This is the first in a three part series of how I am able to bring success to my at-risk students that are in my Common Core Algebra class. It includes how I combat overwhelm and help my students succeed. Each post will only focus on two elements of my recipe for success.

**“How do I handle motivation in my classroom? The kids are just not engaged.”**

**This was the number one question from the survey that was put out this summer.**

As many of you know, I work with primarily at-risk students. Students that don’t feel good at “school”. Kids who have troublesome home lives and have a high percentage of free or reduced lunch. In a nutshell, kids that don’t always come to school to learn. I have certainly experience this myself and was at the brink of leaving the profession. I have always respected teaching to much to stay as a “burnt out” teacher. This is my story of overcoming.

**Feeling Overwhelmed**

It is not uncommon for teachers to feel overwhelmed when the state/country has mandated these curriculum that seem like a waste of time compared to the bigger issues our students face every day. Then I began to realize, maybe this is a place students could achieve and feel good about themselves in spite of the outside circumstances. For so many school is their safe place.

But every time I tried something new, students pushed back.** I was extremely overwhelmed.** I used to think that the students that need the most help, are just one more day behind even while they were in my room. The lack of engagement was my biggest battle.

**My solution sounds simple; every student grows everyday. This became my motto. I became obsessed … and successful.**

During the last post, we began to look at some of the psychology of how this is possible. This is one of those cycles that is increasingly positive or increasingly negative. Students are engaged because they are learning and they are learning because they are engaged….Wow. Not rocket science. But the opposite is also true, students are not learning and therefore are not engaged….

**So how do we prevent the negative cycle and put kids on the positive track?**

### Connections

The first thing I tried was to connect what the students cared about or found interesting to my lessons. This is why the lessons on this site are problem based (or at least not textbook based). That is why during exponents in Week 18, I have them read Dave Ramsey’s article, *How Teens Can Become Millionaires*. Any connection to previous learning or interest will help with retention (a big topic for another post) and engagement.

…understanding that somebody’s prior knowledge is something that we seriously have to consider, what are the experiences that they’ve gone through or the things that they’ve learned that they can connect and compare with the information that you’re presenting to them. And when they do, it will be integrated into their **long-term memory** and that’s how they begin to really take action on what that message is.

- Bryan Kelly (whatthespeak.com)

My goal is for all kids to grow, not just the ones that choose to grow. My desire became an obsession to help all of my students grow in their math skills everyday. Even if they did not pass they would be ready to try again with more prerequisites and more confidence inspite of that failure.

The second obstacle; most of my students often will also have a hard time connecting with adults. To help them understand that we are not so different I will often begin class or any interaction with a story or a comment that we both relate to.

Start with a story. I mean I love starting with stories or start with a question that you know people are going to say yes to.

-Pat Flynn (smartpassiveincome.com)

I know we don’t have time for this…Begin at the bell and don’t let it take more than 2 minutes. You may be surprised how much more you get done in an hour. Students will work harder for someone they feel connected to. Try this for one week and let me know if you see a difference. (See the homework below.) I know I have!

If my lesson can connect both the social and the academic needs for connection, we have a winner! The Unit 8 – Exponents, Livebinder (Week 22) has a great lesson from Yummy Math about Facebook. Perfect! I even had some students want to connect on Facebook, which I graciously declined. This connection was great for getting kids to try the lesson. It was a start!

### Safety

[Side note: this section has so much **great stuff** that we as teachers MUST understand, that I cannot fit it into this post. Please go listen to the original podcast now!]

We absolutely must create a safe environment for our students. If they are shutting down, acting out, or are not engaged, we must begin to ask ourselves what is going on? This is extremely hard and it may mean admitting some shortcomings. *I know it did for me.*

**Overcoming years of negativity**

Watch how kids behave in other classes. Study what days they are not engaged or not learning. We, as math teachers, have put students in this stressful arena for as long as there have been math classes. We were taught this way and so we teach this way. But we must overcome!

As soon as students feel like a failure at that timed multiplication test, it started. And we must be diligent if we are to overcome all of that. Remember that Algebra is the gatekeeper and that this work is worth it!

So the neuroscience behind this basically shows us that the information from the five senses goes to the center of our brain first and then it decides what part of the brain to

go after that point. Now, we’ve got this default system that’s part of what they call our primitive brain, and that’s the amygdala. It’s this tiny little pea-shaped portion of our brain and this is responsible for emotional outburst. So if we get ambushed or somebody pushes our buttons, this get set off. And when that gets set off, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline. And when this happens, **we can’t think straight**.

- Bryan Kelly

We can overcome the negative forces our kids come to class with each day. It takes practice and diligence, but the payoff for you as the teacher, and your successful students is priceless.

This is a three part series and I am hopeful that by the end of the series you will have some concrete tools to build on. And while this may sound fluffy, it is all backed by research of how the brain works. We will be building on these tools, but no matter how great the lesson, worksheet, or activity is at meeting a goal, it is for nothing if students are feeling stressed or unconnected to your class. Please take a minute to read the homework below and let me know what you think.** I will see you back here next week!**

## Homework for the teacher:

Just like our math students, we need practice.

**Part 1**: For one week, work to create a classroom where you are connected to your students. Create lessons, make comments, do story problems that connect with the students as humans. While doing this it will build an emotionally safe learning environment for your students. Watch for students that are acting out. Are there common themes on these days. Sometime we are the trigger, often not, but if we can find at least a few tricks that will calm and allow students to think clearly we will all be ahead!

**Part 2**: For one week, do one thing that helps students feel safe. Perhaps greet them at the door with a smile, affirm them, keep a calm demeanor, send an email home, anything that you would appreciate will often be appreciated.

Please let me know in the comments if you are trying this homework and how it goes! I would love to know how you helped your kids feel safe this week.

Are your students problem solvers? One more quote for motivation…

The research has shown us that if we’ve got ten options to solve a problem and this alarm goes off and we get flooded with adrenaline, we lose eight of those ten options.

-Bryan Kelly