When I asked my third-grade students what they wanted to learn about weather, the overwhelming response was tornadoes. So I pivoted from my plan and designed a unit about tornadoes in order to capture my students’ interests.
Paired with differentiating instruction, building on student interests in the classroom can be a successful technique for boosting engagement. Engagement can be thought of as the curiosity that students utilize to engage in learning. Choice, differentiation, and pivoting to meet student interest work to increase motivation and create a classroom of highly engaged learners.
Step 1: Choice
Choice is a powerful and effective strategy that can increase student engagement. At the beginning of our weather unit, I engaged the class in creating a know/want-to-know chart, where they wrote or drew what they knew and wanted to learn. Their responses guided the lessons over the coming weeks, kept them engaged, and helped shape future lessons to their interests. As the unit progressed, students were provided with options to further build curiosity.
Making choices can be overwhelming for some students. Providing clear, direct language about options helps to clarify instruction. For example, when my students were focusing on learning vocabulary related to weather, I gave them this choice: “You can write a weather report or create vocabulary flash cards.” Both assignments would accomplish the goal of mastering unfamiliar vocabulary while allowing students to choose a task that suited their learning interests.
Another strategy is to provide students with choice boards that have an array of activities—I called the activities “weather stations” for this unit. The choice board included tasks to complete that connected to a learning outcome for the unit. Examples included creating their own vocabulary cards with definitions and pictures, writing a paragraph that predicted the weather and explaining why the prediction was correct, and writing a story or poem about a destructive force of nature and its impact on themselves or their community.
By the end of the unit, students needed to have completed three activities. Each activity had specific components that needed to be met to be considered complete. For example, paragraphs needed to include three vocabulary words related to weather, and weather reports had to make a prediction and explain the outcome.
The choice board served as a checklist for students to ensure that they had completed every step of the project. This was particularly useful for students used to rushing through assignments. Learners were deciding for themselves how to connect with classroom content through choosing their own activities. This added a layer of accountability as students were being asked to review their work.
When engaging in final products, students could choose an assignment that best matched their interests. Some composed stories or poems about destructive weather, while others acted out a scenario in front of the class.
Step 2: Differentiation
Students learn differently and arrive at school with varied skill sets. One method to create an accessible curriculum is through differentiation. In this strategy, teachers develop flexibility in classroom content, process (engagement), and demonstration of learning. When my students were learning about weather, I provided content in multiple formats to increase their understanding. This included short news clips about “wild weather” so that students could see the destructive forces of tornadoes in real time, as well as various print sources that used tornadoes as a hook.
I also gave them access to books, nonfiction texts, and leveled articles that included first-person accounts of surviving destructive weather. After they had cultivated an understanding of tornadoes, we moved into discussing hurricanes, floods, and wildfires as forces of nature.
During classroom instruction, I created leveled sentence stems as an option for students to engage in academic discourse after reading an academic text. For example, when searching for the main idea of an article on drought and fire danger, students could choose which prompt to answer. These were some potential responses:
- The main idea of the text is that drought increases fire danger.
- After I read the article “Drought and Fire,” the main idea is that drought increases fire danger.
- Based on the evidence that less rain causes timber to become dry, the main idea of the article “Drought and Fire” is that drought increases fire danger.
Using sentence stems widens the scope of who students interact with and increases rigor by building academic language. While using content-specific vocabulary and sentence structure supports all students, it is even more critical for the development of English language learners, who often have stronger interpersonal communication skills (everyday language) but struggle with higher-level academic language.
Step 3: Pivoting to Meet Student Interest
Throughout the unit, students gravitated toward wanting to learn more about extreme weather. As I was teaching this unit, wildfires were racing through the next town and recess was canceled because of smoke. My class wanted to know more about wildfires, and I made a quick pivot at this point to take advantage of what was on their minds. Learning became tangible as students were making real-world connections between what they were reading and the extreme weather patterns in their backyard.
This pivot worked because it fit within the scope of the unit. Admittedly, it was tricky to find instructional materials so quickly. I began with local news sources and then looked to Scholastic News and Cal Fire for resources such as videos and news articles. Newsela was also helpful in finding leveled nonfiction texts about wildfire. We also read about hotshots—the firefighters who tackle the trickiest part of the blaze. The buzz of excited chatter filled the room, letting me know I had captured student interest by following their lead.
As educators, it is easy to get wrapped up in carefully prepared lesson plans. Yet being flexible can have positive outcomes. When students see their lived experience represented in the classroom, they are more likely to become engaged, as content carries more meaning and relevance. Changes can occur on a small scale, like incorporating new vocabulary in a do-now activity or using an article for a close read. Teachers can then save these activities and utilize them the next time a lesson takes an unexpected but riveting turn.
As students dove into learning about tornadoes and wildfires, their engagement was displayed in the high quality of work they were producing. Because they had chosen to learn about these topics, their inquiry went deeper, and it showed in the final product.