I know you feel it. Kids are just not as easy to engage these days. In fact, dealing with student apathy is one of our biggest challenges. We can blame it on a lot of things, but that just won’t get us anywhere other than worked up and discouraged.
Instead, what can we do about it?
1. Build Relationships
In my experience, the best way to get your kids engaged in what you’re offering is to spend time building relationships with them. When students know that you see them and that you care about them, they will want to please you – for the most part. So, spending time building a climate of trust is a key component to ending apathy.
How to do this?
My favourite way is pretty simple: I stand at my door every day before class and make a deliberate attempt to speak to as many kids as I can. Then, when I’m circulating during class time, I’ll stop at a desk and talk about not only the work, but students’ lives.
Every day, I make a plan to have a chat with at least three different kids and work my way randomly through the class list so no one gets missed. I also build in a lot of activities that build relationships and climate in Room 213. You can grab a list of ones that you can use here.
2. Make it Relevant
Another key to engagement is showing kids why what you want them to do matters – beyond writing a test. No one likes to have their time wasted, and kids are no different.
So, whenever we start something new, I explain to students why learning it is important. I’ll show how it links back to what we’ve already done and explain how they will use it in our classroom. More importantly, I try to make links to real life, so they see the skill as useful beyond school.
For example, when we start persuasion, I ask if they ever get in arguments or try to convince people of their point of view? Then, I ask them if they’d like to get better at getting people to really listen to them – most teens will answer yes to this, of course, and so are ready to really listen to me when I start teaching them strategies.
By the way, I don’t use this strategy just to trick them into paying attention: I try to make sure everything we do has some sort of real-life connection or application.
3. Focus on Process
One big reason why kids disengage is because they are frustrated and don’t know what they are supposed to do to be successful. If you focus on the process of whatever you are teaching them, you can try to alleviate that. Always plan your lessons so you model and scaffold the steps that lead to success. Break the learning down in small, digestible chunks.
Let’s look at close reading as an example: kids don’t find literary analysis easy. So, when you start, don’t jump right into the essay. Build students up to the point where they are ready to handle it.
Start by teaching them how to close read by modelling your own process and then use gradual release of responsibility to guide them on their way to learning how to do it effectively. Let them work on a challenging passage together and build their confidence before you ask them to do it alone. (Get more ideas about how to do this here).
When you do assign an essay or a project, break it into steps and make those steps a part of your classroom activities, so you can be there to facilitate your students’ learning. In my experience, when students can clearly see their target and the path they need to take to get there, they are far more likely to come along for the ride. A perfect way to do this is with learning stations – they slow kids down and focus them on the process every time.
4. Make Sure It’s “Just Right”
Vygotsky calls it the Zone of Proximal Development; others call it The Goldilocks’ Principle because it’s the place where students find their work is “just right.” It’s not too easy that they find it boring, and it’s not too difficult that they can’t do it without guidance and scaffolding from the teacher.
Often, student apathy is because the work in just not “right.”
When the students find themselves in the zone, they feel like they can be successful, and the task is challenging enough to make it engaging. So, if the majority of your class is disengaged, it could be that the task is either too easy or too difficult.
Take a step back and reflect if you’re giving them something that doesn’t challenge them enough to make it interesting. Or if you’ve provided enough guidance to help them to do something that makes them stretch a bit. This is something that happens naturally when you put a focus on the process.
5. Add Movement and Variety
Variety is the spice of life and it will spice up your class too. Even if you have an amazing and engaging way to run your classes, if every class is the same, it will get a little stale. So will a class that has the kids sitting passively for the whole period. Instead, aim to have a variety of activities in your class, ones that have the students actively engaged in an activity, rather than just listening.
Giving students a chance to move at some point during the class will go a long way toward waking them up. We don’t “move” in every one of my classes. But I do try to make it happen as often as I can – even if I just get the kids to stand up halfway through class for a stretch. It’s hard to sit still for a whole period, plus moving helps us learn.
You can find ten simple ways to get your students moving to learn here.
Always ask: Is it apathy or something else?
“I don’t care” can be a mask for a lot of other things, like fear of failure. Like I said above, when kids get frustrated – or bored – they disengage. If you’ve built in some of the first four strategies, you may take care of some of the boredom and frustration, but if a kid is really disengaged, it may be time to investigate further. An after class chat about how you can help is most likely in order to see if you can get to the bottom of what is happening. And, I find that when you get a chance to speak to kids one-on-one, away from the audience, they are much more likely to open up about what’s bothering them.
I hope you found something in here to help with student apathy in you classroom! If you’d like more help with engaging your students, you can check out my digital course, Creating a Climate for Learning.