Let’s Engage!

For as long as there have been teachers and students, engagement in learning has been a topic of discussion, research, and planning for educators. We find ourselves at a time when many would argue that disengagement is at the highest level it has ever been. Many educators have taught through “cameras off” and “mute on” from students since March of 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we return to learning this coming year, Fall 2021, what can we as mathematics teachers and education professionals do to fully engage our students and support learning in a meaningful way? I have learned throughout my career that there are two places to turn to answer such questions; one is research and the second is to my students.

I am excited to share with you that Open Up High School Mathematics embraces both research and students through the frameworks it is built upon and the routines it incorporates to amplify access.

One of many examples related to the incorporation of researched based practices is found with the Effective Teaching Practices from Principles to Actions (NCTM, 2014) which provides clear direction for engaging students in high-leverage learning opportunities. These teaching practices at their heart embrace engagement through meaningful discourse. The grade band companion books in the Taking Action series provides further insight with respect to the relationships between the Effective Teaching Practices in the graphic organizer provided in Figure 1.


Figure 1: From Taking Action: Implementing Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices Grades 9-12 Page 215

The lower half of this graphic demonstrates how five of the eight practices directly connect with meaningful discourse. Additionally, Mary Kay Stein and Margaret (Peg) Smith have provided guidance on classroom discussions in 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussion and more recently Peg and her colleagues have provided grade band specific guidance in a series of books about putting the 5 Practices into practice (see Smith et. al, 2020 for the High School level book).

I share these resources because they are a great place to turn as mathematics educators to find guidance regarding effective ways to engage our students with mathematics. My coauthors and I have incorporated the strategies mentioned in Open Up High School Mathematics. You will find direct connections to the research I have cited above in the Teacher Editions: 5 Practices Charts which provide support for engaging students in rich discussions that are meaningfully orchestrated. We have created both Anticipating and Monitoring Charts as well as Selecting, Sequencing and Connecting Charts for supporting teachers in their preparations to engage their students in rich discussions. (Stay tuned for a discussion about the nature of and differences between these different charts.)



With regard to learning from my students about how best to engage them. I ask them what they think about engagement and see what they have to say. When doing this, be specific with your inquiry as you start the new school year. My most recent inquiry is represented in Figure 2.

Me: How would you describe an engaging class?

Student: Everyone is participating.

Me: What do teachers do to make their class more engaging?

Student: They ask good questions that really make you think and create connections. You know they have things that are well prepared.

Me: Is there anything else teachers do besides ask questions to make class engaging?

Student: They have things that draw you in as the things to work on, you know not a lecture or speech but they have something that is interesting to work on to learn from.

Figure 2. Conversation with a 17 year old student, soon to be senior in high school.

At the end of this past school year I also solicited feedback from my students and received many great responses via survey. One much appreciated card was provided to me this past May (Figure 3). Consider having exit tickets for some classes that solicit feedback about the level of engagement in learning rather than the content covered.


Figure 3. Student feedback can come in many forms.

Such feedback, positive or not, is crucial for us to consider as we seek to improve our practice and make learning in our classrooms more meaningful for students. It is evident from the student’s comments (Figure 3) that Open Up High School Mathematics does support access and engagement in learning.

“When students are engaged and connect learning with their lives, they are 14 times more likely to be academically motivated.” (Fisher et. al, 2018, p. 150) As teachers of mathematics we need to be engaged in the work of engaging our students. Whether it be by incorporating researched practices such as those shared here or seeking to learn from our students how best to engage them in learning. Now more than ever we need to up the level of engagement. You will find research based routines, supports and frameworks in the latest edition of Open Up High School Mathematics that you and your colleagues can incorporate right away to support your efforts and enhance the learning experience for your students. My hope and desire is for this coming year to be a year of engagement!

Travis Lemon currently teaches secondary level mathematics, having taught various courses and grade levels for the last 22 years. He also works as an instructional coach supporting and mentoring mathematics teachers. Travis has a M.A. in mathematics education and achieved National Board Certification in Early Adolescent Mathematics. He was a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching (2007) and honored to receive a Huntsman Education Award (2019). Travis has served on several committees for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and co-authored articles appearing in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School and Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12. He currently is an Associate Editor on the Editorial Board for  Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12. Travis was honored to be a contributor to The Five Practice in Practice [High School]: Successfully Orchestrating Mathematics Discussions in Your High School Classroom (2020). Travis has a passion for implementation of Effective Teaching Practices (NCTM, 2014) and student engagement in meaningful mathematical work. Follow Travis on twitter @travislemon.