Monitor and Adjust: Begging for Engagement


I’m not sure where the plans went.  I don’t even have a window.  They must have squeezed out through the rat-chewed hole in the ceiling.

Wherever they went, they no longer resided within my white-knuckled fists generally inclined toward control–control of listening, control of thinking, control of growth and progress.

It was a project I thought would stretch students to think about their futures and what it would take them to get there.  And it did!  It was practical, imaginative, rigorous, artistic.  It was what every high school senior wanted–or maybe it was just what I wanted.  The work was getting done–for the most part.  We were simply missing one thing: Electrifying energy, passion, a desire to find out more.  Many teachers call this “engagement.”

This project was just another task for my students.  So as I began to search for the cracks in my classroom responsible for swallowing up my PERFECT PROJECT, I turned to my lovely colleagues/friends for advice.

Lisa offered a lovely story about fraudy feelings in her own teaching career, and a story about a faltering relationship with a student that left her feeling less than a great teacher.

Shana shared the possibility that I might just ask my students, “WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?!  TELL ME!”  Begging and pleading might seem below an “authority figure” such as a teacher, but I disagree.

Amy seconded the fact that I might get the students involved in determining what they would like to do, but her second piece of advice was even more reassuring.  She explained, “If you go deeper into conferring–more frequently, with more probing questions–you might discover it is actually only a couple of  students in each class who are affecting the entire culture.”  She went on to discuss the “Savior Complex,” and how 100% engagement, 100% of the time is a very lofty goal.

All this advice, however, reminded me that engagement is a worthy (albeit, bloody and tearful) fight.

I wish I would have asked for help sooner, but I’m going to take a little bit of each piece of advice.

  1. We are going to finish this project and these presentations after we have a Spring Break palate cleanser.  I am finishing this out knowing, after conferring and returning to my notes, that it is only a few students affecting the culture.
  2. After presentations, we will take some time for feedback (or feedforward?).  I will beg and plead.  I will write in all caps, WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?! TELL ME!  However, I think we will also need to discuss, What even is engagement?  How is engagement different than compliance?
  3. Develop a plan by including the students, but holding them fast to high expectations.  Learning should stretch, it should challenge, it should change.  Sometimes that is painful.  I don’t want to get rid of the pain and the stretching, I just want them to be able to get behind the place into which they are stretching and growing.

My goal in this post was not to complain or lament, but instead to share that ALL teachers struggle with engagement.  ALL teachers deal with real humans, with real struggles, and real curious and wondering minds.  We want them to open the windows and the doors, but we have to teach them how, first.  Workshop is not a magic pill, but it is a magical formula that allows a lot of wiggle room to engage students if they’ll let you.

I want to get back to why I became a teacher, and remember to let go as much as humanly possible so that the students can grab onto the learning themselves.

What do you think?  When do you make changes and when do you stick to your plan?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


5 thoughts on “Monitor and Adjust: Begging for Engagement

  1. […] A few weeks ago I ran into a brick wall with a project in my classroom.  I promised an update, but what I have for you is so much more. […]


  2. Shana Karnes March 10, 2017 at 1:35 pm Reply

    Getting kids into the zone of proximal development is so much easier said than done, right?! We have to help them arrive in the sweet spot of just-right choice and challenge. Too hard, they balk. Too easy, they roll their eyes.

    But, learning can only occur in the ZPD…so we know it’s worth it. So keep trying, and I love that last line–“let the students grab onto the learning for themselves.” They’ll do it! You’ve got this, woman!


  3. Amy Rasmussen March 10, 2017 at 1:01 pm Reply

    I love your thinking here, and I loved that conversation we shared about engagement. I think we have to remember that learning new skills can be hard, so when students complain about things in class being boring, what they may mean is “This is hard.” We all struggle with being in that place that makes us vulnerable. Maybe we should spend more time help students understand why that place is important to learning. It’s that whole mindfulness/growth mindset idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jessica Paxson March 10, 2017 at 6:49 am Reply

    I’m so glad it was encouraging to you! It is so hard. I’m also learning that engagement can also happen AMIDST the complaining, or saying it’s boring. Some of that is just resistance to the stretching and the growth. I think everyone has an innate desire to learn and grow, it’s just often buried beneath layers and layers of other “stuff,” especially in teenagers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. gstevens1021 March 9, 2017 at 10:49 am Reply

    Thank you for this post. My colleagues and I are right there with you on this struggle. I get frustrated when I put a great deal of time and energy into a lesson or project that I think will be engaging and enjoyable (and instructional!) and students complain and carry on about how hard it is or say it’s boring. I do ask for feedback from students but lately all I get is requests to do “fun” activities w/out any academic rigor. They don’t want to do anything that requires them to think.

    Please keep us posted on what happens in your classroom.

    Liked by 2 people

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