Active Learning, Active Engagement!

By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

Get your students out of their desks and learning by doing. Organize students into collaborative groups of three to five and encourage meaningful talk. Limit teacher talk to twelve to fifteen minutes in a 45-minute class. Use the rest of your class time for actively engaging students in learning. Gordon Wells said in The Meaning Makers (Heinemann, 1986) that all learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge. The teacher creates situations where students, through discussions, reading, writing, and observing come to understand information.


Students love to talk. They do it well. And it’s a great way for them to enlarge vocabulary, observe the thinking of peers, and clarify ideas. Here are some ways to involve students in paired and small group discussions.

Turn and Talk. Ask students to turn to their partner and discuss a question, word, project, video, book talk. This is a simple, tried and true way to involve students in meaningful talk. Remember to ask partners to share with the class.

Learning Buddies. Invite students to discuss a short text, a book, video, blog, wiki, or article. Help students set guidelines for their discussions.

Peer Revise and Edit. Organize students into partners or small groups and have them read each other’s drafts. Using a rubric or writing criteria, partners can suggest ways to improve the content, mechanics, and usage.

Study Buddies. Most middle grade and middle school students don’t study because they are unsure how to study. This type of review asks students to think about what they’re read, viewed on line, learned, and their written notes. Set aside one to two class periods and provide pairs with suggestions for studying. Students can:

Create high level questions they believe will be on the test. Show them that words like why, how, evaluate, compare, contrast, lead to questions that have more than one answer. Good questions always have more than one answer and use text details and/or inferences as support for answers.

360 Degree Math Partnerships. Put whiteboards all around your classroom. Have students solve math problems at the board. Stand in the middle of the classroom and observe students. Immediately offer support to students who “don’t get it.” You can also have students work together so that the one who understands can show how to think through the problem to the student who requires help. This gets students doing math during class and allows the teacher to spot problems immediately and offer support.

Organize Cross-Grade Projects. Develop projects with teachers on your team and/or with students in lower grades. Students can work together in different classrooms and in the library. Try some of these suggestions:

  • Older students become reading buddies to younger students. Once a week, set aside time for students to read together and discuss their books.
  • Older students listen to younger students read their writing and provide feedback on content.
  • Peer partners can design and film a video.
  • Peer partners can create a website or blog and continually update it.

Let Students Teach Each Other. As a teacher when you have to teach, you immerse yourself in a topic so deeply that you can think, read, speak, and write about it with ease. The same holds true for your students. The pyramid suggests that teaching results in the most retention of a topic. Here are ways that students can teach one another:

  • Use Jigsaw. Give pairs or small groups sections of texts to discuss and then teach to the group. Texts can be magazine articles, online pieces, sections from a content textbook or chapters from informational texts and literature.
  • Organize Panel Presentations. Have small groups become experts on a topic and plan a panel presentation that teaches the class.
  • Develop Teaching Blogs. Organize students into groups and give each group part of a topic to study. For example, for human rights, one group canexplainthis concept according to the United Nations, other countries, and interviews that students conduct; another group can give examples of violations of human rights and how each one was handled; a third group can study human rights from an historical perspective; a fourth group can delve into people who advocated for human rights, what motivated them, and how they changed events. Using a blog, students can teach one another by posting findings and inviting other groups to respond.
  • Teach Younger Students. Challenge older students to develop active-learning lessons on making inferences, solving equations, conducting an experiment, etc. To teach these lessons to younger students means older students must have a deep understanding of their topic.
  • Peer Book Conferences. Once students have conferred about a book with their teacher, ask them to pair-up and confer about a book with a partner. Partners document peer book conferences and turn their write-ups into the teacher. See form at the end of the newsletter.


The Common Core asks teachers to involve students in speaking and listening activities. Here are some suggestions that work:

  • Present monthly book talks and develop standards for presenters and listeners.
  • Argue for a claim in a speech in addition to writing essays.
  • Write and perform a readers theater script based on a specific text.
  • Conduct interviews in front of the class. Interviews can be between characters from a book or to explore a student’s expertise on a topic.
  • Write and perform a dramatic monologue. Students’ monologues can be based on an historical figure, a famous scientist or mathematician, or a character from a book.


Reading and writing workshops are active learning teaching models. A read aloud and mini-lesson open workshop. Students spend most of class time reading books they choose and writing about topics they choose and care about. The teacher makes the rounds and holds brief conferences with students, leading her to figuring out which students require longer conferences; she also organizes student partnerships so students can confer with and support each another.



Laura shares ideas to help make classrooms more engaging, student focused, and dynamic.  Student engagement coupled with purposeful learning can not only increase student learning but it also can make learning more enjoyable for student and teacher.  This blog contains great Monday morning strategies as you the teacher work to increase student engagement in a purposeful strategic way! I hope your principal is an encourager of trying new strategies to increase student engagement! Overly compliant classrooms devoid of conversation, engagement, collaboration and communication need to be part of our past.

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