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Ask Your Students: What is Engagement?

Between the World and Me

A few weeks ago I ran into a brick wall with a project in my classroom.  I promised an update, but what I have for you is so much more.

I took Shana’s advice and asked my students, WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?!  However, as I thought about asking them that question, I found myself wondering if they would know what I meant.

All teachers aim for engagement, administrators search for engagement and attempt to quantify it, but how many students have been explicitly taught what it is we truly desire from them?

I set out to do just that last week.  I knew we would be working with three different concepts that I think are frequently muddled in the classroom.

Fun.  Compliance.  Engagement.

I also knew we needed a purpose/audience for the discussion, so I explained to the students that they would be assisting me in writing this blog post.

I never knew it would be necessary to define these words, but as I doled out a different word to each table group, I walked around to notice a lot of the same conversations happening at each table.

What would a fun classroom feel like?

It would feel like everyone doing what they want, being productive, and everyone would be happy.

What would a compliant classroom feel like?

A compliant classroom would feel how school is supposed to feel; come in, get your work done, leave. 

What would an engaged classroom feel like?

It would feel like students being able to choose their paths.  It would feel like happiness because the students would know the teacher and classmates cared about them.

These students have been taught to be compliant their entire educational career.  Sure, it is necessary to be compliant in terms of respect, but if you are ONLY EVER compliant, you’re being robbed of the best part of learning: Recognizing you can push your mind further than you ever imagined.

I want an engaged classroom.  You want an engaged classroom. Oprah wants an engaged classroom.  EVERYBODY WANTS AN ENGAGED CLASSROOM.

So if compliant and engaged classrooms both get work done, what’s the difference?

Engage: (v.) pledge or enter into a contract to do something; establish a meaningful connection with.

Did you catch that?

To engage means to commit and connect.  That doesn’t just change classrooms, it changes lives.

So why is it so hard? Commitment and connection don’t come through passivity or apathy, they require effort and exertion.  They require pushing past the point of comfort (for both students and teachers), and sitting in the pain–not because you want to, but because you committed to it.

As we discussed why a classroom should not be all fun, Andy had an enlightening thought.  He said, “I think the problem is, any time you take part in something, you’re sacrificing something else.  I think a lot of students are afraid to sacrifice their own comfort to make a connection with someone.  There’s always the risk, too, that you won’t connect, and then it’s like you lost twice.”

Sometimes I forget the amount of fear that exists in the classroom on a daily basis.  Commitment asks us to sacrifice the easy path.  Connection asks us to say goodbye to selfishness.  All of this has to take place before engaged learning can happen!

It takes a straight up ninja to pull that out of every student in every class period!

We ended this mini-unit with a Socratic Seminar.  I love me some good structured talk.

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2nd Period Preparing for Socratic Seminar/Live Tweeting

What is the purpose and direction of our learning?  How can we make our classroom a space of authentic dialogue and engagement? (Question credit goes to my emergency lesson-saver, Shana.)

Zoe said she never liked English until she had choice.  She also said she wanted to do more talking about books in a way that connected with her classmates and what they were reading.

Dee said she enjoys higher level thinking.  What might happen if _____ happened to someone you know?  Would you handle things the way this character did?  What would you change? (Her suggested questions.)

4th period agreed they would like to deal with real world issues, and have choice in how they present their findings (poetry, video, podcast, etc.).

2nd period explained it should be about the learning, not about the grades, but it’s been that way for so long that they don’t know how else to operate.

Grady said, “School gives you a chance to do something great with your life, but you have to DO SOMETHING to be great.”

Shahin said, “Compliance is a downfall because you just follow orders and don’t think for yourself.  It makes it to where you will always need a boss, or you won’t know how to operate.”

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Listening most often leads to learning, and I sure learned a LOT last week! Thanks for the ideas, #PaxThinkTank!!

Is your classroom one of compliance, engagement, fun, or a mixture?  How do you communicate with your students what you expect from them each day?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

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One thought on “Ask Your Students: What is Engagement?

  1. […] When we had our class discussion on engagement, Zoe explained that this was the first English class in which she felt everything had context.  Surprised at her remark, I asked her to explain further. […]

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