Using Cheese to Encourage Engagement and Participation in the Classroom

If someone told me a few years ago that I would eventually possess the ability to get a group of sixth grade boys to curtsy like princesses during a lesson on fairy tale vocabulary, I would have asked just what kind of black magic I got myself into.

It must be some sort of wizardry.

Student buy-in can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching. Getting students to participate and get excited about things that are, well, for lack of a better term, boring, is an issue. However, once students are sold, magic can happen in the classroom.

I think it is important as teachers to own our areas of strength. We all are hyper-aware of our weaknesses. We are constantly comparing ourselves to other teachers and feeling insecure about our Word Wall or the way we set up our lesson plans. However, each of us has at least one thing we excel at, something we are naturally gifted in. I vote we start owning that and instead of worrying it will come off as “braggy,” share our expertise with others and then be willing to learn from them in areas we struggle.

After I wrote the article, “11 Times Teaching is the Best: Even When it Isn’t” (you can read that here) I started getting tons of emails of teachers asking me about my Cheese Scale for Attitude and Engagement in the classroom.

My area of mastery is student engagement, and although I will own that in this post, I hope it is understood that I have MANY areas of weakness and by no means think I am “super-teacher.”

For example, last year at the end of the year I needed to hand back approximately 1,350 papers that I forgot about. They were in no order and represented about 20 classes of students. So I literally threw them in a big pile on the floor and the students went “scuba diving” to find their names. Kids were on their hands and knees, slipping on papers and searching for their names.The papers stretched out almost from wall to wall.

“Dylan, here is yours!”  Dylan looks up from being buried under 18 inches of paper and grabs it from his friend with gratitude and sits down in exhaustion.

Not my best teacher moment. Organization is clearly not my strong point as a teacher.  One fifth grade student gently told me, “Maybe next year you could keep a folder system.”

Yes, maybe.

Organization is one of many areas in which I need improvement. While I am strong in student participation and engagement and love sharing what works for me, I am a work in progress in so many areas.

Okay, I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t pretending to have it all together. I hope I don’t hear from my principal about the scuba diving incident.

With all that said, I want to share a strategy I use in my classroom to keep students engaged and actively participating at all times. It involves cheese.

Now, I had a wonderful diagram of my Cheese Scale that a 6th grade student drew me, but, plot twist, I lost it, so let me try to explain.

Like many of my interesting ideas, this one came to me out of nowhere when I was trying to convince a group a 11 year olds to do the dance moves to this crazy song we were listening to using our new vocabulary. There is always that group of students that live and breathe to make you happy, but when it comes to getting adolescents to dance in front of their friends, you might get some push-back. Getting students excited to learn about conjugating verbs is not natural.

We started having a conversation about cheese.


I began by explaining that I knew that many of the things i asked them to do were a bit crazy and silly. I leveled with them by saying I by no means thought what I was presenting was “cool.” It was totally cheesy and that was the beauty of it. I am not living in an alternate universe where I think that grammar lessons are the definition of fun. But I do say that the more we get into it, what we make of it, can make it as fun as it can ever be.

So we started talking about cheese in relation to attitude and participation.

Since almost all of what I ask them to do for me is silly and cheesy, everything on the scale is in relation to cheese, but the flavor of cheese differs greatly.

The language we use in our building for student behavior is “Expected” and “Unexpected.”

We began to discuss how a scale of cheese can demonstrate expected behavior.

Now, at this point, be aware you will need to settle in and give a bit of time to having an in depth conversation about dairy products with your students. It will get strange at times, and if your evaluator walks in during a discussion about Parmesan Cheese, have him or her shoot me an email and I will take the fall for you.

I started by talking about Cottage Cheese. It is still on our scale of expected behavior, but it is at a very basic level of flavor. Cottage cheese is the bottom of our cheese scale.

Now, at this moment, you will have passionate advocates for Cottage Cheese who become wildly offended you are placing this curdy goodness at the bottom. At this point, you explain Cottage Cheese is still in the A-OK zone. Nothing is wrong with Cottage Cheese, but in comparison with flavor and experience, it is just a little more bland than other cheese products.

I make sure to emphasize that nothing is wrong with Cottage Cheese, because there are students who will only be willing to give a cottage cheese effort and that is okay.

At the beginning of a lesson, I always give a “Cottage Cheese minimum.” The expected behavior for this cottage cheese minimum is that you repeat the word and do the motion for the word. You don’t have to be excited about it. You don’t have to smile and enjoy yourself, but you must participate. This give kids the freedom and the “pass” to not be silly if they don’t want to be.

At this point, we talk about everything in between Cottage Cheese and a nice Sharp Cheddar.

The cardboard piece of cheese that started it all.

This is when you need to let them get into the cheese discussion. Maybe have some cheese focus groups. Mozzarella vs. Provolone. American vs. Monterey Jack. Ask their favorites and ask them to describe the flavor and experience.

Although Sharp Cheddar may not be the very most flavorful and most intense cheese, I use Sharp Cheddar cheese at the top of my scale (except for Spicy Nacho, and I will get into that later).

Sharp Cheddar cheese participation is all-in, 100% effort. You are giving it your most flavorful, tastiest all. You are living and breathing this lesson.

You can make a visual of Cottage Cheese at the bottom and Sharp Cheddar at top, and have kids fill in other types of cheese in between. I have all students model what the “Cottage Cheese” level of participation would be and what the “Sharp Cheddar” would be. I accept both and anything in between.

What we love about Sharp Cheddar cheese is that it is flavorful and adds so much to the eating experience. It can wake up boring eggs or add a kick to tortilla chips. Without that kick of flavor, things can be bland. A nice firm cheddar can change everything.

All cheese is beautiful. All is accepted in my classroom.

There is a time and a place for an even higher level of cheese. Spicy Nacho.

There are occasions in my classroom where we throw caution to the wind and reach volume levels that I am sure my neighbors absolutely love. #sarcasm

We had a song that taught our vocab words, and students would ask “Can we dance to it Spicy Nacho?” and on occasion, and depending on the amount of coffee I had that day, I would permit this.

Spicy Nacho is total chaos. The deal I have with my students is that I will let them go Spicy Nacho as long as I am able to get them back to a normal Cheddar in a matter of seconds. We have the obvious rules of safe body and voice, but other than that, if they want to spin around while singing in Spanish at an alarmingly loud level, go for it. But when Spicy Nacho is over, it’s over.

I once had a teacher visit my classroom and say to me after, “I was equal parts terrified and amazed.”

There are moments of total chaos in my classroom, but it is always productive chaos. Of course there are times I see students taking it too far, but I am not afraid of chaos. As long as the students are learning, the occasional Spicy Nacho makes everything more fun.

As always, I am getting wordy. Here are a few quick pointers of what I have learned from managing a very cheesy classroom:

  1. Be a cheeseball yourself

This is exhausting. But if you aren’t willing to get wildly, overly excited about a lesson you are presenting, there is no way the students will. I’m not scared to embarrass myself in front of the kids. They bond over having something universal to giggle at: my dance moves. When they see me putting myself out there, they are much more willing to do the same.

2. Relationship first

It is important to have built a safe and authentic relationship with students, especially the older ones, before they are comfortable enough to be silly in front of their peers. Kindergarten and first grade students may be an easy sell on acting like farm animals or making elephant sounds, but getting a sixth grade student to do that in front of his peers takes trust and time. Build that first.

3. Accept that some students might always choose Cottage Cheese

As long as students are learning and engaged, I am happy. Some kids just won’t ever be willing to hit Sharp Cheddar, and that’s okay. Cottage Cheese isn’t bad. It just isn’t as much fun. But my job is for kids to learn, and if kids learn via cottage cheese, then grab a spoon.

Every class has a different personality. In my job, I see about 28 different classes per week. There are some classes I use this scale as part of our normal language, and others where I barely mention it. You are the best judge of the climate and personality of each class and trust yourself to make those calls.

The Cheese Scale has been a blast in my classroom and the students have totally eaten it up (couldn’t resist that pun.) Please let me know if you have any other questions!

My Cheese scale is not the “end all be all.” It is simply something that works for me and is something in which teachers around the country have emailed me about. I never thought I would be writing a post about cheese, but here I am!

I am always open to new ideas for student engagement and would love to hear your thoughts!






3 Comments Add yours

  1. Alora L Deising-Eovaldi says:

    Love it, Jenna! I think I am going to try it! I have had SUCH a hard time getting teenagers to buy into the TPR moves. But, don’t you have students who won’t even do the cottage cheese level? That’s where I need help.
    Funny about the scuba diving incident! Where in the world had all those papers been …that you lost track of them?


    1. jennakay says:

      Thank you! I don’t have any students that won’t do the cottage cheese level, but there are times I change the expectation depending on the kid’s personality. For example, if I have a super shy or really really quiet kid who is just very uncomfortable being silly or doing moves, I would differentiate for that kid and let him draw the word or write the word or do something that they are more comfortable with. I rarely have to do that because it seems to be more work than just doing the motion and saying the word. I just make sure every kid knows their expectation- and once that is clear, I rarely have trouble. trust me that I allow some veryyyyy cottage cottage cheese. There are some kids who do it with a little attitude, but depending on the kid and my relationship with them- as long as they are meeting the minimum, I’m good with that. For the really tough kids, I try to have a separate thing with them like I said before. I see over 700 students a week so it is challenging to meet the individual needs of every student but that is so vital to helping them learn. And due to how many kids I have- the papers just accumulate lol!!! I had them just around my room in different piles!


  2. Lisabeth Scaife says:

    Hi Jenna! I just want to tell you how awesome this is! I came across your post on Pinterest and on a whim just threw out the cheese analogy to my kiddos one day when they were acting a little “attitudinal”. We created a cheese scale that made sense to them and now we use these levels to refer to the way we talk to each other, and they level of energy. It makes perfect sense to a third grader when I tell them their comment was at a “sharp cheddar” level and they need to bring it down to a “cottage cheese” level. Or someone groans about something and someone else pipes up with, “That was like a blue cheese!”. It’s so much fun yet it still gets the point across in a non-threatening way. I can’t wait to improve on how I use it next year! PS-I’d love to send you a picture of the T-shirt a co-worker made for me that says “Keep it Cottage Cheese”. Thank you for the great idea!!
    Lisabeth Scaife


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