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Tales from the First Year: Finding Balance Between Entertainment and Engagement in the Classroom

By Kelley Zebrowski

Kelly Zebrowski is a high school teacher in a public school and a member of the Tales from the First Year team featuring first-year teachers sharing their journeys to becoming seasoned professionals. In this flash post, Ms. Zebrowski examines the line between entertaining students and engaging them in order to get them to buy into what she is doing in the classroom.

Entertainment or engagement? This is a question I have just now realized I have been struggling with. Teenagers have no problem voicing their opinion if they are bored, or if something is not fun (they act like I enjoy lecturing while they take notes?), and I’ve started to like hearing them say they love our class, or science is their favorite subject now.

The more I’ve heard positive feedback from my students, the more I’ve felt the pressure to make our class fun. The more I make the class fun, the more I realize I’m feeling like I need to entertain my students. In the mornings when I’m planning things I find myself thinking about if the students will enjoy this lesson, or if they will actually want to do this assignment. On days where I’m tired or in a bad mood I even give myself a pep talk to be energetic and happy so the students don’t pick up on it.

Although I don’t think any of these practices are hurting my students’ learning, it wasn’t until today that I realized I was focusing on the wrong thing. Yes, I want my students to enjoy our class and want to do the assignments, but the most important thing is that they are engaged. Engagement happens through discovery learning, and relating the content to students’ lives and other classes or real world scenarios, not just through ‘fun.’ When students are invested in the content, the assignments or the lab, the class time goes by more quickly, the students don’t become bored or zone out, and as a result they will enjoy the class just as much as if they were just having fun. They would never admit it, but teenagers love to think, solve problems, challenge themselves, and most importantly, overcome those challenges! Or figure something out before the teacher explains it! Or uncover a new interest! These triumphs are what I should focus on. How can I get my students to be so engaged and focused on their work that they forget they’re learning?

This realization today was such a lightbulb moment for me. I love entertaining my kids, I love when they laugh with me and tell me stories and talk about how much they love our class, but I love seeing them grow even more. The rest of the year (and of course, my career), I am planning on working on this balance--entertainment follows engagement. I want my students to leave their science class thinking it was fun, but it was fun because they learned how to think and solve problems, and understand more about the world around them.