How to Build Engagement Beyond Attention Grabbers

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by LaToya Fernandez
Teacher, Discovery Prep

Attention grabbers, songs and chants are tools educators use to capture and keep the attention of students. Sometimes though, this only lasts for a few minutes or moments. Because of this, many educators have grappled with the idea of engaging students in a way that keeps their investment consistent. At Rocketship, one of our core values is responsibility; we want our students to be responsible and accountable for their education.

With the start of a new school year, students are coming off the summer slide, and getting them excited about school can be a challenge. Starting this year teaching fourth grade, my co-teacher Ms. Smallwood and I decided to build our students’ investment from the first day. We wanted to create a strong foundation of accountability and self-progress monitoring that would last all year.

We kicked off the first week of school teaching the students about human rights, and more explicitly identifying the rights they have as children. This includes the right to an education, a childhood free of child labor and a life full of possibility. Ms. Smallwood took this connection to the world and society a step further and created a lesson with statistics that illustrated potential challenges our students’ may face in the future. The students were shocked when they saw that less than 12 percent of Harvard students belong to the Latino community. Their faces cringed when they saw the difference in salaries between college graduates and those who drop out of high school, as well as how this related to crime rates. As they grappled with their community’s misrepresentation, tears filled their eyes. At the same time, students began to express their determination to change the statistics and “prove them wrong”.

I was proud and excited to share my students’ determination with Ms. Smallwood, as she shared that one of her students responded, “I have no words, I am just shocked.” The fact is, the statistics are real and our students deserve to see them, know them and internalize them. It is important to explain the rationale behind a proud “college bound” raised hand not just as a Rocketship system and procedure, but as a habit of excellence for someone who seeks success and takes ownership over her education.

Completing and turning in classwork and homework are not just teacher expectations, but methods of building a level of preparedness that makes kids stand out now and in the future. This has been extremely evident as I hear from my former Rocketeer students share how they are a force in their middle schools when it comes to participating, writing and content mastery. As educators, it becomes a routine to provide that “what.” However, as former students and game changers, we must also present the “why” and appreciate the power that brings.


LaToya started her career at Rocketship as a member of the support staff team. She transitioned to an enrichment coordinator then a Rocketship tutor (ILS) before becoming a fifth grade humanities teacher at Discovery Prep. LaToya graduated from Newbury College in Boston where she studied Media Writing and English.

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