Tackling Student Engagement

I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years, and I think I do a pretty good job identifying what students should know and be able to do, what inspires them and even what motivates them. However, the trickiest thing for me, and maybe others will agree, is capturing and keeping their attention—student engagement. There is a subtle nuance that is worth teasing out here. Inspiration and motivation are obviously crucial, but it is student engagement that moves the experience of my class from passive to active. Good teaching lights the spark and ignites the fire, but it is only when students are engaged that the shift occurs, and my role becomes facilitator, not the instigator of learning. Through the years, I’ve developed units that fit that bill, but unfortunately, it is more hit or miss than I’d like to admit.

My utopia unit on The Giver, for example, captures students’ imagination, and has actually become more successful in recent years because of the outside influence of dystopian books that have become movies, like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. As the genre became a part of the subculture, my unit took on deeper meaning for my students, who were able to make connections that had simply not existed in previous years, when The Giver was their only dystopian experience. Then there’s the Passion Project (catch my webinar here), which has become the standard-bearer for my class, given that it is intense, personal and the most ambitious task of the year. And my Zootopia social justice unit and the timeless The Outsiders unit may need a few adjustments since they were new for me this past year, but all in all, they are solid.

As I reflected on this past year, however, it became clear that one of my units falls short of the others: my short story unit. You can read about the data I gathered from SurveyMonkey here, in my monthly “Flexible Classroom” blog for MiddleWeb.com.

My short story unit isn’t as developed as it should be, and that is why, I’m sure, it scored the lowest in my survey. We all have those well-intentioned ideas that never quite get off the ground, so I’m not beating myself up, but I am raising the bar for myself and am confident that what I’m planning for next year will change the rankings.

Because my class is almost entirely paperless, I think that one of the best ways to approach student engagement and mix things up is with low-tech novelty. My students are not fazed by the independence of using computers, nor are they blown away by my Quizlets and study tools; these tech pieces simply become a part of how I do class. A little low tech is going to be a pleasant surprise. I’m going to build “escape kits” that resemble the escape room craze that has groups of friends paying $20-$30 each to be locked in a room together to solve puzzles, riddles, puns and logic games.

Escape rooms are usually designed for no more than eight people at a time, so I’ve got some innovating to do, but I think the payoff will be worth the effort. I’m going to set the room up into quadrants, each with a padlocked toolbox that contains several clues that must be solved in order to get to a key that will unlock a treasure box with some cool prizes inside.

I’m going to use the escape kits in a couple of ways. I first thought to use them as a team-building activity at the beginning of the year, which you can read about here, but that will really just be the warmup to my new-and-improved short story unit. I’m still going to keep the unit brief, focusing deeply on only two stories. The first story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” is the one I’m building the escape kits for. If you don’t know the story, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but you can check out this cool Storyboard That tool to get the gist. Here are the steps I’m currently taking, as I’m literally in progress right now, to build the escape kits:

  • Gather materials. I’m going to use a medium-sized toolbox with a padlock, several smaller boxes that will be locked with combination locks, and a final key to unlock a larger treasure box. I want to keep this inexpensive, so I’m planning on using locks like these and these. From my own experiences in real escape rooms, I enjoyed having to unlock actual physical locks.
  • Create clues that I can align to standards. I want this to be fun, but I also want it to be valuable and require deep thinking on a number of different levels.

I’m planning on putting a laptop in each quadrant, as I’m going to focus on my students’ ability to use online resources to find information and synthesize it, like this:       


Put your heads together to figure out the secrets of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Oceans, lakes, rivers and seas are all bodies of water, but which of these would the setting be? When you know which four-syllable place I mean, use the last four letters of the word and the code below to figure out the four-digit number to open the lock.

A, D, H, L, P, T, X = 1                        B, E, I, M, Q, U, Y = 2                        C, F, J, N, R, V, Z = 3

G, K, O, S, W

(Answer: The setting is the Caribbean Sea, so you would use “bean,” giving you the code 2213 for the first lock.)


If this seems a little tricky, that’s OK. I’ve never been to an escape room that didn’t feel a bit complicated, but that’s part of the fun.

I’m going to also appeal to my students’ social and emotional needs and give tasks that require teamwork, not necessarily academics, to complete. For example, I’ll ask each group to take a video of its members completing a certain task together, and I’ll allow each group to use one phone to record the task being completed (I have my students’ parents fill out tech forms and release forms at the beginning of the year). The groups will have to show me the video to get their next clue. This may feel a bit like reality TV, and you can tell that I have enjoyed an episode or two of Big Brother, but I know it will add a whole level of camaraderie that is hard to beat:

Brainbreak! For this task, you will need to record your group doing the coolest dance ever: the Spongebob. Everyone has to participate! If you need a refresher, pull up this video. To receive your next clue, you need to show me a video of every group member doing the dance together for 30 seconds.

            I’m still planning, but I did want to write about this idea of going low tech to engage students while the project is underway. I have a feeling my students are going to love this playful, powerful experience. The best part, which I’ll write about soon, is the fact that the second short story is going to have an escape kit too—but that one is going to be designed by students, so it is guaranteed to be even more innovative and exciting than mine! Share your ideas in the comments—I’m always looking for new ways to engage students.






Lisa McCrey's picture

Submitted by Lisa McCrey

I absolutely love this! I plan to use it with my sixth graders.