Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reflecting on Student Engagement in my Class

Through the power of twitter I volunteered to help Amy Cosgrove (@Teacher_Chic) with an assignment for her Master’s program.  Amy sent me a series of questions about student engagement.  This self-reflection was very beneficial because it prodded me to contemplate what works and what I would improve in my own practice.  Below are some of the questions with my responses.

1.       What is your definition of engagement? 
I googled student engagement to make my personal definition is in sync with what the pedagogical pros are saying and I found that technically ‘engagement’ is about being on-task. And while that may be true to an extent, I think it should be more than that.  When students are thinking and feeling and questioning the subject- that’s engagement!  To me engagement is about students taking ownership of their learning- no matter how big or small that learning goal is. If they are the one in charge of making sure they’re getting it and are striving toward the goal- that’s engagement, to me.

2.       What are some of your practices that you find most engaging for students in your class?
That’s a tough question I think because it’s so subjective.  My students did a lot of inquiry based learning.  I found that they understood the content so much more when it was approached this way and they developed the skills they needed to be successful with the curriculum. Another practice is that my students sat in group of four and used mini-white boards to answer questions that were dispersed throughout a traditional lesson.  I found that they were more successful with this approach, partly because their level of engagement was much higher when they were expected to interact with their peers within the context of the lesson.

3.       What methods do you use to encourage disengaged students to become engaged?
I break one larger task into smaller more manageable task with check-in points along the way.  I found much more success with projects when I started chunking the process and having brainstorming session and peer reviews along the way.  I also really encourage small successes so that the students know what praise and responsibility feel like so they’ll want more.

4.       What questions (if any) do you encourage outside of the curriculum for students who are either disengaged (and need connection to class work) or engaged (where they’d benefit or enjoy new knowledge or skills beyond provincial/state requirements)?
I think that if our classroom lessons are centered around the skills of the standards and we use the knowledge to give context to those skills then we can make small adjustments to meet the needs of our students.   When we are asking our students to make connections between two or three big ideas and relate them to their own reality, it helps meet the needs of both groups of students.

So... How are you reflecting on your own practice to become better at engaging students? What is your definition of engagement? How do you encourage it? 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The wheelbarrow of learning

Today I decided to tidy up ‘the yard’ (it’s about  an acre and a half)  so I started out by grabbing the wheelbarrow and moving from spot to spot, picking up branches that I saw.  In no time I had finished the task and headed to put them in the limb pile.  After I finished the yard and dumped the wheelbarrow full of limbs, I noticed that I had missed a branch.  I set the wheelbarrow down and went to get it.  Upon close inspection, I realized I needed to redo the entire yard. This time though, instead of walking around with my wheelbarrow in hand, hoping to spot the fallen branches, I needed to periodically set the wheelbarrow down and go seek out the limbs that weren’t obvious at first glance.  I ended up re-doing the entire yard with this process and eventually filled another wheelbarrow full of limbs. 

This reminds me of how we teach.  We know we need to gather the students and take them to their destination (learning the outcomes/standards) so we walk along with our wheelbarrow gathering students as we go.  But the point isn’t for us, the teachers, to get to the destination.  The point is for the students to get there as we facilitate their journey.  Today, I could have grabbed the wheelbarrow and headed straight to the limb pile without looking for any limbs.  How often have we done that in class when we need to ‘cover’ a vast amount of material in a short amount of time? I’ve been guilty of that more than once so now, when I create my unit plans, I intentionally create times to re-teach/enrich big ideas.  I may not know exactly which topics this particular group of students will struggle with but I know that I need to build in the time because the point is for them to reach the destination, not me.

Today I wasn’t able to successfully notice all the limbs until I periodically set down the wheelbarrow and purposely sought out the less obvious limbs.  How often in a class are we setting down our lesson plans and actively seeking out those students that aren’t understanding? I know I’ve gotten better at that with experience, but I still need reminders so I embed ‘Check for Understanding’ questions within my notes in order I remember to set the wheelbarrow down and go gather more students.

Some of the branches were easy to pick up and some were entangled in undergrowth and took more ingenuity to get into the wheelbarrow.  Are we taking the time to coax out our students that are reluctant learners? Are we handling with care the ones that are entangled in misconceptions?  Differentiated instruction is a mindset. It’s those small thing we do on the fly to make sure we know which kids aren’t quite getting it and those quick course corrections in our lessons to facilitate their learning. It can be small group help, one extra guiding question, a word of encouragement.

Today would have been more efficient and enjoyable if I had taken the time to truly make sure that I was checking for all the fallen branches the first time instead of having to do the job again a second time.  Teaching is like that.  When we incorporate Assessment FOR Learning strategies into our teaching style and differentiation becomes our mindset, then we start to seek out the not-so-obvious students that are struggling to get into the wheelbarrow of learning.  The purpose is for all of our students to get to the destination of achieving the outcome/standard, not just the ones that are obvious at first glance.

What are some things that help you ensure all students are able to make it to the destination of achieving the outcome/standard?