The Secret to Engaging Students


Have you ever been in school or attended a training class at work and asked yourself, “When will I ever use this information?” I have to admit that when I was a student, I thought it to myself. As a teacher, I promised my students would never ask me this question.

If students don’t feel a class is relevant, they become unengaged and put forth less effort. We see this in high school dropout research. America’s Promise Alliance (2014) surveyed nearly 2,000 students and found that 25.9% of them dropped out because they found school boring, and 20.3% dropped out because school didn’t relate to their life.

That means nearly half of these kids dropped out of school because they weren’t engaged. In order to re-engage our nation’s students, we must help kids understand how our classrooms connect to their lives. But how? And what resources are available?

When I was assigned my first science classroom in Arizona, I immediately dove into my state standards. The first standard required students to learn the name of the eight moon phases. Let’s be honest: a person can maneuver successfully through the world without having this information memorized. My challenge quickly became clear. How do I make moon phases relevant to my students’ lives, so they are engaged in their learning?

The answer was simple. The most needed real-life skill is the ability to think critically. I knew then that I would engage my students, not by asking them to memorize the moon phases, but by teaching them to think.

I began searching for resources to help me create a lesson plan that would require my students to think, not memorize. That’s when I ran across a rough draft of the Common Core State Standards. They hadn’t yet been finalized and hadn’t yet been adopted by Arizona. The first writing standard for middle school science asks students to write arguments to support their claims with reasons and evidence that show they understand a topic or something they’ve read. This standard became my muse as I wrote my lesson plan.

In the lesson, my students read an article about a profitable business (not moon phases) that included the words waxing, waning, crescent, and gibbous. They had to use the text to write a definition for these four vocabulary words, and then use evidence from the text to support why their definitions were accurate. Afterwards, I demonstrated the moon going through its phases as it revolves around Earth, and students used their organic definitions to determine the phase names.

To be completely honest, some of my 7th grade kiddos complained a bit. As I walked around providing support, there was whining such as, “Mrs. Dale, this is so hard” and “I can’t do this.” As a teacher, I’m a cheerleader, so I countered with, “You’re right. This is hard, but you’ve got this,” and “You can do this; don’t give up.” I realized this was a great opportunity to teach my students not to quit just because something was difficult. In the end they loved the challenge and some even thanked me later, perceiving the lesson as proof that I thought they were smart.

Many of them had never encountered such a cerebral activity, but once their confidence increased, I noticed every student was engaged. I am proud to say that all students, even those with disabilities, successfully completed the activity. My students learned the names of the moon phases because they were engaged in a challenging activity that was teaching them something useful for their future: how to think critically about what they read, create definitions using clues from their reading, support their claims, and use their reading to solve a problem.

Students in my classroom aren’t bored but instead are engaged. I require them to think, not to memorize random facts. My students don’t back down from high standards that require reading of high-level texts, analyzing them, and drawing conclusions from them. Instead, my students celebrate when I announce we have a “thinking lesson today.” I’m often told that they came to school because they didn’t want to miss science class.

How powerful if every student was taught to think critically while being exposed to thoughtful instruction. School would be more relevant, more exciting. Students would want to attend school, which would increase their learning, and, hopefully increase the likelihood that they’ll graduate and go on to college or a fulfilling career.

The Common Core State Standards inspire me to teach science in a way that engages my students in a meaningful fashion, so they are also learning to think about text, analyze data, and support claims. I challenge you to dive into the Common Core State Standards, not with a spirit of compliance or disinterest. Go looking for a muse. Let yourself be inspired by the high expectations you see there. And create lessons that inspire your students – to read closely, to reason, to think.

Tara Dale is an ecology and biology teacher at Desert Ridge High School in the Gilbert Unified School District. She earned her Bachelors of Science degrees in Psychology and Biology from Arizona State University. Her Master’s in Secondary Education is from University of Phoenix. Mrs. Dale has been honored with such titles as Educator of the Year, Innovation Hero, and most recently Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence.