Student Engagement: Consider Context and Relevance

I’ve been reading an informational book on and off, The Complete Guide to Article Writing: How to Write Successful Articles for Online and Print Markets by Naveed Saleh. So far it’s been helpful for me to think more critically about my writing craft.

The first chapter starts with a primer on style. Saleh describes the difference between active vs. passive voice, for example, and the right and wrong way to use specific words such as “about” and “affect/effect” in your writing. (And in case you are wondering, we should use “affect” to describe how something has an influence on another thing, and “effect” for when there is a direct correlation.)

If I had started this text like I would a more typical book, the content from the first chapter would have gone in one ear and out the other. It would have had no context or meaning for me. So I have bounced around, reading different chapters that seem relevant, such as “Publication”. In these chapters, the author will sometimes make reference to an idea from the first chapter (a primer on style). I would go back to the page, read that bit of information, and was better able to remember and apply it. Now, these disparate ideas have context and relevance.

I think back to a workshop with Heidi Hayes Jacobs that our district facilitated in August. She talked about how students get a lot of skill and drill, sometimes participate in rehearsal, but rarely take their learning to a performance/transfer level in schools (in general).

To continue this thinking, what happens when we communicate with students, in the beginning, the larger purpose of why we should be learning certain content and skills? How does starting with the whole picture of learning impact our motivation and engagement when trying to improve in the smaller and more mundane tasks?

During my imperfect K-12 tenure as a student, I am sure my teachers covered the difference between the usage of “affect” and “effect”. But it didn’t stick, at least not until I was in a position where my writing was read and responded to by others. Creating content for an audience and for a purpose has made all of the difference in my ability to retain and apply new learning. My work matters now. 

Certainly, schools cannot completely reflect the real world. Yet the closer we can design our instruction to resemble these experiences, the better.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

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