We MUST Engage Our Math Students

Updated: August 11, 2020

I remember my middle and high school classes when I was stuck in the classroom and daydreamed the time away. My lack of focus on a lesson that was droning on in front of me would cost me dearly when I got home later and had to answer the homework problems. Maybe because I wanted to “save” students from the hell I had experienced is why I made educational videos, and also why I recently launched Elevated Math on the Internet. Full of cartoons and animations with math instruction coming from dialogue and not one voice, these 173 lessons are designed to engage students. But instructors (teachers and parents) need to do their part as well, they have an infinite number of ways of doing so. Here are four of them.

Inject passion into your instruction

Teachers must not only love the subjects they teach, they must become passionate about them. For example, in college I took a class on existentialism. The instructor would talk an hour in the lecture hall and then, when the hour was over, would invite us to join him in the outside sculpture garden where he would lecture another hour. Everyone followed him. He would speak about each philosopher as if this person held the ultimate truth of life that we each needed to know. No doubt this professor fervently loved his subject. Can you approach students the same way, as if you hold a sacred gift of knowledge that you must pass on?

Bring real-world problems into the class

When I was a freshman in high school, I took an earth science class.  The first photographs of the moon had just been released. My teacher drove to Washington D.C. (we lived in northern Virginia) where she acquired large prints of these maps. Each of us got a different map, but we all worked together to figure out the size and depth of each crater by using the cast shadows. No daydreaming happened that day!

Another example I love is the introduction in Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got To Do With It, where she describes a class where students are working out the time it would take a skateboarder to crash into a wall after letting go of a spinning merry-go-round. The students were all completely engaged.

How can you create the same invigorating atmosphere in your classes?

Nurture a sense of humor

But you say you don’t have a sense of humor? You’re not funny? Then bring something to class that you think IS funny. A simple joke such as “why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9.” can put a smile on your students’ faces, which will help get their attention to listen to your instruction. In the Elevated Math lessons we begin each one with a cartoon. This is not only to establish the characters who will continue talking throughout lesson but also to put the students at ease, get them involved and ready to listen. Here are two of my favorite cartoons that precede a pre-algebra and an algebra lesson. The first one starts a lesson on the subtraction of integers. The second one begins instruction on radicals.

Show your students you care

Sit in a lunchroom at school or go to a school sports event and watch students as their instructors walk by. Some students just stare and the teachers usually turn their heads away or look down. Other students will call out their instructors’ names, and the teachers will acknowledge them, wave back, make comments. All faces brighten. For these students the instructors are their friends. And the instructors see the students as OUR kids, not THESE kids. It’s okay if you are not a “buddy” with your students. But still, it’s good to express in some way that you care. And only you know if you truly care. If you do, your students will also know.


Engaging your students isn’t such a chore once you decide to do it. Be willing to take a chance, make a mistake, tell a joke, and try something new. It might be as simple as a new way of grading or finding a real-world problem to share. And how do you let your kids know you care? It’s simple. By actually caring and letting your actions reflect that truth. Everyone has their own way of showing it.

1 thought on “We MUST Engage Our Math Students”

  1. Jahna Lindquist

    I like to engage kids, but I also worry about the questions kids are tested on for high stakes testing. Real world math and test practice questions don’t always go hand in hand.

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