We all have bad days.
Whether it’s because the coffee didn’t brew fast enough or we hit an unexpected traffic jam on the way to school, there are days when we just don’t feel like giving it our all. Our students are like that, too. Not only can they face the coffee and traffic issues we all do. They are also immersed in a foreign culture, in a foreign language. Sometimes it’s hard to jump in the deep end when it comes to language learning. Who wants to think about grammar when they are having a bad hair day? That’s where our ability as teachers to engage our students comes in. We can take simple action to help our students out of their motivational struggles and into language learning. If you are looking for some ways to motivate and engage your students, try these simple techniques.
4 Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement
Getting to Know You
A personal connection between student and teacher can make a big difference on how much effort students put into their studies. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, maybe it should. But think about your past. Didn’t you do better and try harder in classes where you like your teacher and truly thought they cared? Your ESL students are in class to learn English and achieve their goals. Some might say that their teacher shouldn’t affect how much effort they put into achieving those goals. But the reality is that your students want to know you and they want you to know them. So it is a worthwhile investment of your time to get to know them individually and let them get to know each other, too. Try taking the first five to ten minutes of class to chit chat, make personal connections, and talk about life. You don’t have to feel like this is wasted time, either. Besides building relationships with you, your students are using English to communicate, learning how to make polite conversation, and learning the social dynamics of discourse. Taking time to know your students at the beginning of class will set them up to engage and put forth their best effort for today’s class no matter what you plan on teaching.
Give Students Their Own Educational Space
While you might feel you have to schedule every minute of class with instruction and follow-up exercises on today’s topic, making “creative space” or undesignated time in class can actually help engage your students. That’s right. Not planning activities to engage them might actually be the best way to engage them. Ironic but true. But just because you haven’t planned specific activities for students to do doesn’t mean that undesignated time is wasted time. Set aside some time each day or each week to let students learn according to their own agendas. One way to do this is to setup independent learning centers. Simply put, these stations are exercises set up so students can do them without outside direction from you. You set up several stations, each to work on a different aspect of language and using a different learning strategy and let your students choose which station they work at during your scheduled unscheduled time. You can also make creative space in your classroom by developing a classroom library including a variety of subjects. Let students read and research what interests them, and you will engage them on a more personal level even though they will still be reading and writing in English. You can also hold special events in your creative space, inviting students to participate in games, debates, contests, and other activities but not requiring that they do so. Making this undesignated time in class gives students freedom to explore what interests them, and interested students are engaged students.
Focus on the General Rather Than the Specific
English can be used in near infinite ways. As teachers, we can have a tendency to get stuck in a rut when it comes to how we have students use language in class. We can have a tendency to do the same activities we have done for years or do the same types of activities with every unit we teach. Not that what we do is necessarily wrong or bad, but sometimes students need more space, more creativity when it comes to using language. You can give them this freedom by assigning certain topics to your students but letting them choose how they will present information to the class. Let them choose the medium. For example, you might have students give an in class presentation about their families. Rather than requiring students to stand up front and explain a family tree, let students choose how they will introduce their relatives to the class. They might choose to make a movie or write a brochure, creating a set of character sketches, write a song, or give a presentation using a family photo album. Any of these can be effective ways to present that same information. You can engage your students in the project more by letting them choose the way they will present their information to the class.
To set up this type of system for your class, brainstorm with your class different ways they can present information to the class. You might include the methods I mentioned above as well as many others. Once you have a list, choose five to ten different methods you would accept for gradable projects. Then when you assign something to your students, let them decide what method they will use to present their information. For the next project, let them decide on their method again, but point out that students cannot choose the same method twice. For you part, you’ll need to develop a rubric for scoring students projects that you can tweak depending on what presentation method students choose.
Designate a Passion Hour
What are your students passionate about? Each person will answer that question differently. One thing those passions will have in common, though, is how they motivate your students. When people are passionate about a subject, work becomes play. Ask your students what they are passionate about. Encourage them to make a list of at least five things that really matter to them. Then set aside an hour a week (or another amount of time that works with your class schedule) to pursue your passions. A passion hour. Let students do research in your classroom library, check books and articles out of your school library, listen to lectures, podcast or TED talks – anything that lets them learn more about their passion. Have students update the class regularly about their research. Ask them to write blog posts about their topic for your classroom blog, stand up front and talk to the class, or have them write about what they have learned. Give your student a list of tasks to complete such as read a book, listen to a lecture, write an email to an expert in your field, etc. Because students care about the topic, they will care about the work they are doing, and likely it won’t seem like work at all.
We all need a little bit of extra encouragement from time to time.
Try these strategies to engage your students and you may find that they engagement goes from blah to bam!