The Challenge of Engaging Students with Aligned, Rigorous Assignments

We weren’t even midway through the school year and I had pangs of guilt, feeling like I had my assignments weren’t resonating in the way I hoped they would. “I can’t seem to get students interested in my assignments,” I complained to a colleague, “it’s like they don’t care about anything.” I finished my sentence but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. It wasn’t until that night when I read a report published by The Education Trust, “Motivation and Engagement in Students Assignments: The Role of Choice and Relevancy”, that I realized I was the biggest reason for my students’ lack of engagement.

Creating assignments aligned to the standards that are rigorous but also keep students, especially teenagers, engaged, can sometimes be a challenge. However, it isn’t that students “don’t care,” as I had so unjustly stated, it’s that they don’t necessarily understand the “why” of the assignments. The report explains that choice and relevance play a crucial role in motivating and engaging students to succeed as standards continue to call for more rigorous assignments.

Immediately upon reading the report, I was reminded of what has, by far, become my most successful assignment—TED Talks. Last year, for the first time, my planning partner and I took on an ambitious project designing a unit that would require students to collaborate, think critically, problem solve, and communicate. These skills are not only part of our district’s profile of a graduate, but they are also part of our English Language Arts standards designed to prepare students to be successful in life.

That unit gave students the autonomy to choose a world issue they felt passionate about and conduct robust research to learn more about it for their talk. More importantly, it required them to collaborate, summarize, think critically, analyze and use their communication and presentation skills, all skills aligned to our state’s standards and skills that are critical to be successful in college and the workplace. Giving students the choice to research an issue of their choice led to moving results. Their engagement was higher than I had ever seen., The topics ranged from the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration policies, to the pink tax.

For weeks students worked non-stop on their research and discussed their findings with anyone who would listen. They prepared their presentation slides and practiced their delivery in order to command the audience’s attention. They even anticipated questions the audience might ask and prepared responses as best they could. Despite being nervous at the idea of public speaking, students dove into that unit with motivation and engagement, unlike anything I had ever experienced. Lessons that would have otherwise bored them, like the importance of evaluating sources to determine their credibility, became activities that they saw the value in.

Unfortunately, like the Ed Trust report found, not all students are afforded the opportunity to engage in assignments that both motivate them and hold them to high expectations. Through my own experience, I recognized that while the TED Talks project had been a massive success, I was not providing students with choice and relevance with every assignment. Therefore, their lack of motivation to complete an assignment was not a reflection of poor work ethic, but a lack of engaging, aligned assignments.

Students will not ask, “When will we ever use this?” if it is clear to them that what they are learning has value (relevance) outside their classroom walls. Yes, it might seem a hard sell to explain how understanding Shakespeare is something students need, but framed in the context of the skill learned, determining the meaning of words in context (RL.9-10.4), it proves to be relevant no matter what students choose to do later in life. Because, in today’s digital age, making meaning of a text is not only necessary, but it needs to be done almost instantaneously.

We cannot expect students to be motivated to meet high expectations simply because we tell them to. Instead, we need to provide students with engaging and meaningful assignments that provide them with choice, whether in content, product, or process, and ask them to use skills that are useful outside classroom walls.

Vilma Godoy is a high school English teacher in Shelby County, Kentucky.