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The growing body of research around student engagement reveals that we should be considering this factor far more than we currently do. In Eric Jensen’s new book Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, he informs us that:

  • There is a strong correlation between engagement levels and achievement levels. For every 2% that disengagement rises, test scores drop 1% (Valentine & Collins, 2011).
  • In a survey of 81,000 U.S. high school students, fewer than 2% of respondents said that they were never bored in school and 75% of respondents said that they were bored because the material being taught wasn’t interesting (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007).
  • Another study (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007) found that 5th graders spent 91% of their day working alone or listening to the teacher talk, despite students’ overwhelming preference for group activities.

Knowing that engagement is correlated with achievement, schools and teachers are taking note of this research and implementing plans to increase student engagement.

Jensen offers a wide array of strategies and approaches particularly suited to classrooms that serve students in poverty, which are built on an understanding of how poverty impacts the brain and learning.

One powerful recommendation he makes to teachers is to manage students’ “mind-body states.” He notes that young students (and even teens) have limited control over their own physical, emotional, and cognitive states. Their sensations (hunger, tiredness, itchiness), emotions (anger, sadness, joy), and attitudes and beliefs (anxiety, hopefulness, focus, optimism) must thus be “managed” by the teacher through specific strategies.

Jensen asks teachers to recognize that students may have “default” states of anger, apathy, or hopelessness when the come into the classroom. In fact, children in poverty are likely to enter class with states that obstruct learning. Jensen’s research supports the idea that teachers can change students’ “default” states to target “attractor” states. Students who walk in bored, frustrated, and apathetic can be jolted into a state of anticipation, confidence, and curiosity with a few simple principles:

  • Reduce lecture time
  • Eliminate the “fight, flight, or freeze” response
  • Give students more control
  • Ask more compelling questions
  • Keep students in suspense

So, when teachers notice that students have entered class in an undesirable state, or have reverted to a “default” state that is not conducive to learning, they must ask themselves, “What can I do to change this student’s state from ____ to ____?” and act accordingly.

Jensen also encourages teachers to use music and movement to alter students’ states. An up-beat song with inspiring lyrics can move a student from apathy to excitement in less than 1 minute. Synchronized movements, like cheers or dance moves, can help students go from sleepy and isolated to alert and connected in a few moments. Taking a minute or two to put students in the ideal state for learning is the best way to save time in the long run.





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