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Leveling Up Engagement

Updated: May 28

By Sarah Kelly, - Lexington School District One


Have you ever been in a class where your students struggled with engagement? Or maybe you currently have a class that you think could benefit from increasing overall engagement. If you answered yes to either of these questions, this blog is for you.

This school year I worked with Dr. Candace Lett, Reading and Language Arts Coordinator for Lexington School District One, on looking at ways that we could level up engagement within classrooms. Being a Social Studies teacher, I knew that this would look different in my classroom than it did in an English or Math classroom but that wasn’t the point. We wanted to be able to see where students lacked engagement, where they thrived and what we could do to help.

The Process

Dr. Lett and I decided on one particular class that we would use as a focus group for this work. This is a class that has a good mix of boys and girls, multilingual learners, students receiving special education services, gifted students, and students from the whole academic spectrum. Dr. Lett came into this class during the first quarter of the school year. She observed as I taught the lesson and collected kidwatching data (intentional student observations). I then gave students a survey to take. The survey asked them questions about their learning such as asking for help or involvement in school activities. Each question correlated to the three types of engagement we were focusing on: behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. 

Behavioral engagement can be categorized by participating in school functions, attending and participating in class activities and discussions, following school rules, and studying. Cognitive engagement can be categorized as desiring challenges, self-regulating and planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s thinking and learning. While emotional engagement can be categorized as being comfortable talking to peers, engaging in group learning, asking questions of teachers and being interested, inquisitive, and curious about academic content.

By this point in the year, I’d built a good relationship with students so they were honest in the survey. The most intriguing part of this was when Dr. Lett and I sat down to discuss her kidwatching data, the data matched with what the students said about themselves. Students who were more reserved or didn’t like speaking out as much fell into having low emotional engagement through kid watching and the survey. This alignment through both forms of data collection showed that we were definitely on the right track. The focus group class had 100% behavioral engagement, but, as a whole, were lowest in emotional engagement. This became the focus for  increasing engagement.

So, How Did We Increase Engagement?

We started off by using non-content based and low risk concepts. One part of emotional engagement we wanted to focus on was having students who were not comfortable talking out loud in class or to their classmates to become more comfortable with this. First, I gave students new seats. Students who were more reserved were put together and students who were more outwardly vocal were seated together. The goal was that the quieter students would be more open speaking when talking to someone in the same place of emotional engagement. It worked beautifully as we started out during a turn and talk because the quiet students became more vocal and the less reserved students couldn’t control the conversation because both wanted to be heard and were accustomed to being the one who does most of the talking. For this, I taught a lesson on comparing and contrasting using tacos and hamburgers so everyone had something to include.

When Dr. Lett returned to this class period to teach a lesson, I was able to do kidwatching while she taught them how to use the partner A & B strategy. This was also done with low risk topics. It started out with saying the person on the right was Partner A and the person on the left was Partner B. Dr. Lett gave students tasks such as Partner A tell Partner B your name or Partner B tell Partner A your favorite food. 

These strategies, and some others that we tried, helped to build psychological safety within the class. Psychological safety is “a condition in which one feels (a) included, (b) safe to learn, (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way” (The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety).

Is That It or Did It Spread to Others?

Though I had one class that was a focus group, I was able to use different strategies with other students. Throughout the school year, I have seen some students who would not say much in class be thrilled about discussions and wanting to participate in things they would not have before. As a whole, emotional engagement was the type of engagement my students were the lowest in so it was the one I focused on the most. Through this, it has been a beautiful experience to help students become more comfortable working with others and being emotionally engaged in school.

I also want to give a huge thank you to Dr. Candace Lett for pitching an idea and going through this process with me. I have loved learning and implementing new ways to engage students with you.  

Engagement Resource Recommendations:

  1. No More Telling as Teaching: Less Lecture, More Engaged Learning by Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje

  2. Engagement by Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive by Fisher & Frey

  3. Confronting the Crisis of Engagement: Creating Focus and Resilience for Students, Staff, and Communities by Reeves, Frey & Fisher

  4. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation


About the Author

Sarah Kelly, M.Ed is an educator whose 12-year journey in education has been as diverse as it has been impactful. She's navigated through various grade levels and subjects, from 5th grade ELA and Social Studies to 6th grade Social Studies and Math, 7th grade Social Studies and eventually to 8th grade Social Studies. Along the way, her passion for teaching and her students has deepened.

Sarah was honored as the Teacher of the Year for the 2024-2025 academic year at Carolina Springs Middle School in Lexington School District One. Beyond awards and recognition, Sarah's true passion lies in ensuring that every student she encounters realizes their full potential. She believes fervently in closing the opportunity gap through innovative practices and advocating for an equitable educational experience for all. Whether it's through personalized instruction, mentorship, or advocating for resources, Sarah is unwavering in her commitment to uplifting every student she encounters.

Looking to the future, Sarah's aspirations extend beyond the classroom. With a keen eye on educational leadership, she harbors ambitions of becoming an instructional coach or consultant, where she can leverage her wealth of experience to support curriculum creation and empower fellow educators, particularly new or struggling teachers. For Sarah, the journey in education is not just about imparting knowledge; it's about fostering a community of learners and leaders who are equipped to navigate the complexities of the world beyond the classroom.



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