout for the newest innovations and methods for making our lessons more interactive, meaningful, and relevant.

But not every teacher is ready to take on the challenges associated with a true 21st Century classroom. Here are some tips for how schools can support teachers who are a little tech-shy and produce a dynamic and collaborative community of teachers.

Play With It

I remember years ago getting an interactive whiteboard in my classroom. The training representative came in and wowed me by creating a Jeopardy-like game, manipulating tiles around the board and inserting sound clips. He did this in about 10 minutes, and I was sold; however, when it came time for me to use my own interactive board, I could barely write on it. My students complained about the lack of touch response, and soon enough, my interactive board became a plain old white board. I used to tape index cards to it to play Jeopardy. Teacher training is still important, but nothing beats diving right in and playing with a new piece of technology, whether its a Learning Management System or a fun spelling app. Play around with it, and feel free to click that “Need help?” chat screen at the bottom. It’s likely that a customer service representative is on the other end and can’t wait to walk you through the program.

Ask for Help

If you can’t figure something out through trial-and-error, customer service help, or Youtube tutorials, why not go to a colleague? Chances are, if you’re having difficulty using or implementing a specific piece of technology, someone else has had the same problem in the past. And don’t forget about your students! This is an excellent opportunity to engage our gamers and coders. Ask them to demonstrate how to use an app. There are experts all around us.

Be Patient and Have a Backup Plan

One of the biggest challenges with technology isn’t learning how to use it, but dealing with bugs and roadblocks. If your schools’ internet isn’t robust enough, your laptop or tablet hasn’t been updated or upgraded recently, or an app simply crashes, make sure you have a low-tech or offline backup plan. There’s nothing worse than preparing a fantastic, tech-based lesson and finding out that the schools’ internet is down.

Set Small Learning Goals

It can be intimidating for teachers who are new to technology to dive right into learning how to set up an online course on a Learning Management System or become entrenched in the SAMR model. Instead, teachers can start with educational video resources such as TED or Khan Academy and slowly roll out a few key apps for students to use with consistency. Tools 4 Students is a basic graphic organizer resource, Toontastic helps younger kids write and animate short stories, and IXL provides students with practice in Math and Language Arts that meets Common Core Standards. ClassDojo can help teachers track and monitor student behavior and even increase positive communication with parents, and best of all, students can take the lead on all of these pieces of technology. Put the power in their hands.

Keep Learning

Technology constantly evolves and programs reinvent themselves. As soon as you have mastered a particular program or piece of software, you can bet that the newest update will look completely different (I’m looking at you iMovie!). Like teaching itself, learning new technology requires educators to constantly return to being a student. Learning new technology can breathe new life into teachers and classrooms alike. Never stop learning.


Bringing the WORLD to your classroom!

Have you ever heard or said a version of the phrase “Technology (or the Internet or computers) brings the world into the classroom”? While undoubtedly that’s true, video conferencing offers the chance to connect with real people outside the classroom in real time, which is a valuable learning opportunity.

Mystery Skype

You may only know Skype as a way to talk to out of town relatives. But Skype is also a valuable resource for educators!

A great way to use Skype in the classroom is Mystery Skype—a “global guessing game” played by two classrooms. Each class gets 20 questions to figure out where in the country or world the other class is. Mystery Skype can also be used to bring in virtual guest speakers to talk with students about a fun career or a subject you’re studying. Finally, Mystery Skype can be used as a tool for students to practice a foreign language with native speakers and for English language learners to hone their English skills. Visit Skype’s education page to find participating classrooms and speakers.

Google Hangouts

Like Skype, Google Hangouts is another free way to bring guest speakers into your classroom. But Hangouts has some additional and useful features. Hangouts makes it easy to have multiple people in a conference at once, which you can use to host a virtual career day or a debate about a topic. Hangouts also allows screen sharing, which makes it easy for speakers to show a presentation or other documents while talking to your classroom.

In addition to connecting with other classrooms or bringing in guest speakers, you can use video conferencing to bring parents into the classroom to watch student presentations without requiring them to leave their home or office.  Oh, and both these tools can be used for free!

And remember, safety first. Before using any videoconferencing in the classroom:

  • Inform students, school administration, and parents. Detail in writing who will participate, when the conference or chat will take place, and its purpose.
  • Work with the outside participant(s) to set ground rules. Rules may include who will be present and whether the conference can be recorded.