George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Enhancing Classroom Engagement by Creating ‘the Buzz’

Teachers can prioritize student voice and set up challenging tasks to encourage the hum of active learning.

April 23, 2024
CPD-Lab / iStock

As administrators, we cherish the moments we get to spend in classrooms interacting with students. For me as an assistant principal, it makes my day when I get pulled into a classroom by what I’ve come to call “the buzz.”

A classroom that buzzes is one that has an intangible pull. At our school, we want to define the buzz not only so that we can see more of it, but also to cultivate it and help our teachers to do so. Because if we’re compelled by the buzz, students will be, as well.

My colleagues and I have found three commonalities among classrooms that buzz: Teachers use challenging tasks that actively engage students; there is in-the-moment data to organize students around those tasks; and they center students and their work rather than themselves as teachers.

I’ve worked with fellow instructional leaders to prioritize these three traits in planning and delivering professional learning, further expanding upon the buzz—and helping it proliferate across teachers’ classrooms.

Using Challenge to Spark Engagement

Too often, whether we’re teachers delivering classroom instruction or administrators delivering professional learning, we plan with engagement as a top priority. And while engagement is certainly important, I would argue that it is less effective than planning with challenge as a top priority; truly challenging tasks will prompt engagement. 

As a professional learning facilitator, I do this by pushing teachers to consider provocative questions, to challenge one another by having complex conversations, and to place their own philosophies under the microscope—questioning the roots of their belief systems. 

This year, we’ve added another layer of complexity by asking our teachers to plan tiered tasks for their students and to truly consider how and when to use homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping. 

This task is undoubtedly challenging, and that challenge creates the buzz.

Mobilize Your Data

We have also shifted focus away from standardized test scores to how teachers can collect their own classroom-level data and use it to organize students around instructional tasks. We value the authenticity of this data, given that it is collected over time and can capture student growth, compared with test scores gathered on a single day. 

Now that our teachers are comfortable collecting and using their own data, we are also pushing them to consider how they can limit the time that passes between data collection and use. We model this mindset in our professional learning sessions by collecting data from teachers and using it to organize them for the day’s work or to reorganize them throughout the session. 

This might mean administering an online quiz on the content of the day, a three-question bell ringer that we can use to make heterogeneous groups, or a group-made poster that peers can evaluate. 

Our favorite facilitative move is to reveal the data that we used to decide on the topic of the day’s professional learning session. While this takes work (I suggest using instructional rounds to provide structure), it also increases teacher agency, constructing a system that allows teachers to identify what they need. 

For example, a recent iteration of rounds allowed my professional learning cofacilitators and I to collect the following data from teachers:

  • 11 teachers noted that our building’s top need is to investigate ways to prompt knowledge revision.
  • 9 teachers noted that their top individual need is to identify ways to organize students around tasks.
  • 12 teachers noted that our staff would benefit from increased efforts to collaborate.

By making intentional instructional choices based on real-time data, we can make instruction more authentic. And doing so also allows us to create the buzz and model how teachers can do so with their students.

Share the Microphone

An important consideration for teachers and administrators is the question, “In the classroom, who is doing the work, and who has the microphone?” 

To create the buzz, the answer should be “the students.” 

For me as an instructional leader, this question has become my chorus—and it was also my biggest area for improvement when I was a classroom teacher. Of course, sharing the microphone doesn’t mean allowing a free-for-all. It means integrating methods of indirect feedback, actively using meaningful student samples, and administering small-group assessments. 

Sharing the microphone means being deliberate about instructional planning to increase opportunities for students to collaborate. In my role, it means creating time for collaboration at the end of every professional learning session and delivering robust content, then valuing teachers’ time and voices by affording them space to engage with that content. 

When students and teachers are given this time and space, they make the room buzz.

A Key Takeaway

As my colleagues and I take an intentional approach to centering the buzz in professional learning—and, in turn, across classrooms—we’re noticing that students are taking ownership of their own growth and learning. For instance, when I recently walked into our Honors Calculus class, pairs of students were graphing complex functions. There was a buzz created by students who were engaging in productive struggle together, arguing about a theory and interrupting nearby groups to ask clarifying questions. Not one of the groups was interested in stopping their work to ask the teacher for help—they were engaged and autonomous, using each other as resources in the problem-solving process. 

I also felt the pull of the buzz when I recently walked by our Film class, where students in groups of three were applying their knowledge of story structure to their favorite films. They weren’t attending to a lecture or simply reading about story arcs; instead, they were deliberately grouped, facing a challenging task, and owning their thinking by considering how the theory of story structure applied to real films. 

And teachers—carrying the buzz from professional learning into their classrooms—are increasing their collaborative efforts by sharing resources and ideas and observing one another. The formerly elusive buzz continues to pull both teachers and students in the right direction, now toward deeper learning with the help of identifiable and replicable strategies.

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