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Today my students concluded the last of four interviews. Overall, the series was a tremendous success and my students really seemed to enjoy the experience. I observed numerous signs of increased engagement within my class (which I will explore at a later time). But now they’re over. And I’ve learned over the years that finishing strong is not my forte – many good classroom experiences have fizzled out when there was potential for so much more. When the whole orchestra should be going crazy as the grand finale approaches, the only sound you hear is the conductor falling off the stage…it’s awkward (for me and everyone else).
This time it’s going to be different. I’m in the process of figuring out a meaningful way to conclude a series that has had a profound impact on some of my students. I hope that as my students synthesize their thoughts and new understandings from the people they interviewed, that they will begin to move into the realm of sustained engagement which will hopefully propel them into the rest of their course work with renewed energy and focus. Onward!
I had an epiphany last week and it was bittersweet. And this was my revelation – engaging students is easy. It’s easy, and anybody with an ounce of creativity, humor, life experience, or pulse can do it. It’s simple. Do a cover from Justin Bieber with a kazoo. Watch a movie with lots of violence. Tell that story of when Uncle Jake forgot to put on his pants before he went to the store – and then was pulled over by the cops. I can guarantee that if you try any of these methods that student who gives you that just-make-me-care-I-dare-you stare will be glued. If it is only engagement you’re after, you now have three new strategies for your next class. Brilliant.
I’m obviously being a little facetious and to be fair, simple engagement is not erroneous in any way and it is critically important to create interest in what you teach. Engagement always needs to start somewhere. Whether it’s through an authentic learning activity, meaningful relationship, or personal charisma, student engagement needs an initial spark (and fuel) to get started - it can’t start ex nihilo (although that would be nice). Simple engagement seeks to draw students into the learning. What makes it difficult (simple is not synonymous with easy) is trying to find a way to engage a class full of individual students, with unique needs, learning styles, and interests. On top of this, what works for one class may not work for another, which means there is no simple answer for creating engagement in your class. Personally, I’ve been scouring Ebay in the hopes that someone will sell their engage-o-matic magic wand and *poof* problem solved. Too bad life doesn’t work like that! (Seriously though, if you know anyone with a magic wand…)
Sustaining engagement is something entirely different and much more difficult (which is a daunting thought). Last week I came to the conclusion that creating student engagement is something I’m fairly good at. And just when I was about to give myself a big fat congratulatory pat on the back for completing my inquiry, this other niggling thought wormed it’s way into my brain: Is the engagement I create sustainable? Well…no. Not usually. I’m almost done with the interview series I talked about in my previous blog and when that’s finished – back to the regular boring assignments? Or will the experience of having learned in such an authentic context carry them through the rest of their time in my class? Sustainable engagement is when students no longer need me to perform in order for them to be interested. When they care about what they’re learning on a deeply personal level. So how do I create this?
Sustainable engagement has just as much to do with the student as it does with me. It involves a shift where the responsibility to learn moves from my shoulders and becomes a shared experience. It’s like some sort of epistemological shift happens and the student takes ownership over his or her learning. My guess is that this shift happens in different ways, at different times for each and every student – for some it may happen in grade one, while for others it may take the duration of high school, and others may never experience it. My goal is to try to create a classroom where engagement is sustained and my inquiry is shifting to reflect this goal. How do I create a classroom where sustained engagement can be fostered? What is my role within this context? What is my next step?
As always, your thoughts are always welcome…
Over the past two weeks I’ve jumped into my inquiry (it’s been a long jump). The experience has been good so far – albeit a little chaotic at times as I try to get my mind around what I’m actually doing! Although I should never need an excuse to think deeply about my practice, I appreciate that I am pushed to do so as part of the requirements for the program I’m in. Hopefully this practice of regular reflection will move from scheduled and required to habitual and organic.
I’ve started off my inquiry with an interview series called “Looking Through the Rear-View Mirror” for my afternoon students. Over the course of two weeks they will interview four very diverse groups of people: aboriginal elders, senior citizens, successful business executives, and recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The questions my students prepared are quite deep and will bring to light some of the values, beliefs, and attitudes from the people interviewed. Throughout the interview process and afterward they will examine their own values and beliefs about life in light of the experiences and thoughts from older (and hopefully wiser) people. I told my students at the very outset that this series is probably one of the most authentic experiences they will have in my class – in part because it extends well beyond the four walls of the classroom and partly because I can’t control what will actually happen in the interviews. This is the type of learning that excites me as a teacher! It’s an adventure! And the best part about it is that my students are also excited. I have noticed numerous different examples of increased student engagement throughout these last two weeks and will blog about some of these at a later time.
There is something distressing about having a student who is simply not interested. To see a student sit poker-faced or wearing that defiant, make-me-care-I-dare-you expression in my class goes against everything I feel about teaching English. I don’t care if my students don’t particularly love my course (although I would prefer if they did!) – I want my students to engage. English is a course that, if taught correctly, should reach out and touch our humanity and desire for meaning. It should be a place to explore and create. So when I have a student seemingly indifferent about what they’re learning, it causes some personal and professional distress.
Well, I have discovered the first crucial step towards engaging the disengaged. I have discovered the solution. And now, I will make it known to you…(but lean closer, because it’s a secret) – the answer is…
Well duh. There are only about a million resources out there affirming the importance professional student-teacher relationships have on learning. Bruce Beairsto in his article “Engagement in Learning: Finding the Depth Beyond Diligence” accurately writes, “[Engagement] is only achieved when there is a partnership with the student…so that learning is co-constructed.” As a teacher, I known this to be true. It is because relationship is so ordinary and widely known that I seem to sometimes forget about it. I’ll have a student who is struggling or giving me the blank-stare-of-death treatment so I’ll try a hundred different pedagogical strategies in an effort to valiantly win him or her over to the side of education. Only to see the blank-stare-death become the frustrated-blank-stare-of-death.
A couple of weeks ago a student came into my class who really dislikes English. I know this because it’s one of the first things he said when he walked through the door. And he wasn’t joking. No matter what I said or how I modified the assignments to correspond to his particular learning style, he simply wasn’t buying in. So early this week I decided to talk to him and (literally) within ten minutes he was passionately talking about an issue, had found an article to back up his arguments, and offered to write a summary about it! Over the course of several more conversations with this student I discovered a number of key frustrations he has with English and a whole host of unspoken issues he is subconsciously bringing into my course. As a result of these conversations, I realized that I need to fundamentally change the way I teach him if he is to be successful in my course. Although he still dislikes English and struggles to see the relevance of what he’s doing, he is slowly beginning to engage because of our talks.
Relationship is a key step towards engagement. New strategies and philosophies for learning and teaching will emerge, but relationship is constant.