George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

The Power of Saying Yes to Students

Finding opportunities to agree to student requests—both academic and nonacademic—can boost engagement in learning.

December 14, 2023
Maskot / Alamy

One piece of advice has stayed with me from my time in my teacher training program well over a decade ago. It’s something I use daily, both in and out of the classroom. When a child asks you to do something, before you automatically say no, see if there’s a way to say yes.

When I first heard that, I didn’t realize how often adults default to no, and how often I default to no, when a kid asks to do something. But once that idea of switching your default to yes was presented to me, I began to slowly put it into practice. Here are three areas where I look to say yes in my classroom.

Academic Choice

The chance to say yes: Years ago, when I was teaching elementary school, my students were trudging their way through essays on whether chocolate milk should be served in schools. Nobody in the class was invested in this assignment, but it was part of the writing curriculum that our district happened to be using at the moment. Most kids had no strong opinions one way or another on chocolate milk, and almost all of them had no interest in spending weeks writing about it. I still remember one of my students lamenting that this was an unfair assignment for the lactose-intolerant crowd, of which they were a part. 

As we were trying to make our way through the chocolate milk essay, many of my students were preparing for a Shakespeare play after school. They were engrossed in Shakespearean English, and the dialogue in our classroom had started to take on a new feel. One day, a group of students came to me and asked, “Can we please stop writing about chocolate milk and write our own play instead?” I told them I would see what I could do, and that afternoon I went to talk to the literacy coach to see how we could grant this request. Working together, we were able to weave standards into the task of writing a play. 

The students were thrilled when I told them we were going to wrap up chocolate milk and move on to writing a script for a class play.  My students looked forward to writing each day and eagerly collaborated on the script. When they finished writing the play, they created props and costumes for their big performance. The end result was a writing assignment that went far beyond my wildest expectations. If I hadn’t found a way to say yes, it’s doubtful that many of them would have remembered their chocolate milk essays—or if they did, they would have remembered how painfully boring it was to write them.

Why it matters: When we actively listen to our students and endeavor to meet them where they are, it demonstrates to them that their thoughts and ideas matter and that we respect them enough to consider their requests. We often remind our students that they are the ones in charge of their education and can drive their learning forward. Therefore, it’s only logical that we listen to them and try to fulfill their requests when possible. While there will inevitably be times when we cannot say yes, when we can, it enhances students’ engagement in their learning because it relates to something they genuinely care about.

Reluctant learners

The chance to say yes: More recently, in my middle school English language class, I had a couple of students who frequently avoided classwork. They would often apply makeup in class, and on one occasion, one of them even left her fake eyelashes on her desk, only to return later to retrieve them. I asked what kind of project they would like to work on if given the opportunity. Both expressed an interest in makeup and requested to do a project on the topic.

Together, we developed a plan for them to create makeup tutorials that included written scripts, scientific terminology, and research on the ingredients used in makeup. They also found apps to assess the safety of these ingredients and created posters titled “Buy This, Not That: Makeup Style,” which included a cost analysis of the best stores to purchase beauty products.

Why it matters: This project not only kept them engaged but also helped them see themselves as productive students. They found a way to explore their interests and apply them to their schoolwork. They learned valuable research skills and taught their peers something they found valuable: how to apply different beauty products. Although this was not something I had initially planned, by saying yes to their interest, I opened a door for them to explore a path they were eager to walk through.

Nonacademic requests

The chance to say yes: It can also be helpful to say yes to nonacademic suggestions. In elementary school, my students would always beg me for extra recess. Although I wasn’t able to give extra recess all the time, I could acknowledge their need for movement and play and make it a goal for our class to work toward extra recess. I know I often can push through tough tasks with the knowledge I get to do something I enjoy when I’m done; our students are often the same. They can maintain focus a little better knowing that there’s an end point and something fun at the end of the tunnel. 

Even in middle school, my students will ask if we can play a game, and for my English learners, games are a great way to get them talking and engaged. The other day, toward the end of a long 90-minute block, my students were getting tired and asked if they could play a game. It was clear that their stamina was waning, and saying yes to this request would have a positive impact. So, for the last few minutes of class, they collaborated on a vocabulary review on Blooket; everyone was engaged, talking, and working together.

Why it matters: When we say yes to nonacademic things, it shows students that we see them as whole people; it signals to them that we can relate to them and their needs. As the years tick by and I get older, I believe it’s important to keep the child’s perspective in mind and realize that fun and play are not frivolous wastes of time but are tools for developing the whole child. The freedom and creativity that come from child-directed play are powerful, and they help facilitate learning.

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  • 6-8 Middle School

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