I was probably in my seventh year of teaching when I realized I really had no idea what my students were doing when I was teaching in front of the class. I had been really feeling good about myself. My lessons were tight, I had built great rapport with my students and families, and I was not having nightmares anymore about my students forming a Lord of the Flies rebellion against me. After one particular lesson, that I thought went great, my teacher assistant asked, “did you not see Natalie was on her phone almost the entire time you were teaching? It was under the desk. Also, when you were on the document camera, Darren was staring at the ceiling and Kaylee was cleaning out her pencil pouch in her backpack.” Ouch.
I honestly didn’t notice any of this. I thought all the students were on task and following along. It was at that moment that I realized teachers often really have no idea what is going on in their class. A well planned organized teacher is often juggling ten plates at once. We are thinking of the past, present, and future all at the same time. We don’t have the bandwidth to “see” everything. That is when I knew that being quiet and compliant doesn't mean engagement.
Today’s traditional classrooms are rife with what Schlecty’s Levels of Classroom Engagement call “ritual compliance.” Philip Schlecty spent his career researching best practices in education. One of his main focuses was increasing student engagement. In 2020, John Spencer used Schlecty’s research and created a chart to visualize different student levels of engagement. In my estimation (and I admit, this is not the most scientific approach) 90% of students in classrooms are exhibiting ritual compliance. Most kids are quiet and do what they are told but not actively engaged in learning. Another 5% of students are strategically compliant. These are generally the students raising their hands and participating in group work. They are playing the part of school. The small pocket of kids leftover fall anywhere from retreatism and rebellion. Sadly, these are the students often with IEPs, behavior plans, etc. whose needs are not being met in a traditional learning environment where lectures and textbooks are the primary sources of learning.
As most teachers can tell you, the students who are the least engaged in school take up an extraordinary amount of time and resources on a school campus. In order to address the lack of engagement, meetings need to be held, detentions are set up, intervention classes are designed, and teachers stop class instruction to try to control the behavior of the students who are not engaged. These students usually show very little progress in learning, receive failing grades, and are labeled “at-risk”.
As a special education teacher for ten years, and another 10 years working as an administrator focusing on at-risk populations, I understand a lot about student engagement...or lack thereof. I currently work at a school that is an alternative education program focused on students who are severely credited deficient. The students at my school are placed here because they have failed a significant number of classes and are not able to graduate on time. These students are at-risk for not earning a diploma and becoming high school dropouts. After reviewing hundreds of student transcripts and records, I have noticed that they have over a decade of failed classes and negative school experiences. By the time they get to us at the age of 16, they have completely given up on learning. Most at-risk students have very low attendance rates and their commitment to school is very low. The only reason they come is because of compulsory attendance laws and the threat of going to a small community behavior program.
The teachers and administrators who work with at-risk students understand we have to change the traditional school model in order to build these students back up and help them see the purpose of school is learning. As a community, the educators have to help non-engaged students build learner confidence. The best way to do this is through UDL.
Switching over to using UDL best practices can be overwhelming for teachers. Asking them to think about differentiating instruction for each learner seems impossible (and it would be if done through the DI model instead of the UDL model). The UDL Framework in itself contains a ton of guidance and information and it is too easy to give it a glance and think, “NOPE, not doing it.” When getting started with UDL, I encourage teachers to focus on a simple equation instead of paying too much attention to the guidelines themselves.
The teacher must respect the learners in their classroom. They must respect each student's unique learning profile - what in UDL we call “variability”. A teacher needs to respect where students come from, moral differences, unique family situations, religious differences, cultural differences, etc. When you respect the individuals you have in your classroom, you will innately start building meaningful relationships with your students which is foundational for engaging unmotivated students ( Headden and McKay, 2015).
Here are some examples of how teachers can build respect:
- Identity charts
- One-on-one meeting about goals
- Interest surveys or student interviews to get to know them
- Asking students why they have not been showing success in school
- Asking students to describe the perfect classroom/teacher for learning
- Asking students what they want from their teacher
- Asking students for feedback about your classroom and instruction
Because we respect learner variability, students need to have options to show what and how they learn. Students need to be given the autonomy to make decisions about learning for themselves (but remember that these choices must be aligned with meeting educational goals and standards!). All students need access to accommodations and support during all parts of the learning process.
- Every student has access to technology
- Students learn skills but get to pick topics to research to show their skill
- Students are able to pick literature to read instead of a class novel
- Students choose how much and the type of work they do to show knowledge
- Accommodations are proactively planned and offered into lessons
- Every student is offered tools or accommodations to help get work done
The third step is to show success. If a teacher has built a solid relationship of respect andbuilt in choice for learner variability, the students will start to have success. But that is not enough. Students who have been disengaged for many years often do not acknowledge their own success. Students who have historically been disengaged or have a history of failure often measure themselves next to the “star” students. At-risk students do not know how to feel good about learning or recognize they are making progress. The teacher needs to help each student chart their growth and change their mindsets to see the value in learning (Headden and McKay, 2015).
- Have students keep a portfolio of work that they reflect on
- Students monitor their success on tests or reading levels on charts
- Students are able to take tests on skills until they have learned the material
- Meet with students one one one to explicitly show growth/progress
- Make sure you reward on effort and improvement, not perfection
- Provide written or verbal feedback that outlines strengths and weaknesses, rather than just sharing a grade
- Create a strong PBIS classroom that focuses on explicitly teaching appropriate behavior and pointing out positive behavior with students.
- Have students self-report or tally different behaviors over time and then have a meeting to show growth
- Create systems to visually reward students for progress on goals so they can physically see improvement
- Make it a point to call home for seeing success and positive choices in class
With respect, choice, and success students will become engaged in learning. I have never met a student who doesn't want to be successful in school. I have never met a student that doesn't feel good when they start learning and making progress. From my experience, some of the most difficult students on your campus will become engaged in school and start creating a path for themselves to become lifelong learners if you use UDL as your guiding light.
April Evans Weaver has been an educator in California for over 20 years. She started her career as a special education teacher and now is an administrator. She has worked at the site and district level focused on creating strong instructional programs based in UDL.
Learn more about how to build relationships with students and boost student engagement by earning a certificate in UDL through UPENN.