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Is Student Engagement Easier Said Than Done?

Recently, I was talking with educators about how they prepare for the start of the school year. Everyone buzzed about the new academic year. I heard about every educational issue under the sun. Topics included new teacher evaluation rules, principal and teacher reassignments, student discipline, testing and more.

I wondered aloud where student engagement and leadership fits into the picture. How strategies to engage students need to be implemented throughout the learning experience. I reeled off a long list of positive outcomes connected to student engagement (development of leadership, communication skills, peer/adult
collaborations); and how these approaches are not a panacea, but still effective in addressing a myriad of problems.

Before I could get fully settled on my soapbox, I was interrupted with a simple, but valid question, “how?”

How do we get students more engaged in the classroom? How do we cultivate student leadership and use it to support our collective goals? How do we utilize students’ leadership skills and integrate engagement into the overall learning experience? Where do we even begin?

Those are key questions.

Student engagement can happen anywhere. It is not an isolated activity or segment of a lesson plan. Clear, practical methods of student engagement can be implemented on an ongoing basis at various levels. Whether at the classroom level (immediate students and teacher within a class); the community level (broader communities of students within grades, racial/culture/gender/ability subgroups, student interest groups, or team sports); or at a systemic level (across schools, districts and cities).

Here are some examples:

Students engaged with peers: On the first day of class allow students to give an in-depth introduction of themselves to classmates. Have students talk about their backgrounds, interests, future goals, as well as the learning environment they need in order to be successful. Acknowledge diversity and similarities in stories, backgrounds and collective needs.

Students engaged in community: Based on students collective needs, allow the students to create a list of
classroom rules (I sometimes use the word “norms” instead as “rules” can sound rigid and restrictive). Have them adapt these rules/norms as official guidelines that govern the classroom community. Revisit the rules/norms often to ensure their effectiveness and encourage dialogue

Students engaged with administrators: Invite principal and/or administrators in to discuss classroom norms and how they relate to overall school policy and guidelines. Discuss diversity of students and needs. Students suggest ideas/strategies to create better learning environments.

Students engaged in school processes: Students work with administrators to establish school-wide policies for healthy learning and classroom climate. Segments of students may highlight and advocate on behalf of specific groups of students. School-wide student voice is solicited and used to inform decisions.

These are just some examples of how engaging students in the creation of rules and norms can go from impacting a single classroom to impacting an entire school.

Think of all the other areas of the educational system where we can engage students to make a positive impact. Student engagement and leadership isn’t just another activity picked from a lesson plan. It’s a way of doing things. Once we learn how to do it effectively we can all reap the benefits.

Brandon Hill is a youth community organizer with over 10 years experience working on local and national youth initiatives. He previously served as National Program Director for grammy-award winning artist Usher Raymond's New Look Foundation and now coordinates the Mayor's Youth Council in Nashville, TN. He received his B.A. from Tennessee State University and is currently working on his M.Ed at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.

This article is one in a series on the topic of Engaging the Public in Public Education. It was developed to provide a set of resources to assist schools in discovering innovative strategies for engaging the full spectrum of stakeholders in the education process. To read other entries in the series, please click here. To download the entire series with links and resources, please click here.

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