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Drive Student Engagement with these Hands-On Activities


There's a lot of talk about student engagement, but what does it really mean? Glenn Kessinger, a 7th grade language arts teacher at Washington Middle School in Yakima, WA, defines it this way: “The meaningful involvement in the learning experiences provided in, and sometimes out of, the classroom.” And a great way to encourage that involvement? Hands-on activities.

You can use hands-on activities to encourage your students to engage with subjects on a number of new and interesting levels. Here are some ideas:

Hands-On Science

The most valuable science activities mimic real science experiments, according to Mitch Weathers, a science teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA. He favors any experiment that's “hands on, inquiry based and relevant, meaning students can get in there and ‘do science’ while solving a problem and gaining experiences that translate into the real world and possible career next steps,” he says.

One example is a biotechnology “translation” lab in which students take a desired gene and insert it into the genetic sequence of E.Coli (bacteria). “They activate that gene—turn it on—and the bacteria produces the desired protein,” Weathers explains. “Students then collect this protein by ‘purification’ processes.” This experiment produces products used in industry and medicine, giving it a true-life value kids can understand.

Hands-On Math

Toss the textbook aside and give kids a chance to do real-world calculations embedded into lessons and activities you already have planned. “For example, a 1st grade classroom I worked with wanted to produce and deliver a monthly classroom newspaper,” recalls Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC. In addition to writing the articles, Peha had kids calculate copying and mailing costs and set deadlines. “Because this was a real-life activity that the students chose to do, they also chose to do the math that went with it.”

You can use this strategy with simpler activities, too. Kids always want to buy the latest toy or gadget, so get them to do some ciphering on how much they need to earn to afford it, or compare prices from newspaper circulars to determine the best deals. If you have tablets, Peha suggests asking kids to solve a math problem and record a presentation, complete with a narration of the solution, using appropriate math vocabulary. “Whether on paper or on a tablet, you'll be shocked, as I have been many times, at how much more challenge children will assume voluntarily when they choose work for themselves based on life experiences they really care about,” he says.

Hands-On Language Arts & English

You can make reading and writing interactive, too. “Offer lots of opportunities for collaboration and peer feedback not just after the reading and writing have taken place but during the process,” says Oona Abrams, a 12th grade English teacher at Chatham High School in Chatham, NJ.

The key is establishing norms for the interaction. “Set up systems in which students are accountable to each other more than the teacher,” Abrams says. “This is one reason why I really like Smokey Daniels' method in Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles. When kids come into their book club meetings, they are either an asset or a liability. As a group, they have to determine the consequences that any liability must face if they have not prepared the reading for the day. That has much more of an impact than a zero in my grade book does.”

Hands-On Leadership

“All of my students have a job in my class and are a leader of something,” says Terry Steiner, a 5th grade teacher at Dieringer Heights Elementary in Lake Tapps, WA. “Some jobs are rather pedestrian like passing out PTA flyers. But for all of my kids, they feel like they have been entrusted with something like guarding the Mint. They own the job and know that I have placed them in a leadership role that no one else will do. Kids feel important, validated, and it creates a purpose for what kids do.”

Regardless of the content area, it's important to include some hands-on activities along with your lectures. “Keep lectures to a minimum, get good hands-on activities, and do your best to translate what you are teaching to real-world applications,” Weathers says. “Students retain less in a didactic classroom.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance journalist and owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. She frequently teaches writing workshops in K-college classrooms. The granddaughter of school teachers and administrators, she's a staunch education advocate. Follow her on Google+.