Ep 69 5 strategies for creating an engaging lesson

All teachers know that student engagement is essential for successfully teaching a lesson. Why? Because students don’t necessarily want to learn and participate in school, and as a result, miss out on mastering important skills. When students are engaged, they switch on their natural curiosity and are self-motivated to learn, explore, and solve problems. But it’s up to teachers to create optimal learning experiences to foster this passion for learning, which can at times be difficult to do. Here are five tried-and-true ways to create lessons that keep students engaged and hooked from the start to finish.

5 ways to create an engaging lesson or unit

  • Give them an essential question/challenge
  • Give student choice
  • Connect the work to student interests
  • Give them real-world scenarios – Make them demonstrate their learning rather than just completing a worksheet
  • Showcase student work

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I want to work with you guys on creating engaging lessons. I get a lot of questions about student engagement, especially with first-year teachers, because they’re still trying to figure out how to plan how to deliver the lessons, even though you did it in student teaching, it doesn’t necessarily mean that once you’ve got your own classroom, that things are going smoothly. 


And so I have five ways to create an engaging lesson. And some of these, you know, you may have heard of before, but I wanted to give you my own personal spin on them so that you can see how I’m using them in my classroom. 


Students engagement is really important to us. When a student is engaged, it means that they are not only paying attention, but they are actually into the lesson for lack of better words, they’re interested in it, they’re maybe even passionate about it, and they’re giving you 100% of their attention. 


And we all want that. We all want to think that these lessons that we’re creating are engaging and that the students will be interested in them. But a lot of times our lessons fall flat, and they fall flat based on two things: the planning and the delivery. And so this is going to be a two-part series. 


In this first part, I’m going to talk to you about the planning part. Because this can set you up for great success in terms of engagement, or can also set you up for failure. And you know what I mean, when your lesson is failing, the students just look at you, or they’re slumping in their seat, you see them physically nodding off, or they’re, you know, zoning out they’re doodling. And so we don’t want that because the information that the students need to learn, it’s important to our content area. And so it’s really important that for us that we do the proper planning so that we can create engaging lessons. 


So the first strategy for creating an engaging lesson is to start with an essential question or maybe a challenge. So students want to see the point of the lesson and why they need to learn this. Knowing where they’re heading really helps to frame that. 


A great way to do this is with your opening activities. So you know, you can make these seemingly unrelated to the task at hand, I think that’s really important to kind of lead into it with something that doesn’t seem like learning. For example, if students are going to learn how to find the area of an irregular shape, you could talk about a situation when you had to do that. 


So you can start with a story, and then ask them to think about a time when they had a similar situation. So if I was going to teach how to find the area of an irregular shape, and I’ve used this example before, I might talk about how much sod I had to buy for my lawn, and my lawn is kinda shaped like a peanut. So I had to figure out how much to buy for that. 


So real-life situations like that, but you’re basically giving like a story, and students love stories, and they also love to hear about you. I don’t know if you’ve realized that, but they love to know about our personal lives. So if you give them an example, then that will get the students hooked early on. 


So you need to think of an analogy to represent the skill or theme of your lesson. So for example, if you’re teaching a lesson on human sacrifices in the Mayan culture, you could bring up a situation where people thought it was worth it to sacrifice a few, for the good of the whole. You could have them write about it, and then they could share that with their neighbors or groups. Then maybe you could even take volunteers to share out. 


Then you bring up the essential question, which takes the skill and puts it into a universally applicable question. So you could say, for math, you know, how could How is math connected to real-world applications? So if I was doing that, you know, finding the area of my lawn that could be an essential question. Maybe an elementary essential question could be, what are the differences between storybooks and informational books? Maybe in science, you could ask why our cause and effect important in life? And you know what that question applies to other subjects as well. And for history, you could ask how was power gained, used, and justified? That’s a big one. That could also apply to stories in English. 


Now, the key here is to frame learning the skill in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s just pointless drill and kill – students hate that! Can you blame them? And you know, if you’re having difficulty coming up with essential questions, and you just need to Google essential questions for and then put down your subject area, and there are a lot out there for you. So that’s strategy number one. 


The second one that you’ve probably heard a lot about his student choice. Now, this is something that I’ve had to consciously make myself do. I’m used to just creating assignments and all the parameters that go with it because I like to control everything. And so last year, I decided to test out student choice and see how it went. So I did create some parameters, but I still gave them choice. 


My biggest fear was that it would be a pain in the butt to grade assignments that were literally all over the place. I honestly don’t like to create too much work for myself since I already have so much to do as a teacher. And let’s be honest, grading the same assignment from everyone is much more straightforward and streamlined and faster. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out a couple of times to see how things would shake out. 


Well, I gotta tell you guys, it was a hit. I had students reading a short story per week that I assigned to them. And then from those short stories that they read in a particular month – let’s say that they read four short stories in October – they had to pick one mini-project associated with that story. So every story had its own different mini-project. 


For example, the project for the story that we read, “Lamb to the slaughter,” the mini-project option was to create a podcast episode. So in this assignment, they had to interview someone, which meant that there needed to be a host and a guest. And there was an assignment sheet that I gave them that they had to complete for the planning process. And then I showed them how to record the podcast on their iPad using Garage Band. 


Now, the project for the short story, “The lottery,” that involved making a newsletter featuring the town’s annual tradition of holding the lottery. They could make a physical newsletter, or maybe use an app like Canva or Notability on their iPad. And again, I gave them the assignment sheet with the requirements for that particular mini-project. 


Now, they found it exhausting to do one mini-project per month, but they loved having the choice. Most of them actually put in a lot of effort into their project because it allowed them to work based on their personal strengths and interests. And some of the projects were also writing a little report about the author. And then another project that month would be writing a poem. For me, I’m not very good at writing poetry and writing out a report or some kind of mini-informational essay, I could just get that out in about an hour or two at the most depending how detailed I want it to be. 


And so for each student, it just it was based on their interests and what they had time to do. I had students who were interested the art option because they wanted to draw, but I had the highest rate of assignment completion with these mini-projects because of the fact that it gave them choice. 


Now, obviously, this won’t work for every assignment. But you should do more of this if you can because you’ll get more buy-in from your students. 


Strategy number three is probably one of the most important ones, and that is to connect the work to student interests. I’ve talked about this before, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this step. If you want your students to truly be engaged and pay attention, you have to connect it to something that matters to them. 


Why should a student care about compound interest? Who cares about matter and energy? Why do they need to conjugate verbs? What’s the point of reading about that Little Women? And in some of their minds, they’re thinking, Isn’t that discriminating against little people? And you know what? These are valid questions. 


Think about it. Have you ever sat in a class in college or even in a staff meeting and wondered, what was the point of learning this, and on top of that, you were bored out of your mind? So guess what you did at that moment? You spaced out, you went on your phone, or if you’re in college, maybe you went on your laptop and started messaging people, or maybe you were shopping on Amazon, or you’re on social media. And then we get mad at students when they want to go on their phones, or doodle on a piece of paper or do something on their iPad, even though they’re bored out of their minds. 


So we have to understand that it’s not going to matter to them if it doesn’t relate to them in some way. Of course, they’re going to get bored. Just because you’re the teacher at the front of the room, that doesn’t mean that they’re definitely going to pay attention, let alone work for you. 


But when you make the subject connect to something as simple as a TV episode, or something everyone is talking about in the news, suddenly, they’re all captivated. So someone on YouTube, they created this fabulous video that I use to teach figurative language. It has bits and pieces of music videos that contain figurative language. And then it pauses long enough for students to identify what was used. It’s just these little short video snippets. And even my most sullen students, they totally got into this lesson. And they almost always remember these types of figure of language, when we have to analyze it later on in poetry based on that one assignment. 


And when I’m teaching theme, you know, I’m going to use movie and TV show examples. You could also make connections to movies, and history, or even better how a movie portrayed and maybe even botched up history. I know that I personally enjoy Neil Degrasse Tyson because he’s known for debunking the accuracy of science in movies. And that just makes learning science even more fun for me. 


So if you can connect it to something that they already know, or care about, or paying attention to, then you can create a more engaging lesson. Now, a little caveat here, because it doesn’t mean that if I have an assignment where they create an Instagram profile for a character, that that’s necessarily going to be engaging. So give them some parameters, try to find out some Instagram trends, so that it’s something that they can connect even more. Just because it’s using Instagram, that doesn’t make it automatically engaging. I hope that makes sense. 


So for example, if you’re like, Okay, create something for an Instagram story for a character in Little Women, what would they be posting about in chapter 15 of the book? Use different stickers and animations that you would on a normal Instagram story, and here are some free apps that you can use to do that. So you want to make it as relatable as possible. 


Alright, so the fourth strategy, which is similar to the third one is to give them real-world scenarios. Make them demonstrate their learning, rather than just completing a worksheet. I think the most boring thing that we can do as teachers is to just have students complete worksheets as evidence of mastery. I mean, think about it – mastery truly happens when they can apply this learning outside of your classroom, or in situations that are different from how they learned it. 


So for example, when I teach argumentative writing, I have students to product or restaurant reviews. So we first start out by looking online at reviews of different electronics and shoes and restaurants. Basically, whatever interests them, but I give them some suggestions in the beginning, then I make sure that they find another website with an opposing view so that they can compare and contrast. 


We work on how to write a good argument and counter-argument, using ethos, pathos, logos to emotionally appeal to the reader, all the things that I would normally do to teach argumentative writing, and then we put it together so that they can write their own review. 


The fun part about this is that my students have to do a review, where they test out actual products of their choice, or they review maybe like a restaurant, they don’t have to necessarily purchase anything, but they have to test the product out. So if they want to compare soccer cleats, they have to go to a sporting goods store and try them on. If they want to review first-person shooter games, they have to actually play them. I had a student who reviewed different gel pens, and so she went to an art store. And you know, she brought like a little pad and paper and she was testing out the gel pens there. I’ve had students review different boba shops around our city, and somebody even reviewed different box macaroni and cheese, then I had them post the reviews on our class blogs so that everyone could see it. 


And I wanted them to experience what it would be like to write a review that’s being read online by the public, and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. So that’s a real-world situation. My students, they love this activity so much. Even though posting a blog post on Edublogs, there’s a lot of steps involved, they didn’t care, they just wanted to make it really good. And they wanted it to be high quality because it’s going to be public. 


And for those who didn’t want to spend money, they got really creative, and they used a few things around the house, or they borrowed something from a friend or a neighbor so they could review, different brands of the same product. A few students asked if they could compare athletes, but I told them then that they had to get technical and compare at least two players based on their statistics. And nobody took me up on this. But I can see that as a nice tie-in with math. 


So the point is if you give them a scenario that we would do in the real world. I guess you could say as adults later on as possible career things, they watch YouTube, and they see people reviewing stuff all the time. So this is something that is meaningful, and fun for them. And they totally are engaged the entire time.


The last strategy is to showcase student work. So as I just mentioned, you know, I had students posting their product reviews online and most of them were really careful about the images they chose, their formatting, the spelling all of that because they knew it was going to be public. 


Now you don’t have to post your students’ work on the web for the whole world to see. But posting it on walls gives them a sense of pride and ownership. And it also raises the stakes for a lot of them because it’s visible. However,  there’s always going to be students that really don’t care about the quality even if it’s on display. But don’t let those few ruin it for everyone else. And you won’t be able to post everything. Obviously, you don’t want to post every quick-write, especially if it’s personal. 


But if you create a real-world assignment that connects to student interests, then you definitely want to showcase that and invite other teachers and administrators to check it out. I did that with our class blog, I sent the link out to the staff at my school, and I asked them to leave comments on some of these blog posts and they loved getting those comments from their teachers. At first, they were mortified, like, Oh my goodness, my teachers going to read this or see this. But then when they did get the comments, they were really, really excited about it. So posting student work, definitely something that you want to think about. 


So these are just five strategies to create engaging lessons. I personally use all of them. And some of them are a little more involved in terms of planning, like making it more real-world or connecting it to student interests. But I have to tell you that the effort that you put into it is well worth the time. We can’t just teach with drill and kill, here’s the worksheet. Yes, we can give direct instruction, and have them follow along where we model and then we work together as a group. 


But if you can make your examples realistic, if you can make your example something that they can relate to, they’re less likely to look away and space out there more likely to stay involved because they’re going to crack up. Even putting something like Sponge Bob and Squidword in your examples, they think that’s really funny. And all of a sudden, they just want to answer number nine because it had Sponge Bob and Squidword. I kid you not. 


So I hope that you can employ at least one of these strategies in your lesson planning. And then on the next episode next week, I’m going to be talking about the delivery side the class time side of engagement. Because like I said in the beginning, it’s two parts. It’s lesson planning and delivery. 


So I hope that you got a lot of value from this particular episode. If you do like the podcast and you’re new, please look at your phone or whatever you’re listening on right now and hit subscribe so that you can get these episodes sent to you every single week. Thank you so much for hanging out with me today. I hope you have a fabulous week.

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