Thursday, March 6, 2014

Teachers' Messages and Student Engagement

I spent an hour recently visiting classrooms.  First day after a break, with an anticipated snow day to follow, it could have been easy to lose the student engagement fight.  Indeed, a few kids seemed to be moving a bit slowly, going through the motions.  Yet I saw students ready to go--hands waving in the air to give an answer and exclamations of excitement when arriving at correct responses during a  math review, for example.

By far, though, the greatest levels of engagement with the work was happening when students were arranged in peer groups and given the opportunity to construct their learning together.  In an Algebra class, students were working in groups of their choosing to reviewing a test and making corrections.  By designing this activity, the teacher was sending very clear messages to his students:

1) Learning is not static.
2) Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities.
3) Learning is a social construct--use your peers, engage with one another.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In an ELA class, the teacher arranged her students into literature circle groups for a focused conversation on the book they just began, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  Groups of students were given envelopes containing four roles: the Quizzical Questioner, Character Creeper, Fancy Facilitator and Word Wizard. She further provided each student with a bookmark containing the tasks aligned to the objective.

Her messages to them:

1) I trust you to learn.
2) I trust you to cooperate with your peers in order to learn.
3) Learning is fun.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In contrast, I have visited classrooms that were not as vibrant, where the sound of the teacher's voice dominated and in which some students raised hands, many did not and a sense of boredom was palpable. In others, I witnessed a lack of direction, no clear objective and students off task (even telling me they didn't know what they were supposed to be doing) To be fair, I've witnessed more inspired teaching in those same classrooms, but on this day very different messages were being sent to students about teaching and learning.

What would it have taken for every classroom to be one where students own their learning every day?


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