A framework for creating wildly engaging lessons


Teaching | Monday, January 11, 2016

A framework for creating wildly engaging lessons

A framework for creating wildly engaging lessons
Looking for the secret sauce that helps you create wildly engaging lessons? The five parts of this framework have helped me. (Sketch by Matt Miller)

Looking for the secret sauce that helps you create wildly engaging lessons? The five parts of this framework have helped me. (Sketch by Matt Miller)

As a teacher, I’ve always been looking for that secret sauce for creating lessons that students love.

You know, those lessons that they’ll think of and talk about long after the bell rings. Those special lessons that help them remember a tricky concept they might not get otherwise.

In my years of teaching, I’ve found that my secret sauce comes down to five main ingredients:

  • Different
  • Innovative
  • Tech-laden
  • Creative
  • Hands-on

This framework is the basis of my own teaching and of my book, “Ditch That Textbook.” And it’s probably no surprise that it’s an acronym, spelling the word “ditch,” right?

Here are some thoughts on each of those five ingredients in my secret “student engagement” sauce:


As a high school teacher, as I walked the hallways during my prep period, I regularly watched what was going on in other classes. Even when I’ve been fortunate to sit in on other teachers’ classes in my school and in others, I often see the same thing.

The student experience doesn’t change much. There’s a lot of sitting. A lot of writing. A lot of being quiet. Not much opportunity for students to express their identities, opinions or creativity.

Being different — just creating a different classroom experience — can get students engaged in the lesson.

Being different in a way that connects them to learning in a new, better way … that’s powerful.

Here’s an example …

I was struggling to engage my Spanish 3 class one year. As I wracked my brain during lesson planning for engaging ideas, I just decided to get them out of the classroom for a period to shake things up.

Then it hit me. We were studying visual art vocabulary. By the art room, student art work was all over the walls and in glass display cases. We could have an art gallery exhibition right there in the hallway.

I bought some cheap fruit punch and little paper cups at the grocery store that night. During the lesson the next day, the students sipped beverages and enjoyed an art gallery event while engaging in our new vocabulary.

It started with, “Let’s just do something different,” and ended up being wildly engaging. (At least the students said so … and that was really something coming from that class!)


New teaching philosophies, styles and ideas swirl around education circles every day. Teachers are constantly inventing, trying new ideas that connect with best practices or their personal teaching experience.

Grab on to some of those new ideas and run with them. Better yet, be one of those teachers creating innovative ideas in his/her classroom.

You may say, “I’m not very creative. Those ideas don’t just pop into my head. That’s not really my style.”

The word “innovative” has the root word “nov” in it, which means new. To be innovative, you don’t have to be a genius. You just have to try something new. 

For years, my students have been my test subjects and my classroom has been my laboratory. Some of the best lessons happen when teachers allow themselves to invent.


In so many career fields, video conferencing is becoming a part of workers’ daily lives. Search engines find answers to work-related questions on a minute-by-minute basis. Digital collaboration speeds up the learning curve.

The Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed businesses about critical skills for employees to possess. Digital literacy — the ability to manage and navigate digital tools — was among the top skills. And, the study shows, it’s expected to rise in importance in the next few years.

Our students’ generation is a digital one. They’re able to create more impressive projects through technology. Their productivity can soar with the right tools. The sky’s the limit with their communication channels.

The more we can engage them with meaningful activities that leverage technology, our lessons will be greater and our students will be more prepared.


“I’m not a creative person.”

I’ve heard this or read this countless times from teachers, others in education and beyond. Students say it, too.

Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a PIRATE,” calls this the “myth of the blinding flash of light.” He says this:

Many people believe only two kinds of people exist in this world — those who are creative and those who are not. … They believe creative people simply walk around and are suddenly struck by creative ideas much like a bright flash of light.

However, he goes on to say, creativity doesn’t just strike us. It’s a process of asking the right questions and stoking the fire of new ideas in your mind.

In essence, creativity is a skill that takes practice.

turn over controlMost of the time, worksheets don’t develop the skill of creativity. Workbook pages don’t either.

How can we give students the opportunity to practice creativity and demonstrate their uniqueness in the context of our lessons?

When I give them those opportunities, there’s always this nagging voice that says, “Some of them are going to abuse this. They’re going to waste time and aren’t going to learn anything.”

It’s true. Some students will abuse their opportunities to be creative. (Honestly, they might not be abusing creative opportunities … they just might not know what to do with them because they happen so seldom!)

Some may abuse. But some will thrive. Giving opportunities to be creative is messy. It’s complicated. But it’s so worth it. Do it anyway.


Personally, this is the best way I learn anything. Yet, as a teacher, I struggle to give students hands-on learning tasks where they can learn by doing.

A few years ago, I decided that I would build a website to help Indiana teachers navigate our new teacher evaluations. I wanted to make a tool that would help them gather evidence to show their supervisors that they were effective at the criteria in the evaluations.

I had no idea how to create a website like that. But that didn’t stop me.

My best friend was a web designer, so I asked him to help me get started. Through lots of questions, web searches and trial and error, I created a functional site. I “broke” it a few times and learned valuable lessons about how websites work.

Today, I have a basic understanding of how WordPress websites work. I can add plug-ins and themes to them to make them do what I want. This blog would have never happened if I hadn’t jumped into the web design game so blindly.

After reflecting on that story, I ask myself, “Why haven’t I let my students do more of that kind of learning?”

Who wants to listen to or watch someone else when you can do it yourself? Hands-on learning makes for true, rich, long-lasting learning.

[reminder]What’s your paradigm for wildly engaging lessons? What principles do you use to create them?[/reminder]

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  • […] A Framework for Creating Wildly Engaging Lessons by Matt Miller (Ditch That Textbook) Matt explains some ways to rethink our lessons. […]

  • Catherine says:

    I would like to know how to make reading more engaging. I believe students need to spend time reading in class and not necessarily working on a project. Making a diorama does not make them a better reader and they can do it without reading the book. Please help.

  • Stephanie VI says:

    I completely agree with you that hands on learning is the best way to engage students! If a student physically does something, they will remember it for a long time. You are an inspiring teacher for how dedicated you are to the job; you’re letting nothing get in your way of doing the best you possibly can, and that’s how I aspire to be in my own classroom.
    Thank you for these awesome blog posts!

  • Kerry Moquett says:

    I get students very engaged when they are creating media, either physically or digitally. They are physically involved for kinesthetic learning. They are having to think and make decisions, and verbally explain their products. They get to decide on themes and how to present. It can get a bit chaotic, but they love it and I display their work.

  • frustrated teacher in Indiana says:

    Does anyone have any “wildly engaging lessons” for English 10 that also helps them pass these standardized tests? This is where I struggle. We have to meet certain criteria to ensure they pass their ECAs and none of the ECA is hands-on, innovative, creative, or interesting. Please help.

  • Steve Dull says:

    Desmos Activity Builder is a little gold nugget for teachers in this regard. Teachers design the activity (or use an activity that another teacher has posted), students go in and play, learning occurs. Wash, rinse, repeat. Starting a new semester with a seriously mixed ability group in Algebra 1B, I used a “Match My Line” activity from another teacher. We got more good review out of that in 25 minutes than we would have in 3 days of me standing at the board and doing examples or me handing out worksheets and 20 students copying 5 kids’ work.

  • Tama TROTTI says:

    So true, kids are more creative than we give them credit for. I sort of did this with a gov’t topic we were working on in third grade today. I told the kids who were done with their assignment to create a 30 sec. video in Animoto (which I love!) about the branches of gov’t or levels of gov’t – really no guidance – but it worked! These kids were not off task at all and completed a assignment that showed me what they know. I enjoy having the class do these activities and I know they do as well.

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