Welcome to second semester and my second newsletter!  By now each of you has “hit the ground running” after the holidays as you prepare for projects, grade reports, and the all consuming TESTS.  A common question teachers have during the winter months is, “How do I encourage my students to stay engaged and focused on learning?”  Here is a response I wrote that was published in December:

From Education Week Teacher: Debbie’s response to Larry Ferlazzo’s question, “How Can We Promote Student Learning?”


It is time we stop talking about how to motivate kids and be more specific about what it is we are actually trying to do with learners. We need to acknowledge that motivation is an intrinsic force that comes from within the learner. The role of educators is to inspire, to challenge, and to engage students in meaningful learning that will activate within them an internal desire to master certain concepts and skills. Ideally we ignite in them a passion for learning that extends far beyond a single test, our classrooms, or even a particular time period.


Our goal is to foster self-motivation within each student. In order to achieve this end we must ensure that they are given relevant material, a justification for learning, a degree of autonomy in their choices, and a reasonable chance at success.

For teachers who want to master the art of student engagement, these proposals are key: 1) offer relevant material grounded in student interests; 2) provide learners with a rationale and choices; and, 3) challenge every student to work just beyond his/her reach.

  1. Offer relevant material grounded in student interests.

Effective teaching takes two things: a) an understanding of who our students are (their prior experiences, their strengths, their challenges, their aspirations, and their levels of competency) and, b) being well-versed in the subject matter we teach. Knowing students allows teachers to more aptly match instructional strategies and topics to those that are most appealing to learners. Deep subject matter competency gives us the capacity to relate essential concepts to the particular interests of our learners. Offering students instructional strategies and tasks that are important to them is a powerful way to enhance student engagement.

  1. Provide the learner with a rationale and choices.

Telling learners they need to acquire certain knowledge and/or skills “because I said so,” or “because it’s going to be on the test” does little to inspire deep interest or commitment on the part of students. Learners of all ages are eager for autonomy and need to feel they have a voice in their learning. Teachers can encourage kids to work through even tedious steps if they provide good reasons to keep trying and/or offer students at least some choice in the process.

Often times simply acknowledging that what we are asking students to do is not going to be fun or easy or immediately gratifying will help maintain momentum:


“Yes, I know this part is hard (or boring or whatever). I never liked doing conjugations either. However, let me show you how this eventually makes everything else a lot easier.”


Giving students options is another way to ensure perseverance and effort:


“Okay, I understand you don’t like memorizing the multiplication tables. I think I’ve demonstrated how acquiring that proficiency will serve you well, so let’s look at a way that’s more appealing to you. Do you want to practice with this computer program, work with a partner using flashcards, or put on headphones and do the multiplication dance? Let’s see if we can work out a plan that works best for you.”


  1. Challenge every student to work just beyond her/his reach.

The optimal zone for student engagement is one in which they are working towards something they cannot easily do but is within their reach if they put forth effort. Perhaps the hardest part of keeping students inspired is figuring out where they already are and setting tasks just beyond that. Since students are working at different rates of competency, it is challenging to set individual or small group goals that maximize learning opportunities for everyone. However, research on self-motivation is clear about the importance of monitoring progress so that students feel they are making gains and that their accomplishments come from hard-earned success:


“You know what? I think you’re getting confused by trying to do too many steps at once. Let’s move you back to the one-step problems until you feel a little more confident. Why don’t you work on some one-step problems for a while, and let me know when you’re ready to move back to these.”


“You are already finished? Let me take a look at that. It looks like I gave you something you already knew how to do. I’m so sorry I wasted your time. Here, try this next activity. I think you’ll find it a little more challenging and a lot more fun. I’ll be back to check on your progress.”


Each of the 3 proposals requires teachers to concentrate attention on what works best for our students. I believe that many kids are starved for appropriate adult responsiveness, and one of the most productive ways educators can engage learners is to give them our undivided time and focus in the classroom. Student engagement requires a masterful blend of preparation, planning, and instructional flexibility. When we witness students becoming self-motivated in the classroom and later evidencing a lifelong love for knowledge, we know that we have successfully engaged them as learners.


–Debbie Silver, Ed.D.


To hear a short podcast on this topic with Debbie and Bryan Harris, go to: