Sometimes, when time has moved into tomorrow and the windows of the surrounding townhouses are empty and dark, I think to myself, “Why on earth am I pursuing the idea of student engagement?  Why do I dedicate countless hours of my personal time every week in pursuit of some intangible idea that is difficult to measure and harder to sustain?  What do I ultimately hope to get out of this?”

Well, the answer for all these questions (my dear Watson) is elementary.

Or not.  As with most important and meaningful things in life, it’s complicated and messy.  And frustrating.  And full of joy.  And to be honest, there is a big part of my inquiry that revolves around my personal fulfillment (can I say that as a teacher?!) – when my students are deeply involved in what they’re learning I feel satisfied and fulfilled.  My job is to ensure that my students are learning – so when they are learning and enjoying it, then life is good.  However, as much as my focus on engagement is about me and what I’m doing as a teacher, it is equally about my students.

And that’s where the difficulty arises.  The whole process of measuring engagement would be much easier if it didn’t involve people.  People are complex and contradictory.  They are hard to predict and volatile.  And even though this ‘human’ component sometimes makes teaching feel like navigating a labyrinth without a ball of string, it’s also what gives teaching its life and joy.  Nevertheless, I’m finding that understanding engagement has just as much to do with relationship as it does with pedagogical principles and philosophies.  Since each of my students are at different places on the spectrum of engagement and may manifest their involvement in learning in different ways, I have to know my students in order to determine whether what I’m seeing is a demonstration of increased engagement or simply an aspect of their personality.

After several months of recording evidence of student engagement, talking with other educators, and muddling through the waters of my inquiry, I have developed a deeper sense of what this looks like and noticed some surprising trends along the way.  As I look over the data I’ve collected from the beginning of my inquiry until now, I’ve measured increased student engagement in three main categories: verbal indicators, classroom conduct, and academic output.

One of the first signs of engagement I noticed were verbal comments from students, parents, and other staff.  For example, when I introduced the interview series to my students there were many exclamations of interest and enjoyment.  The questions and comments that arose revealed a deep level of interest – students were taking their learning seriously.  These engaged comments continued throughout the interview experience – whether in the classroom or in the car driving back from an interview.  Another indicator of engaged learning was when they mentioned about how they were doing schoolwork at home or talking to people outside of my classroom about the work they were doing.  I have a student (who is clearly not all that interested in school) who was working on project using Movie Maker who told me one morning that he had been trying to figure something out using the program at home on his computer…really?  You were working on schoolwork at home when you didn’t have to?  What strange sound is this that touches my ears?!  Another student who was working on a photography unit I designed for Com12 told me that she had been getting ideas from other teachers, students, and her family – which clearly indicated that she had been talking about her learning with people outside of the classroom.  I also discovered evidence of student engagement from parents of students.  I had the mom of one of my students call in to excuse her son’s absence and tell me that her son wanted to take all of his English classes with me.  Finally, a teacher who works in the classroom next to mine was observing my classroom during a discussion we were having and commented that my students who had been really into whatever it was we were discussing.  These voices only scratch the very surface of the comments I recorded since my inquiry officially started at the end of January and represents a wide variety of students and situations.

I also observed a strong connection between student engagement and student behaviour.  As I introduced the interview series, I noticed a marked increase in how often students were raising their hands.  Their body language was much more attentive and alert from what I usually see.  In many ways it seemed like there was a higher level of student  respect in the presence of an authentic learning opportunity.  Students were also helping each other way more than I had previously observed.  Apart from the interviews, the attendance of one student improved when I had him working with another student on a poetry project they both needed to complete – the collaborative aspect of the project clearly appealed to him.  I have also had a number of students come into school to complete work when they didn’t need to come in – which for one student in particular was very uncharacteristic.  Finally, I have another student who canceled a doctor’s appointment in order to stay at school to participate in a class discussion.  Once again, scratching the surface.

Finally, I observed engaged learning in the work students returned to me.  One student, who up until the interviews put in minimal effort in his writing, was suddenly writing more, high quality work than I had ever received from up until that point.  Using technology as a way to engage has also increased the quality work I’m receiving – especially through the use of programs like Movie Maker, Garage Band, and PowerPoint.

Although I’ve learned about certain practices and lesson ideas that enhance student engagement, I have also, and perhaps just as importantly, come to better understand what student engagement looks like.  My understanding of student engagement has been rounded and developed over the course of the last several months – often in ways I didn’t expect.  I have seen every single one of my students engaged in their learning at one point or another (and sometimes everyone at the same time).  The problem is that now I have a difficult time seeing my students disengaged from their learning.  Which I suppose isn’t such a bad problem to have.