How to Keep Your Students Engaged

Keeping Your Students Engaged

I will forever remember the first elementary school violin class I taught as a student teacher just five months ago. As I stood in front of 30 tiny people and their even smaller instruments, it took all the strength I had to make it through the 45-minute lesson without passing out. I had my lesson plan written out with every last detail; it was so over-thought that it included a script of what I needed to say. I kept my eyes focused on this sheet of paper and would look up every once in awhile to see that my young violinists were either talking, squirming, trying to sit down, or all of the above.

I am much more confident and engaged in front of my classes now and have decided to leave the script at home. However, sometimes I still walk away from a class feeling that although I was fully present, my students were not. If I have learned anything about keeping my students engaged – from my first graders to my high schoolers – I know that I need to be adaptable to their needs. With that adaptability comes other key concepts I have learned through research, advice, or experience that have helped me keep my students focused and actually excited about what they are learning.

Reading the Signs

The first step to helping my students be engaged is to know my class and being able to read “the signs.” These include some of which I just spoke: body language and actions. Are my students acting restless? Squirming? Talking? Texting? Are their eyes on me? Are they sitting up, or would their entire upper body collapse if they took their arm away from the desk? All of these signs are telling to me whether or not they are engaged. I did not understand when I first stepped into the classroom that there was something I could do when I saw these signs. Instead of just writing it off as a difficult day (although sometimes there are certain factors such as weather, current events, or times of the day that do hinder student engagement, no matter what you do), I try to take these signs as an invitation to adapt. I go through my mental list of tools – my pacing, my priming of new content, my connections and relevance with the content, and my presence and relationship with the students – and see what works.


It is crucial to consider the amount of time students at varying ages can maintain focus during class. Because I am a student teacher at both the elementary and high school level, I have to recalibrate my thinking and expectations when I switch from teaching my older students to my younger ones. High schoolers have the ability to maintain focus longer and can often understand concepts faster, which means my pacing in the informative portions of my lessons has to be much faster. Although elementary schoolers have a smaller direct instruction processing timeframe, they also need a fast pace in other ways. This is why every elementary school lesson I teach includes sitting and standing, for example.

Below is the breakdown of the appropriate amount of time to give direct instruction to students from Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind,[1] divided by grade level. An easy way to remember these numbers is by connecting the amount of minutes to students’ ages; an appropriate amount of direct instruction corresponds approximately to the age of the student in years.

Grade Level → Appropriate Amount of Direct Instruction

K–2 → 5–8 minutes
Grades 3–5 → 8–12 minutes
Grades 6–8 → 12–15 minutes
Grades 9–12 → 12–15 minutes
Adult learners → 15–18 minutes

Reviewing Familiar Content vs. Priming/Introducing New Content

Speaking of students’ abilities to process new information, balancing my introduction of
familiar and new content greatly affects my students’ ability to stay engaged during class. This portion begins outside of the classroom, in the lesson planning stage. I balance the old information with the new, applying a principle taught in Waldorf teacher training, “breathing in” (taking in the new information) and “breathing out” time (having an opportunity to process the information). I begin lesson plans with a “hook” – something to draw students in and be engaged from the very beginning of class – and then proceed to review the familiar, prime for the new, introduce the new content, and end with a sense of closure.

Priming has become a commonly used word in my vocabulary. Jensen defines priming as a type of “covert exposure” to new information.[2] It is a part of scaffolding a lesson that involves presenting the new “target information” seconds or minutes before presenting all the new information at once. Priming students for new content prepares their brains to receive new information, allowing them to already form connections as they learn a new topic instead of trying to grasp new content out of thin air.

For example, my mentor teacher showed me how to introduce a new musical concept to my fifth graders before they learned a new song with a syncopated rhythm. Instead of introducing the new song and a newfound rhythm at the same time, I first led my students through an activity where they broke down the meaning of syncopation in small groups and practiced counting aloud various syncopated phrases. This priming helped them approach the new piece with much more ease, and they did not feel overloaded with too many new concepts at once.


Students need connections and a sense of purpose for what they are learning. Making connections to the real world and across the content areas whenever possible are great ways to keep students engaged in their learning. I have found opportunities to connect what I am teaching to what my students are learning in other classes. I use geometric terms when talking about finger or bow placement for string players and can easily make connections with history when I introduce new folk songs or pieces to my general music and orchestra classes. This helps my students to think of the musical content they are learning as things that are applicable outside the orchestra room.

As one example, last week I was trying to show a beginning high school cello student that her fingers should be evenly spaced apart in half-steps in first position. When this concept still did not click for her, I explained that her fingers need to be equidistant from one another, just like when two points are equidistant from one another in geometry. It not only brought up a concept that is fairly fresh for her in her mathematical education, but it helped her have an image of equally-spaced points in her head as she placed her fingers on the fingerboard.

I also consider how students’ responses to the content I teach them is greatly affected by the physical place in which they are. This way of engagement is known as place-based curriculum, a concept discussed by many, including Andrew T. Kemp in Engaging the Environment: A Case for a Place-Based Curriculum.[3] Every place has a unique environment, often containing many different cultures, values, and ways of living. As a teacher in Alaska, the place in which I now live and teach is very different than the urban setting of Chicago from where I moved. I present the material to my students in Alaska, while keeping their environment and cultures in mind.

Practical examples of that would include asking my Tlingit Native students to further elaborate on the background of a Tlingit folk song I am teaching them. When students see an image or hear a word with which they already greatly connect, it helps them find a connection and identify with what they are learning, which often motivates them to stay engaged.

Student-Centered Learning

Now that I am thinking about my next steps and beginning to apply for teaching jobs, I have been recording my lessons quite often. I am not sure if it is fun for anyone to watch themselves talk on camera, but I grimaced for a different reason when I watched the video of my high school orchestra rehearsal from the other day; some of my students were talking or not paying attention to my instruction, and I couldn’t blame them because I was talking a lot. I was giving them crucial, helpful information, but it was too much information for them to sit and listen to at once. I stepped into the rehearsal room the next morning with a new lesson plan that included a lot more discussion and student-led learning. I believe that with the proper guidance and tools, students are capable of teaching one another and growing together.

Bringing Your Personality into the Classroom

Embracing who I am as a person and teacher has helped me be a more engaging and relatable teacher. Eric Booth, a leading teaching artist, speaker, and author in the El Sistema and arts community, has said, “80% of what we teach is who we are.”[4] I have found that my deep love for my students does not always show when I am stressed or too internally-focused. When I concentrate so much on feeding my students the content and meeting certain standards, my fun, humorous, and caring personality is squelched. No matter the age, students pick up on this tension and nervousness in one way or the other and become less engaged.

Being prepared for lessons and taking care of myself have significantly heightened my ability to engage my students, but I also strive to be completely present and real in the classroom. For me, that means making jokes and forming personal relationships with each student as I walk around during group activities or ensemble rehearsals. It also means keeping a very neat, organized space, with an agenda written on the board.

Food for Thought

Teachers have the power to create a safe, caring environment that encourages students to remain engaged throughout the class. Whether it is presenting the information in a way that allows them time to learn and process it or doing a silly dance for them, teachers invite students to be fully present in their learning when they are fully present in their teaching.

Ruth HogleAfter graduating from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Cello Performance, Ruth Schwartz moved to Juneau, Alaska, to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching Music, K-12 degree while working with JAMM (Juneau, Alaska Music Matters), an El Sistema-inspired program. Ruth is currently student teaching at an elementary and high school in Juneau, teaching general music and Spanish, and conducting her own orchestras. After school, she teaches cello, bass, songwriting, improvisation, and chamber music with JAMM. She is a strong believer in the power of music, which she has witnessed as a teacher in Chicago, Peru, and Alaska.

[1] Jensen, Eric (2005-06-01). Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition (Kindle Locations 847-850). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Kindle Edition.
[2] Jensen, Eric (2005-06-01). Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition (Kindle Locations 847-850). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Kindle Edition.
[3] Kemp, Andrew T. (2006). Engaging the Environment: A Case for a Place-Based Curriculum. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue. 
[4] Booth, Eric. “On Active Engagement in Learning.” Eric Booth. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

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