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5 Ways to Increase Student Engagement – Our Secret Weapon for Teachers [episode 35]


Click below to hear 5 student engagement strategies to increase student engagement:

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Overview of episode 35:

The recipe for a successful classroom includes a mixture of procedures, lesson plans, activities, and relationships. But the top secret ingredient? Student engagement. In order to accomplish this in your classroom, it requires a balance between novelty and routine. We’ve talked a lot about routine and procedures in the classroom in past episodes, so today we’re sharing how novelty plays a role to increase student engagement in a productive classroom. Keep reading to find out our secret student engagement strategies!

If you think of student engagement as a scale, by adding novelty to your day, you’re providing an element of surprise that piques their interest. A term used in the business world addresses this situation, which is called surprise and delight. By creating surprise and delight in the classroom it does two things: changes behavior and strengthens relationships. In keeping those in mind, we share 5 ways to apply surprise and delight in your classroom that helps increase student engagement and keeps the scale balanced. 

Finding the perfect balance between novelty and routine can be tricky and difficult to achieve. However, remembering to add a little surprise and delight to increase student engagement will help show your students that you see them and care about them and their happiness. 

In addition, we’d like to show you how much we care about you and show that you’re important to us by adding some surprise and delight to your day! Head over to our Teacher Approved Facebook group and share your surprise and delight idea. Then, we’ll choose a few lucky people and fund your idea. Enjoy!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:55] Today’s morning message: what are you reading?

[3:37] Keeping students engaged is the balance between novelty and routine.

[8:13] The two takeaways that surprise and delight are relevant for teachers.

[9:12] 5 avenues to apply surprise and delight in your classroom.

[17:51] Today’s teacher approved tip for adding surprise and delight with a prize wheel.


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Read the transcript for episode 35, 5 Ways to Increase Student Engagement – Our Secret Weapon for Teachers:

Hey there. Thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re discussing our secrets for student engagement and sharing a teacher approved tip for using a prize wheel. We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do it morning meeting in our classrooms. Today’s morning message is what are you reading? Emily, what are you reading right now? I just started Carrie Soto Is Back. I don’t know this one. Oh, it’s been all the buzz Oh, it’s, it’s about a tennis star. And it kind of like I don’t actually know the whole book because I’m not that far. But so far, it has changed times a little bit. So I don’t know if it like bounces around through her life for the whole book or just at the beginning.

But even though I have like zero interest in sports or tennis, I am pretty interested in the story. So and I have heard that a lot of people love it. So hopefully I will love it too. Heidi, what are you reading? I just finished listening to My Imaginary Mary, which is part of the series of books by Birdie Ashton, Cynthia Han and Jodi Meadows, who are bunch of friends and actually found that one of them actually lives here in Utah. Go figure. So if you haven’t read any of their stories before, you definitely need to like, these are books that need to be listened to because there’s just so much humor in the voice. It’s just Yeah, it’s hard to explain. It’s kind of like if the Princess Bride and maybe like Monty Python, and the Holy Grail had a baby, it might be this book. So they take kind of like women from history or literature, and give them maybe better outcome than they actually got in real life. And the first one is my Lady Jane was my favorite is still my favorite, so good. And the audio for that one is amazing, is impeccable.

It is just delightful. So fun. And those series of books is called they called My Lady Janie’s and they don’t really go together in a series so you could read them in any order. Except I think my Lady Jane and My Contrary Mary kind of have the same characters. And they’re making a movie of my Lady Jane, did you know that? No, I saw I just saw that on a success. So hopefully that’s good enough. Anyway. So My Imaginary Mary is the story of, well, very fictionalized version of Mary Shelley, and Ada Lovelace, who was one of the first people to kind of invent a computer. So it’s, it’s just quirky and weird and fun. So it was very enjoyable. If you need something that is quirky and weird, and I’m excited to listen to that. We’d love to hear what you’re reading over in our teacher approved Facebook group, or on Instagram at @2ndstorywindow, and that is with a two.

So I have to tell you something, we know the secret to a well functioning classroom. Want to know what it is? Keeping students engaged. Yes, if the kids are engaged, you can accomplish anything. But if they’re not engaged, nothing can happen. But keeping students engaged can feel like a tall order. We feel the key to getting those cute wiggly students engaged is figuring out the perfect balance between novelty and routine. We talked a lot about routines and procedures in recent months. Today we’re going to talk about the role novelty plays in a productive classroom. We’ve shared this idea before. But imagine for a minute that student engagement is like an old timey balance scale. Think of the kind of the lawyer’s office with the two buckets on either side. Or if you teach primary math, you know, the climate you put all the little bear counters and right. One bucket is routine. And the other bucket is novelty. In the middle, when it’s more or less balanced, our students are engaged. If the scale tips too far to the routine side, kids are bored. If the scale tips too much to the novelty side, kids are overwhelmed. And kids that are either bored or overwhelmed, can’t learn. So those are reasons enough to keep kids engaged. Of course, we want all our students learning all the time. But also unengaged students can lead to additional problems because kids who aren’t learning will be doing something and I can guarantee that something isn’t what you want them to be doing. So I think we would all agree that it’s important to maintain that balance between routine and novelty. Now imagine that you have two kinds of coins. One coin is predictability. And the other coin is surprise. Predictability and surprise are the tools we use to keep the engagement scale balanced. In a perfect world, we could set the scale once, and it would just stay balanced all year. Wouldn’t that be nice, yes, but unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Sometimes we can control how much predictability and surprise are added to our buckets. But it often comes down to outside forces. So we may not be able to control the circumstances, but we can use the tools of novelty and routine to counterbalance them and keep students engaged.

So let’s think about the beginning of the school year. Everything is new and exciting. There are so many surprise coins in the novelty bucket that it threatens to overflow. To help balance that we start dropping predictability coins into the routine bucket right away. We teach procedures, we lay things out clearly and calmly, we talk things through before they happen, and we evaluate how they went after. All of those predictability coins, help kids feel safe and welcome and create a sense of belonging in our classroom, they’re really important. But once we’re a few weeks into school, the balance starts to tip. If we keep adding predictability coins to the routine bucket, we are in danger of tipping too far into boredom.

So how can we add some novelty to our engagement scale, without throwing everything into overwhelm? Well, that’s when we get to use a magic tool we love called surprise and delight. The term surprise and delight actually comes from the business world. The idea is that completely out of the blue, a business treats its customers to a valuable act of kindness with no strings attached. Yeah, you’ve probably seen some form of this on social media, a major airline announces to all the passengers on a flight that they’re getting free plane tickets anywhere in the world. Or Oprah gives away cars to a roomful of teachers, you get a car and you get a car you got to work on. You really do. Now you might be wondering what this has to do with teachers who could probably use a new car, rather than have the means to get one way. You’d be lucky to have the budget to give away a book to each student. Let’s be honest, yes, surprise and delight in the classroom is going to look a lot different than it does for a big business. No teacher is going to be airlifting a taco truck onto the playground like Taco Bell did, which actually happened, that would be amazing.

But the benefits from surprise and delight can be just as effective for a teacher as it is for business. So why is surprise and delight such a powerful tool? An article in Harvard Business Review points out that the human brain craves the unexpected. That surprise can be easy and cheap. And that amplifies emotion. I definitely feel all of this about a good surprise. But the article gives two takeaways that I think are particularly relevant to teachers. The first takeaway is that surprise changes behavior. Dr. Asad, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Brown University is quoted as saying, “It’s been known for a long time that it’s unexpected events, in particular, that drive learning.” If you’ve taught for a while that probably makes sense to you. It’s when kids are curious about something and when they want to know more and figure something out that they learn the most. Yeah, and the second takeaway is that surprise strengthens relationships. A delightful surprise demonstrates that you care about someone, it shows that you’ve thought about them and then put in the extra effort to do something to help them feel happy. Obviously, this article is about business. But the reasons that make surprise and delight powerful for nurturing customers are the same reasons it would work to engage students. Students that have something new and interesting to consider are engaged. Students that know their teacher is invested in their happiness are engaged.

So how do we apply the tool of surprise and delight in our classrooms? Well, luckily, it’s easier than it sounds. We have five teacher approved avenues of surprise and delight. They are one change something, two add something, three celebrate something, four, choose something, and five solve something.

Let’s take a look at those one at a time. Let’s start with change something. Now that could be as simple as rearranging desks. Even though a seating arrangement has nothing to do with the math lesson you’re teaching, most likely, adjusting the classroom by adding novelty to a routine setting helps students be more engaged in learning fractions. And you probably were going to change seats anyway. And that’s important to remember because surprise and delight, doesn’t have to be something extra. It’s just an intentional way of elevating what you are already doing. And by the way, we have a really good episode about seating arrangements, too. If you haven’t listened, you can check that out in Episode 26. So what else might you change? Could you change the materials that kids are using? Maybe today, they get to do their math practice in crayon, or on a whiteboard instead of a paper? Could you change something in the classroom, maybe you put out some seasonal decor, maybe you do a whole classroom transformation. That is not my cup of tea, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. But if that is what fills you up, then go for it.

Some other simple changes could be changing the time of an activity or changing where it takes place. Maybe you always do read aloud in the back of the room and for today, you move it to the side of the room, maybe the kids always do their spelling practice at their desks. But today, they get to work under their desks. Kids would be surprised and delighted by both those changes, and they take very little effort from you.

Maybe instead of a change, there’s something you could add to your day, which is avenue number two. An extra few minutes of recess or free drawing time are always welcome. Or you could add a brain break or take a minute to do a silly action song. One thing you could try is thinking about the senses and how you can incorporate a new sensory experience to your lesson. You could add some movement to a lesson or make it more tactile. Maybe you try to add some time outdoors where students can smell the fresh air and feel the sunshine. I’m very careful about bringing food into class. But an appropriate and safe snack or treat could really add something to a lesson like using Oreos for teaching the moon phases.

You could also add different modalities like adding art to math or drama to science. Maybe you could add a guided meditation or some yoga to a lesson or to your morning meeting, you could try adding technology to a lesson that you usually do with paper and pencils. Or you could flip that you could remove technology from a time when you usually use it and present the lesson in a different way. Another thing you can consider adding to is the ambiance of your classroom, you can add some background music, something common non distracting, or even nature sounds, maybe project one of those fireplace videos and let everyone feel like the reading around the fire. You could adjust the lighting if it doesn’t impact how much learning happens.

There are really countless ways you can add a little something to your school day to elevate it from normal to awesome. Just be aware though, that your neurodivergent learners will appreciate a heads up before you add too many surprise coins to the novelty bucket. Some people tip into overwhelm more easily than others. And we want to make sure our surprises really are delightful for everyone.

Our third avenue of surprise and delight is celebrate something. Could you lean into one of those wacky holidays, maybe you could add a Yoho Matey to your morning meeting greeting on talk Like a Pirate Day. I know Emily would think it’s a win. Or you can make up your own holiday to celebrate a lot of teachers and their students love flashlight Friday. My third grader gets to do this at school sometimes and he loves it. I can see that being right up his alley. Maybe you want to have a three minute dance party Thursday. I just made that up. Can you tell me yes, I don’t feel like you have to do these every Friday or every Thursday, they’ll be more fun and more surprising and delightful if students don’t know when to expect them.

The fourth avenue of surprise and delight is about choice. how delighted with your kids be if they get to choose three problems to skip on their math page. Or maybe you offer two different assignments and they get to choose which one to complete. I love this idea because it’s so easy to implement. So your goal as a teacher is to give students opportunities to deepen their understanding through practice. But there are so many ways for students to meet that goal. Giving students choice in their schoolwork not only boosts the novelty in your classroom, but it helps students take more ownership over their learning. And that is a win win. And we don’t have enough of those in education. So you can let them choose books from a special shelf for reading time one day, or let them choose where they want to sit in the room to work for certain assignments.

Our fifth avenue of surprise and delight is mystery. I mean, we know what it is it’s literally a mystery. Give students something to solve. That could be as simple as having students predict how a character got her name before you read a story. Or you could teach them a math magic trick and have them figure out why it works. Kids get so excited when they learn a mystery math trick makes them feel like an insider. Science really lends itself to mysteries too and solving problems has the added benefit of helping students remember what they’re learning better than just being told the information.

Hopefully, these ideas got some gears turning in your head. But if you are like me, getting the idea out of my head and into reality is the hard part, we have to be practical about our surprises. So set a goal to incorporate surprise and delight at least once a week or every other week, and write it in your planner. And just remember to keep it simple. One study showed that just finding a dime on the ground boosted people’s happiness. So what’s a dime worth of surprise and delight that you could add to your class this week? It can be so tempting to go big with these. But keep in mind that the brain is a discounting machine, what made a big impact today, will make a slightly smaller impact tomorrow. And after two weeks, it will hardly make any impact at all. So for example, a disco ball hanging in your classroom has a big wow factor at first, but then it just becomes normal. There’s no surprise left in that surprise. But what if you have a little battery operated disco ball that you bring out just four or five times a year. Now that is magical.

And just a note, students don’t have to earn these moments of surprise and delight. They are a gesture of generosity on your part as the teacher, you’re telling the students I see you, I care about you, your happiness is important to me. And while we may be adding surprise and delight to help our students, it has the added benefit of helping us too. This is the stuff that makes teaching fun. There’s so little we control about what we teach. But we can add a little sprinkle of magic to how we teach; consistent simple surprises can make teaching feel like a delight instead of a chore. And sometimes we need those little moments to help us remember that we actually like this job. It’s what keeps us going.

So we have a little surprise and delight that we would like to share with you amazing podcast listeners. So if you head over to our teacher approved Facebook group, and share your idea for a surprise and delight project for your class, like starting flashlight Friday or getting a mini disco ball to bring out on your special days, we’re going to choose a few of these surprise and delight projects to fund for you. Yes, it’s gonna be so fun. All you have to do is comment with your idea, which will help give your teacher friends ideas that they can use too. We can’t wait to hear your ideas. So head over and share with us in the teacher approved Facebook group.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is add surprise and delight with a prize wheel. Emily tell us more about this. Okay, so we’re talking about those spinny prize wheels, you know, think like a Wheel of Fortune wheel, but small and vertical. I think you can get them at IKEA. I’m not positive, but I feel like I’ve heard that. But they’re not the only place you can get one. So get one of those for your classroom. And you can use it in so many ways. And it’s going to be the most effective if you don’t use it all the time, you only use it sometimes. So you can have it where only one space is the lucky space. And so you can spin it often with only a few times being the winning time that everyone gets a small treat or something like that. So that’s a way you could spin it more often.

Or you can spin it a little less often and have each of the spaces have something on it. So it could be different activities like read under your desk, anything that won’t require advanced prep, and then you can just use the prize wheel whenever you want to use it. I know a reward my students like was that, you know, they could take off their shoes for an activity and just be in their socks. We technically had to have your shoes on policy at school, but I like to live on the edge. You know. I was fine for 20 minutes. I kind of want to spin the prize wheel just for myself to get through the day. Sometimes I get the spinning prize wheel. And now you can have a gummy bear. Yay.

To wrap up the show we’re sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to? I am giving extra credit to Welcome to Flach on Fox. It was something I just started watching a few weeks ago. And I caught up on season one and just in time for season two to start. I love a quirky show. What can I say? So it’s about this like small Ohio town that’s kind of filmed, mockumentary style where they’re out seeing what rural America is like. And it just follows this couple of like, cousins that aren’t really going anywhere in their lives. They’re like 18 and 19. And just all the adventures that happen in a tiny little town. It’s just fun. And I love a quirky show and a 30 Minute Comedy is always a win.

So that’s my extra credit, Emily, what are you giving us credit to? Well, I’m also giving extra credit to a quirky small town comedy. Gilmore Girls. Oh, the classic. I know. I know. Here’s the thing though. If you need a cozy fall, rewatch show, this one never fails. Now, not all the seasons are homeruns. Let’s be honest. But the first few seasons especially are always just a delight to rewatch. And I have rewatched the whole series several times, but not in a couple of years. So I’m really enjoying this current fall rewatch, and can I just say that it is a travesty that Kellie Bishop was never nominated for an Emmy for Emily Gilmore? Oh, she’s so good in that role on the rewatches. I’m like, Man, she is doing the most work here. Yeah, you know, you’ve grown up in life when you’re suddenly identifying with Emily instead of Lorelai or Rory, I think I’ve gotten through all three of those. I’m already in the grip.

That’s it for today’s episode, at some surprise and delight to your day to increase student engagement. And don’t forget today’s teacher proof tip to try using a prize wheel.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.