My ideal engagement strategies

Emily Folorunsho

Emily has been teaching for 5 years & is passionate about teaching & learning and diversity within the curriculum. She is head of KS4 History in an inner city school in London, lead practitioner, SLE & governor. She is almost always learning & has fun doing so.

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Working in an inner city school, History is often seen to be very irrelevant to students and therefore boring. I remember my first ever A level lesson with my Year 12s in 2015, I asked them individually ‘Why have you chosen to study History?’ The common answer was “to study Civil Rights”. The problem was that Civil Rights was part of the A2 course, which meant that they would had to wait a whole year to be taught that particular module. Therefore teaching the Tudors to a class that just wanted to learn only about black history was hard. As a result I had to ask myself: ‘How can I engage them in a topic that seems boring and irrelevant to their lives?’

What made matters even worse was that I was their main teacher in Year 12, so I saw them three times a week. Therefore, for three hours every week they had to bear with something they found boring. Teaching them in the first few weeks was like force feeding broccoli to a toddler.


The strategies below are what I have used with my A Level class. They are simple strategies we have heard before, but as teachers we often lose sight of them. As a result of these strategies, 50% of my A Level class have chosen to study History at University. All of which are minority students. This is a huge accomplishment, as research from Times Higher Education showed that there were 1,340 Black undergraduates studying History - less than 2% of the total in 2013. It also showed that history is the third most unpopular subject amongst black undergraduates.


1. Finding the connections


Erin Gruwell is one of my many teacher heroes. I first came across her through a film called Freedom Writers. She took on board a group of disadvantaged and disengaged “50% of my A Level class have chosen to study History at University.”teens who hated English, but by the end of the year they loved the subject and their progress increased. One of the ways Gruwell developed a passion for her subject amongst her pupils was by connecting the life of her students to the characters in which they were studying. For example, she connected Tupac to a lesson on poetry, she connected a lesson about Anne Frank to gang violence in their communities. So simple, yet so effective. As a teenager watching this film I thought “I must always teach like this!”


I love to connect students’ social and cultural interests to a topic being taught. For example, as a starter, try the activity ‘how does this song, or these lyrics link to last lesson?’ Or ‘how does a particular character from a reality programme or film link to the current learning’? I like to find out what my students like and connect that to their learning.


2. Using humour to support the lesson being taught


Recently there has been vast amounts of educational research on the importance and benefits of using humour in the classroom. Two of the benefits I have seen (also confirmed by research) are:


a) Humour builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humour is present. It brings them together (source).


b) Increases retention because students are emotionally engaged. The great Maya Angelou said that “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have found this is to be half true. My students always remember what I have said once they have had a laugh about it.


I often like to implement humour through teacher execution, starters or plenaries. For example, in a starter or plenary I often like students to work out an answer to a particular joke based on the current learning. Alternatively, for plenaries I like students to create a meme based on the lesson to check their progress (idea taken from Russel Tarr). Because students are forced to create their own memes or jokes as a way to check progress it forces them to use their higher order thinking skills.


Another technique I often use to support learning is to tell funny life stories from my life. This has been the best technique I have used in the classroom because it makes information stick for pupils and it has helped me to build positive relationships with my students. History is rich with real life stories, and I love connecting past stories to my personal story. I have found that students often view key historical figures before the 20th Century as foreign, failing to see them with real feelings, fears, excitement, anxieties etc. Therefore, I like to illustrate this through a personal, funny, embarrassing story. When fitting I have shared stories of bad dates, family functions, sibling disputes and my Secondary school days. This method has helped me tremendously in making information stick and tricking them into learning.


Before my students left the common thing they said was “I will miss your funny stories”, but I had to remind them that the stories were never without a purpose.


3. Participation


I am a Facing History teacher (@facinghistory). This organisation has transformed my approach to teaching especially when teaching sensitive issues. It has shown me different ways in which students can participate with History through blogging, combatting bullying on the playground, or doing community projects. When students know they can participate with knowledge engagement is fostered.


In 1938, Hitler told a crowd of thousands of young people, “Never forget that one day you will rule the world” (Eleanor Ayer, Parallel Journeys, New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995, 23). When making this declaration, he recognized that the youth shape the future. Hitler’s commitment to controlling the schooling of German students shows that he understood that how the young are educated influences “Studying Nazi Germany shows the role education can plays in preparing youth as members of society.” their beliefs and attitudes as adult citizens. One of the most significant lessons gained from studying Nazi Germany is the role civic education can play in preparing youth for their role as members of society - be it a totalitarian regime or a democratic community. What we teach and how we teach can foster the skills, habits, and attitudes required for thoughtful, civic engagement in a diverse nation.


One essential aspect of students’ civic education is instilling the belief that choices matter - that students’ choices, as young people and as adults, have an impact on larger society. As journalist Bill Moyers explains:


The problem of democracy is the problem of the individual citizen who takes himself or herself lightly historically... By that I mean if you do not believe that you can make a difference, you’re not going to try to make a difference, you’re not going to try to matter, and you will leave it to someone else who may or may not do what is in the best interest of your values or of democracy’s values.”


(Helmut Schreier, Never Again! The Holocaust’s Challenge for Educators, Hamburg: Kramer, 1997, 143)


Through helping students consider the significance of the choices made by ordinary people - people like you and me - in history, students will hopefully learn to see their own choices as significant. In the words of Moyers, they will not take themselves “lightly,” but will appreciate how their choices matter to themselves and to the larger society.


The questions I have often posed to my students are:

  • “What are you going to do with the history I have taught you? With knowledge comes responsibility.”
  • “Are you going to be passive or active?”
  • “How are you going to use history to build a better you?”
  • “How are you going to use history to help the one in front of you?”
  • “How are you going to use history to transform your communities?”


These questions help my students see that they can be active agents in history. As a result, my students see the relevance of the subject which in turn has fostered engagement.


History is full of stories about people's individual choices. As an educator I use History to show my students that they to have the power to change the course of history through their individual actions. Teaching is not simply about results but about students and their tomorrow.


What methods do you use for engaging pupils? Let us know below.

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