Student engagement plummets as kids transition from grade school to high school—and it's largely up to teachers and administrators to turn that trend around.
Roughly 75 percent of elementary school students (grades 5 and 6) are actively involved and invested in school, compared with only 44 percent of high school students (grades 9 through 12), according to the 2012 Gallup Student Poll, released last month.
"If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less," Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, wrote in a blog post last week.
To measure their engagement, Gallup surveyed close to 500,000 public school students in grades 5-12, asking them to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as, "My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important," and "At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day."
Reversing the trajectory of student engagement requires educators to think on their feet, says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York.
"If you look around the room and notice a class full of glazed over faces, it's time to rethink your approach," she says.
Teachers looking for fresh tactics to pull their students in should make the content relevant and interactive, experts say.
Teenagers are attuned to what is going on in the so-called real world. Teachers can harness this interest by using timely examples to help students relate to tried-and-true lessons, says Heather Ordover, a former English teacher at the Leadership and Public Service High School in New York City.
"When I taught The Scarlet Letter … we started by looking at a Newsweek article that came out the previous week," she recalls. "We read the article, we talked about judging women, we talked about how the guy got off scot-free, we talked about what it says about our society … and then we started the book."
At the end of the year, Ordover's students consistently rated the novel as one of their favorite books, she says, in part because her lessons tied the literary classic to modern-day issues.
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Cultivating an in-class environment that incorporates elements of a student's daily life also helps make learning relevant. Since teenagers are constantly interacting via social media, instant messaging, and texts, they may be more likely to engage in a classroom that mimics that experience.
"Teens are used to getting instant feedback in everything they do," says Gerard Lafond, vice president of marketing at Alleyoop, an educational technology start-up. "They post a status on Facebook or Twitter and friends instantly like, retweet, or comment on [it], sparking an engaging conversation."
Teachers can mirror that engagement in the classroom by letting students comment on their classmates' work or give feedback on lesson plans, Lafond says.
"[It] puts the learning in a social context," he says. "It's about talking with the students, not at them."
But even relevant lessons can fall flat if the delivery is boring or outdated. Incorporating videos, interactive projects, and a healthy dose of humor can help get students excited, even about stale content.
"Learning can be painful, but a pleasant kind of growing pain," Ordover says. "When it can be fun, it should be fun."
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