Category Archives: Student Engagement

Three Tricks for Sparking Students’ Creativity

By Amanda Rogers June 4th, 2014 2:15 PM

For many educators, project based learning can showcase a students’ knowledge of a subject better than any standardized test. However, let’s be honest, we all sometimes struggle to come up with a creative idea or the best way to start said projects. Here’s what I do in my classroom to stir up creative paths and guide students to a finished project.

  1. Start a classroom idea bin. During independent work, some of my students need more direction when it comes to beginning a project. An idea bin is a container, in this case a large empty plastic pretzel container, filled with strips of paper. On each piece of paper there is a prompt for beginning a project. For example, a piece of paper might say, “Crash! What just happened in the street?” The student who picked this prompt would use this creativity starter to jumpstart their own project, thinking of open-ended ideas that relate to the example. While I use this concept for visual art, it can easily be modified for classes in other subject areas. For example, a piece of paper in another class might say, “How can you use only a sheet of paper, scissors and tape, to create the parts of a flower?”
  2. Challenge students daily using creative thinking warm ups. When your students arrive in your classroom, they are coming from many different academic and life situations. Some students may have just nailed a test that they studied for last period, while others may have had a difficult situation at home that morning. Whatever the case, it can sometimes be difficult to light the fire of student engagement and learning. “Daily challenges” are one way to tackle those situations, get my students motivated, and strengthen their creative thinking skills. An example of a daily challenge warm up might be, “Using at least three geometric shapes, draw a symmetrical design.” These warm ups can also be used to review previous lessons and provide the teacher with valuable assessments of student understanding.
  3. Show Your Work! Writer Austin Kleon wrote the book Show Your Work, which challenges people to show off the things that they have accomplished. When people share their ideas and accomplishments, it can jumpstart a creative path for someone else. To do this in your school, set up an area in your classroom that showcases the work of your students. Encourage your students to use it as inspiration for their ideas, which can also be another valuable lesson in borrowing ideas versus copying ideas.

I hope that these three suggestions have sparked some creative ideas for your own classroom.

Follow me on Twitter @necityart


Formulas to Make Math More Engaging

By Earl Jones May 20th, 2014 10:00 AM

Raise your hand if you have ever had a student say math is boring. Keep it raised if you want students to be captivated by math and engrossed in activities.

Any mathematics teacher will tell you that many students struggle with staying engaged and interested in class. Math can sometimes become a chore, boring, or monotonous for kids. It takes a lot of effort and planning on the part of teachers to make math class and exciting time. Check out four ideas that have worked for me.  

  1. Make it applicable to everyday life. I know all teachers have heard this before. We are very aware that as adults we use math everyday, but it has to be made very transparent to students how math is all around us. When a student complains that time is going slowly and they’re waiting for recess, have him or her subtract and tell the class how many minutes there are until recess. If a kid mentions that they went to the movies with his family this weekend, ask the total price of the tickets. Try mentioning that you were using a recipe and had to convert from cups to pints. At first for me, it seemed a bit disingenuous to be this candid and explicit about mathematics, but soon after, I witnessed students becoming more aware of mathematics in their environment. They heard me speak about it many times a day and it opened their eyes.
  2. Turn boring activities into games and competitions. At one point or another, all math teachers have given a worksheet or some independent activity that is on the dry side. Try finding a way to make activities fun. Use dice, spinners, number cards, and other simple “game” materials when students are doing basic operations. Sometimes the simple act of infusing a game-like element into an activity gets students excited to participate. Better yet, make activities into a friendly competition. Young students love to outdo one another. Competitions I have tried include: challenging teams to give the most precise answer, allowing students to race against each other and the clock when practicing basic facts, and creating challenging problems for classmates. More competition equals more engagement.
  3. Let students lend a hand in the teaching. Students are obviously more invested when they or their peers have personally contributed to a task. Try allowing students to make anchor charts and posters. Have a small group of students explain a concept to the rest of the class. I have even let students make up class songs that we used to find perimeter and area of geometric shapes. You would be surprised at the creativity and collaborative skills I have seen when kind feel as though they are a part of the instruction that is occurring.
  4. Make very small, but obvious errors. I know this goes against everything you may be thinking and doing. The catch is that students must feel competent enough to correct a teacher. This must be done with skills and concepts that students have had significant exposure to already in school. I have said things such as “The fraction three-fourths means I need to divide each whole into three equal parts.” Not surprisingly, I heard 25 different voices saying, “No. Four equal parts.” Young students love to correct their teachers, and this improves their listening skills. Most importantly, it builds their confidence. When a young child knows that he has the ability to find errors in someone else’s work, it lets him know that he is very capable in his own right. This leads to increased effort and participation.

I encourage teachers to try at least one my suggestions before the end of the school year (maybe even try all four!). Let me know what works, or if you have any other suggestions for keeping students engaged and interested in math. Tweet me @Mathophile_DC.

Post CAS Panic

By Amanda Jonas April 30th, 2014 5:30 PM

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from Dumb and Dumber, when Harry and Lloyd come back to their ransacked apartment to find out that their bird Petey has “died of old age” (we all really know what happened to poor Petey though). Completely fed up his life and apartment, Lloyd starts screaming, “That’s it! I’ve had it with this dump! We’ve got no food, we’ve got no jobs, our pets heads are falling off!”

What I love about this clip is not only that Harry and Lloyd think that their bird’s head just fell off, but how honest Lloyd’s complete frustration feels. In all honestly, Lloyd’s speech reminds me of similar emotions I was feeling after the DC CAS, just before spring break. In order to make sure my scholars were as well prepared as possible for the CAS, I covered every fifth grade standard before the beginning of testing. When the test wrapped up during that second week of April, I felt excited and proud of my students. Then, all of the sudden, I felt as confused as Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber.

In my head, I was thinking, “Wait. Spring break is next week. When we come back…Wait. How? What will I teach my kids when I’ve already covered everything?” It also hit me that, when my kids came back to school, it would have been almost 3 weeks since they had normal classes. What was I going to do to keep them motivated?

At a loss at how I was going to keep students engaged, excited, and learning until that last day before summer break, I met with my math coach Mikel (any of you who have read any of my previous blogs know how fantastic she is) to try and figure out a plan. Mikel told me, “Listen. You’ve finished the CAS. Loosen up, get creative, get your kids ready for middle school.” I think her best advice was that the classroom should feel different post CAS for testing grades. Now, I’m not saying stop teaching, but what I am saying is stop teaching the way you’ve taught.

Mikel and I came up with the following solutions:

  • We picked out three sixth grade math objectives that I knew would interest my kids: probability, ratios and proportions. We then problem solved around creative ways to teach them. For example, my students would give out surveys to younger grades, exploring the odds of gambling and creating their own ratios based on data they collected themselves.
  • We decided that on Wednesdays we would have “Mathematical History” days where my City Year, Mr. Brendan, and I facilitated lessons on famous mathematicians and math discoveries throughout time (this week Mr. Brendan showed them how to find pi using string and a cut out of a circle).
  • I also started to partner with the second grade classes for a pretty intense unit on multiplication. I’m teaching my fifth graders new tutorial strategies, like how to create centers and help another student find the answer without telling it. In a few weeks, my kiddos and I are going to help the second graders become multiplication rock stars.
  • I’ve branched out of my comfort zone a bit to try new centers that I previously found too time consuming. That’s the best part of our post CAS classrooms; we have more time to do what we didn’t think we had time for before! Instead of being filled with panic, I was suddenly excited at the possibilities that the next test free weeks held in store for my classroom. I realized that, as long as I was teaching my students things that I was excited about, they would be too. Lets be honest, we teachers can all use a little more fun and excitement in the classroom too!

Are you in a testing grade? Are you done with the CAS? Are you unsure about what to do next? Here are some helpful tips from Mikel and I on how to beat those post- CAS blues…

  1. Look ahead! Check out next year’s standards, or better yet, chat with a teacher who teaches the grade ahead of you and find what the priority standards are. Start your kids on those this year and make sure they know what a competitive edge they’ll have on their peers when they start the next grade.
  2. Play! If you can, make it into a game. I have my kids make “word problem mad libs,” where they create or copy a bunch of word problems, leave a few blanks, and tell other students to insert funny nouns or adjectives (blended learning anyone?) to see who can make the silliest problem.
  3. Projects. Now is the perfect time to implement project based learning. Remember teaching that unit on area? Now you can have your students use what they know about area to build their “dream houses” using graph paper and a whole lot of imagination.
  4. Expand your students’ horizons! Why not buddy with a lower or higher grade and peer tutor? Not only does it help your students build valuable social skills, but they are gaining confidence in their academic abilities and reinforcing things they have already learned. Nothing helps students retain information more than having them teach it themselves.

Whatever you decide to do after the CAS, remember one thing: your students see the value of education through your eyes. If you see these last several weeks as frustrating, they will as well. But, if you show them that learning doesn’t stop when the big tests are over, then your students will keep on adding and subtracting and reading and writing until that last dismissal bell rings on June 20th.

What’s the Secret to Happy Students?

By Amanda Jonas March 31, 2014 10:30 AM

Imagine the idyllic classrooms of your favorite television shows as a kid. Depending on when you grew up, you might be picturing the pristine science labs from Lizzie McGuire or plant-filled courtyard where Lizzie, Miranda and Gordo ate lunch.  Images of Mr. Feeny lecturing Cory in his big classroom with large green chalkboards and big windows might come to mind. Or, you might think of the bright orange lockers and cluttered music room of Bayside High. Whether your ideal school was Hillridge Junior High, John Adams High School, or Bayside High, one thing that all these schools share in common is that they feel like happy and welcoming places for their students. Sure, none of these schools were actually real. Granted, from time to time, one or more of our favorite characters got bullied or shoved in a locker. But overall, the schools felt warm, the students looked happy, and the teachers seemed cool.

What happens when your school looks nothing like a Hollywood set? DC Scholars Stanton Elementary, led by the fabulous Principal Rena Johnson, doesn’t have a science lab, a courtyard, or beautiful, big windows… In fact, my classroom windows are barely visible, covered by a million hand-drawn chart paper posters with math equations and formulas. Maybe Stanton doesn’t look like those TV show schools, but it still feels happy. What then, if not aesthetics, makes a school happy? Is there a certain formula that good teachers follow to create happiness? To answer this question, I asked students from four very different classrooms in my school about what makes them happy when they are in class. The answers below might surprise you.

Student: Nijae
Age: 6
Grade: 1st
Teacher: Ms. Tillman
Classroom Vibe: “Wild and Loving.”

“I am happy when we get to turn and talk about what Ms. Tillman teaches us. It makes me happy when Ms. Tillman listens to me and I know she’s listening to me because she tracks me and tells me if she agrees with me. And if she doesn’t, she tells me what she thinks.”

Student: Verkia
Age: 7
Grade: 2nd
Teacher: Ms. Hoes
Classroom Vibe: “Organized Chaos.”

“Being with Ms. Hoes makes me happy because she’s nice. She treats me special and she loves me. I know she loves me because she tells me and she hugs me and she gives me support like when she comes to my cheerleading competitions.”

Student: Dialonte
Age: 9
Grade: 3rd
Teacher: Ms. Reilly
Classroom Vibe: “Structured and Supportive.”

“I feel great in Ms. Emma’s room because she doesn’t get mad. Every time I mess up she doesn’t yell at me, she just tells me how to fix it the next time. I feel happy because I feel smart in her room because if I don’t understand something she’ll teach me so I can get great grades.”

Student: RavenJonas, happy students
Age: 10
Grade: 5th
Teacher: Ms. Jonas
Classroom Vibe: “Creatively Learnable.”

“I love being in Ms. Jonas’ class because I love math and she’s here with us. She takes time outside of her job for us and does what she has to do to always support us. Plus she cares even if we are acting up. She’s the best!”


Each student I talked to comes from a very different class. Ms. Emma’s incredible behavior management creates a peaceful and thoughtful room where all scholars are respectful and important members of her learning community. Ms. Hoes slightly cluttered room is a place where students eagerly learn with just as much as excitement as when their desks are shoved to the sides of the room so they can learn a choreographed Beyoncé dance for the latest assembly. Finally, my classroom fluctuates between scenes of me wildly jumping off desks to explain the metric system, to impromptu push up competitions, to deep intellectual conversations on how our graph shows how education increases earning potential.

So, what is the secret to a happy class? Not one of the students mentioned any material objects, extra recess, or candy. Instead, all of the students I talked to could articulate exactly what made them feel happy in school. I feel the secret to this joy is a classroom that feels safe, a classroom where love abides, a classroom where students know they are listened to, valued and respected… The secret to happiness is in all those little things that no perfect Hollywood set could emulate.

An Alternative Way of Looking at Student Success

By Angelique Kwabenah February 27th, 2014 5:00 PM

In many ways, working in an alternative school setting is similar to working in a regular school setting. You have the same elements at play, and many of the same actors: teachers, students and administrators.

However, there are some significant differences. Students who are enrolled in this type of school setting generally have not had much academic or behavioral success in other settings, and are coming into this type of school setting with very little to no motivation and limited or deficient academic skills. Therefore, teaching strategies employed in alternative settings are often more unconventional in order to reach all students.  Based on my experience in this school setting, I want to share a few strategies that have been successful in my classroom.

  1. Creating Mock Websites: One strategy that I use at my school to generate initial interest in instruction and to learn about my students is to have them create a mock-up website of themselves. The criteria includes writing a brief biography, creating a time line, and any other information that they want to share. This is an informal way to assess their writing and vocabulary, while also getting them involved in the instructional program in a manner that they view as relevant to their lives.
  2. Utilizing Current Events :This is another strategy that I employ to help students achieve academic success. In my experience, many students in alternative schools settings are lacking background experiences. Therefore, I subscribe to the New York Times “Upfront” classroom magazine and to Scholastic’s “Choices” magazine. Both of these magazines are high interest with low to moderate readability, focusing on topics that are of interest to teens like bullying, sports, and music. The magazines also provide teachers with online and print resources, which can be modified to meet the needs of any student in a given classroom and are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
  3. Visiting Museums: Museums provide a wealth of resources for all content areas and grade levels that will interest students in new and engaging ways. One example of an offering at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. is the “ What Happened Here?” activity. During the activity, students look at a series of news clips and pictures and select one to write a mock news article about. Each year I also attend the Teacher Open Houses for the Newseum, The International Spy Museum, and other museums in the area in order to obtain resources that can be easily integrated in an alternative classroom setting.

Alternative Education is not for every teacher, but those of us who teach in these settings have to find a way to reach every student. We choose to teach in this type of school setting because we enjoy the challenge of helping students find success by any means necessary in unconventional settings. By utilizing resources that are real, relevant and related to the life experiences of our students, we are making connections and moving our students toward higher levels of academic success.

Angelique Kwabenah is a Reading Specialist at the Incarcerated Youth Program in Washington, D.C.