Financial Literacy · History · Philosophy · The Unraveled Teacher

Increasing Student Engagement and Participation: A Trick They Didn’t Teach Me in PD

The situation with student buy-in is rough right now. And, if you’re in the classroom, you know that’s an understatement. We know the standard list of ways we are supposed to create a classroom that encourages engagement, motivation, and participation: set expectations and routines, make learning relevant to your students, including options for students choice, and so on. All of these are great and necessary components of a functioning classroom, but after the pandemic, I needed something different than my usual plan. Something novel.

One day, a student of mine who could not for the life of her pay attention to the nuances of European imperialism in Southeast Asia gave me an idea. She had just gotten a new puppy (how could I expect her to be wrapped up in anything other than that!) and couldn’t stop talking about it and showing everyone pictures and videos. How do I make this puppy work for me rather than against me? And that’s when I realized I needed this cute puppy to appear in the stuff I wanted my students to focus on. I asked the student if she would send me a picture of the pup and if it was alright if I hid it in one of my lectures. This experiment turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for my classroom culture in a long time.

Now I solicit “Easter eggs” from my students to hide away in my lectures. I just set up an assignment on Google Classroom where students can submit pictures of their pets if they’d like them to show up randomly in one of my lessons at some point. My students (high school) LOVE THIS! They have no idea when their pet is going to show up, and I don’t put them in too frequently. When a student’s pet does pop up, it’s a lot of fun for the class. They try and guess who it belongs to and the exclamations of how adorable the pet is really create a positive flow of attention on the pet’s owner. Here’s what it looks like in action:

I use a background remover (you can find a free one online) and then just pop the image onto one of my slides. What’s especially fun is that by making the image of the pet “blend in” a bit, it makes it so that students really have to be paying attention to notice it quickly. I use guided notes with my lectures and tell my students to put the pet’s name or a little drawing of it on their notes.

When a pet pops up, you’ll hear lots of “awwws” and giggles. If the owner is in class (sometimes the pet owner is in a different period if I have multiple sections of the same source), they usually get really excited to see their pet being showcased. The other students always shower the owner with praise for the adorable animal. This has been a truly amazing way for some students who are on the quieter side because they are suddenly flooded with positive attention. And that attention is not really on them, but on the pet. What originally began as a way to grab students’ attention turned into a really cool way to build positive relationships in my classroom.

How to Set Up the Pet Project

You need a method of collecting students’ pet photos. I made some guidelines for student photos that just state that the pictures should be of pets only and no people should appear in the pictures. I also ask that they sign the form stating that they give me permission to display a picture of their pet for my classes to see. I’ve never had issues with photos, but it’s always a good idea to be on the safe side when using students personal media. You may even want to require parent permission.

I just have students submit pictures through Google Classroom but you can do this through whatever digital learning system you use.

My aim is to have a pet show up about once a week. Any more and it becomes a distraction. Any less and students forget about looking for them.

Benefits of Including Student Pets in Your Lessons

There’s tons of research about the benefits pets or animals can bring to students. Many universities bring in dogs during finals week to help students de-stress, and they do this because it works. Stress is a major factor in the well being of our students. Classroom pets are proven to increase a student’s sense of belonging and engagement. As a high school teacher, I can’t reasonably keep a classroom pet (nor do I want to), but I can harness the power of the pets who belong to my students. By bringing them into my lectures, all the positive associations students have with their pets get a chance to come through in the classroom. It’s a wonderful way for students to feel like they belong when they realize that kid they sit next to also has a cat who causes mischief and mayhem at home. The spontaneity of pictures of pets appearing in unlikely places gives students a really nice reprieve from heavy lessons, too. And as the teacher who facilitates this, you become known as the teacher who is interested in and appreciates students beyond their academic capabilities.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

And here are the slides and guided notes I’ve created for my AP® World classes that are shown above.


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