According to Education Week, a 2013 Gallup Poll found that high schools engaged only 55% of the students. That means nearly half of all students (45%) are not engaged. Gallup defines "engagement" as involvement and enthusiasm for school. Another Gallup Study found that engagement related to achievement. In 2009, Gallup looked at 78,000 students in 80 schools. A 1% increase in engagement translated into a 6-point increase in reading ability. That same 1% increase explained in an 8-point increase in math scores. Clearly, we have a large learning problem. But we also have a big chance to improve achievement.
Teachers must take steps to overcome student inertia. They can reclaim the attention of relevant students with simple practices. None of these are enough singly. But together they form a powerful system. They can reverse student disengagement. I know that there are school reforms to combat disengagement. But here I only deal with classroom practices. I focus on what one teacher can do regardless what else is happening in the school.
Begin by organizing the classroom as a predictable route. Divide the class period into the same type of 4 or 5 activities every day. Make sure that opening and ending activities are always the same type.
In my classroom, the students always started with a writing exercise. In a small notebook, they copied a paragraph of their choice from a pile of popular magazines I kept in a corner of the room. In the course of a year, students fill their notebooks with paragraphs they like. Copying books has been a common learning practice for becoming a better writer since ancient times.
I always ended the last 7 minutes of class with self-selected reading from the classroom library. In addition to the magazines, I kept a variety of books including picture books, joke books, and comic books. I also had a collection of tiny books sold at supermarkets on various subjects. If nothing else, standing up and browsing through reading materials orients students to the written word. Most did read. Some even check out a book or magazine to finish their reading.
I usually showed a short video (10 minutes) about an interesting event or person. Some related to the current topics but not always. These professionally produced materials easily capture the attention of all students. Your school will have a subscription to a video service such as United Streaming. You can download tons of them as mp4 files and play them later for class. They increase the background knowledge of students and boost comprehension.
Another practice I followed is having students work in small groups or projects. Working cooperatively with other students adds a social element. This is very different from the usual clustering of teens based on whims and fads. Having common external goals infuses the class with a sense of purpose and improvements morale.
I also read to the students on a regular basis. I collected 2-3 page selections in a folder. They were similar to Paul Harvey's radio broadcasts, The Rest of the Story. You are never too old to listen to a reading. After all recorded books are a big business with adults.
Sometimes, we divide the class into teams and play hangman with the spelling of key concepts. This humble game energizes students as only games can. Do not underestimate the value of games for academic learning. Play is an important way to learn. All kind of creatures including cats, bears, dogs, and children play to rehearse skills. Just look at the variety of toys that mimic adult activities. I knew from my army days that sharing experiences with a group creates comradeship, good will and a sense of belonging. It is no different with teens. Ask any coach!
Disengaged students have lower reading and math achievement. But we can reverse this at the classroom level. We can organize the classroom to engage relevant students. These small steps can have big results. And they benefit everyone. An added bonus is an orderly and happy classroom.