Trials in Student Engagement, Part 1: Embracing the Learning Process

So, I’m back in the classroom starting a school year for the first time in four years. I have all kinds of delusions about how effective a teacher I’ve been in my career, and I’m excited to test some of my theories about student learning that have evolved during my time in administration. That was August.

Reality set in in a number of ways. I had to learn and integrate a new (to me) literacy adoption. I had to learn the culture and expectations of a new school. I had to implement student netbooks and learn to use a Smartboard. I had to integrate Literacy Clubs and Math Clubs and interventionists with my planning. I have 27 students. Our school did not make AYP.

I did my best to plan instruction and get the year off to a good start. And it was a pretty good start. The kids enjoyed the technology, and I enjoyed teaching. There was a persistent feeling that the kids weren’t really as engaged in the learning as I wanted them to be, but I figured they’d come along soon enough. As time went on, I came to the realization that I was working harder than ever, teaching bell-to-bell, and not seeing the progress in engagement or quality of student work for which I’d hoped.

Trying to get them going, we had class meetings and conversations about how important an education was to their future. They had the right answers, saying they came to school to learn and that they wanted to graduate high school and go to college, but there was little change in their levels of engagement.

Along the way, there were attempts to reward them for effort through class paws (part of our school behavior program), extra recess, extra computer time, and Jolly Ranchers (pretty effective). This type of extrinsic motivation goes against my philosophy of developing life long learning habits that should be their own reward, but they did “work” to some degree.

Looking for ideas to overcome the inertia that had our class in a less than ideal state, I began reading Dylan William’s new book, Embedded Formative Assessment. The first thing that struck me was when he wrote about “the old joke that schools are places where children go to watch teachers work.” I’d heard him say this before, but it really struck home and reflected what I’d been feeling about my classroom. The next thing that struck me, the section that spurred me to action, was in Chapter 3, where he discusses learning intentions.

The chapter starts with raising the question of what the experience in the classroom looks like to the student. Is the student aware of what we’re trying to accomplish? Does the student understand his or her role in the learning? Sure, I’d been writing my learning objectives on the board and going over them with the students, but it didn’t seem to be making any difference in their engagement at all.

Given the points raised by William in his book, I rethought how I’d been approaching the student engagement question. I came in the next morning, stacked all of the student chairs and desks off to the side of the room and called a class meeting. We went through the normal motions of discussing how important education is and why students came to school. Then, I asked them directly, “What can you do to make sure you’re learning?”

It was quiet for a number of seconds. I waited. First response, “I can listen.” More silence. Another hand went up. “Pay attention?”  I waited. Longer. Then there was another “pay attention.” I asked again, “What can you do to make sure you’re learning?”  In the awkward silence, I realized that I had provided academic work and enthusiastic, quality teaching, but I had never worked with them to help them understand what it was all supposed to amount to or what they were supposed to do with it. Their best thinking about what they were supposed to do was to be obediently passive and receptive to what the teacher was saying or asking them to do.

I explained to them that no one really can sit and listen for very long and that learning came by actively engaging in and doing the work. Then I followed with a simple document:

Learning Process – Math Facts

I will be able to…

Know my math facts in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division

To do this well, I will need to…

  • Understand that counting numbers represent quantity
  • Show the multiples of a number as repeated addition
  • Show division as repeated subtraction
  • Complete fact families for multiplication and division

The goal for learning math facts is to complete at least 20 problems in one minute with no mistakes.

Have I met my goal for learning math facts?  Yes   No

How I think I’m doing with learning my math facts:

What will I do to improve my learning of math facts?

What do I need from my teachers or parents to help me learn my math facts?

I realize this isn’t the best learning progression around, but it is a simple, concrete learning outcome to which the students could relate. Each student completed these questions and had a brief conference with me about their responses. It really felt like they understood that they had to do something active in oder to get different results.

This was just yesterday morning. The rest of the day felt a little better, and I think I saw a difference in the class. Although at this point, I’m inclined to believe that it was probably wishful thinking, I’m going to invest time in creating more learning process documents in which students will be able to define what they will do, as individuals, to engage in their own learning…and I will continue to have a bag of Jolly Ranchers around just in case.

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