Spring Break and the Equinox of Student Engagement

Spring Break and the Equinox of Student Engagement

By Gary G. Abud, Jr.

Close your mind's eye for a moment.

Imagine it's a Saturday night. You're in Miami at the hottest dance club in town. Lights flash, the bass pounds, and you feel the atmosphere so much you don't want it to end. Facing the DJ on stage, a hush falls over the crowd. Excitement builds with anticipation and the crowd begins to cheer wildly as the drum beat kicks in. They are in--they are all in.

Now open your eyes.

It's the vernal equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. For many schools in the U.S., that means Spring Break. While students head for warm beaches, educators search for more ways to engage their students in learning, now more than ever. Literally. According to Google Trends, since 2004 we are near an all-time high for the popularity of the search term "student engagement."

Are we looking in the right places for insight into how we can engage students?
Several years ago, I had a student named Stephen in my physics class. Stephen was a tall, reserved and joyful genius. Nothing could rattle this young man, including the laws of physics. Each day he would come into class with his large DJ headphones on, blasting techno music, and bobbing his head to the beat, all the way to his desk, totally absorbed in his music.

The headphones didn't come off when he sat down, either. It was like he was in another world, and he clearly wanted to be there much more than he wanted to be in my classroom. Over time, I came to appreciate the ritual of asking Stephen to take his headphones off as a teachable moment -- this was my signal that it was time for me to look outside of my educational comfort zone to find keys to engaging the young people in my class.

The electronic dance music industry clearly knows how to engage the fans. Since its nascent
techno days in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1980s, EDM looks a lot like disco at its height--but with way more glow sticks. Its popularity has gone global, and its influence permeates pop culture so completely that we live in the 'EDM era,' where DJs have assumed the iconic status once reserved for rock stars.

For Stephen music had a kind of power. Much more than a way to pass the time, music was his way to make time stop passing. So I had to ask myself, "How can I do that with science?"

On Techno & Teaching. Turns out that in many ways the work of a teacher is remarkably similar to the work of a DJ.  Both educators and DJs perform live in front of an audience. We make countless invisible, real-time decisions and engage in complex and creative work that demands technical skill.

There are at least four strategies DJs use to engage an audience that teachers should consider incorporating into their classroom. These four approaches were previously noted by Leonard Sweet in his book, The Gospel According to Starbucks®. They are, in fact, EPIC:  Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich and Connective.

Focus on Experiences. From the tracks they play, to the design of their sets, and how they involve the crowd, DJs make much more than music. They create an experience. Teachers can learn from DJs to draw in the audience by making classrooms inclusive, inviting, and intriguing to kids when they:

  • Design learning with kids in mind and see lessons through our students' eyes
  • Include team-building exercises and activities on a regular basis, playing music during class, and changing up the furniture and decorations
  • Make learning hands on and minds on, not just ears on or eyes on. Use play-based learning, student investigations, research projects and service learning
  • Cultivate classroom traditions and celebrate milestones

Participation. DJs help their audiences know how to move to the music, no matter how familiar they are with the songs, or even how well they can dance. Whether you're bobbing your head to the beat or breakdancing on the floor, DJs have the ability to bring people in, change the tempo, and get people involved. Where experience is how the classroom interacts with students, participation is how students interact with their class. As educators, we invite participation when we:

  • Give students clearly defined, active roles in our classrooms, like greeter, concierge, reporter, recorder or PR director
  • Ensure the amount that students are talking and thinking in class exceeds that of teachers, because the one who talks learns
  • Increase student agency in learning, with more choice and voice in what kids do to show what they know
  • Provide opportunities for students to give feedback to us educators on our classroom

Create an Image-Rich Environment. DJs are good at leveraging the best that graphic design has to offer to captivate audiences: everything from album artwork and promotional graphics, to music videos and laser-light displays at shows. For something that is ostensibly about what participants hear, the DJs put just as much emphasis on what they see. In your classroom, you might consider:

  • Creating stunning graphics to advertise class content, make memorable posters, and turn important ideas into standout images
  • Using thinking maps or anchor charts to make learning visible and provide visual references
  • Making time daily for visual literacy activities like the NYTimes What's Going On In This Picture?
  • Changing up the lighting in your classroom by ditching the fluorescents overhead for floor lamps

Connect, Connect, Connect! The entire culture of EDM is connected. The music connects with you emotionally and makes you feel free. Whether it's heart hands to show your love for the music live, taking and sharing selfies, or following the artists and music on social media, the experience goes on. The reason that so many people flock to Miami Music Week in March, and other major festivals, is that they feel a part of something more than just hearing a song.

  • Make sure every day to have informal conferences to chat with kids briefly about anything but school, or make it a class activity with a 'morning meeting'
  • Create a classroom hashtag that students can post to online, or on the class (actual) wall, if students don't have social media accounts
  • Be intentional about positive interactions, gestures and words through greetings and feedback
  • Smile. More.

Engaging our students is not something we can force; it is not about compliance. Instead, educators must create the conditions that invite students to throw more of themselves into their learning, as if they are at an EDM concert. This includes cultivating something experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connective. The word educate comes from the Latin educe, meaning, "to draw forth from within." This is exactly what techno DJs do. Now teachers can take a lesson from them on how to evoke in our students their inner desire to learn.

And accomplishing that could make every school day feel like Spring Break.


Gary G. Abud, Jr. is the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He currently serves as principal of Mark Twain Elementary in the Fraser Public Schools. Previously, he taught high school science and technology. He lives near Detroit, MIchigan, with his wife, and fellow educator, Janice, and their preschool daughter Laina. Connect with Abud on Twitter @mr_abud.


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