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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Ten Simple Strategies for Re-engaging Students

Updated 01/2014

Last week I observed a tired classroom. My English 101 class looked bored and uninterested in the discussion we were having. I observed one student intently working on a crossword puzzle. He was engaged. Another student was sneaking a peek at her mobile device every so often and then quickly looked back in my direction. She was almost engaged. Some students were simply staring at me so intently that I assumed they had painted eyes on the exterior of their eyelids.

Quick. React. What do you do hot shot? What. Do. You. Do?

There have been many conversations about transforming classrooms and in fact just one this week on transforming the entire educational system in #edchat. Change can be overwhelming for anyone, whether you are a new teacher or if you are a year away from retirement, but what is a good pace for change in our classrooms? Do we really need to overhaul the entire system overnight or simply take a micro approach and create small, incremental steps within our own classroom?

I came home from class and watched several videos by Michael Wesch, scanned Twitter for insight, and put on some music to ease my troubled mind. Then I reacted. I did not have time to sit around and wait. These students needed me and I was not living up to my personal standards. I took those tired faces and placed them around my computer monitor and reexamined my approach to English 101. Here's what we did.

Without disrupting the progression of the classroom too much, I decided to present the class with some new expectations for the class. I added a class wiki to facilitate our new path. Here is my list of expectations:

1. Have fun

I hope that this project will make writing a paper a more engaging process. Many times, students go through the motions in pursuit of the grade while missing out on the learning. This is where I hope this project will take us in a different direction. Too many times in higher education grades are obtained and learning is left behind. This is where that routine changes. I want you to become an expert on the issue you are covering and enjoy the process of research and writing.

2. Learn beyond the walls

Every week we enter our classroom and shut the door. There are no windows, one computer, and eight outlets. However, most of you possess devices that connect you to the outside world and to numerous contacts. Some of you are probably reading this on a mobile device. What is wrong with this picture? It is a skewed vision of what learning should be. Therefore, this project will take our class beyond the walls and windowless concrete and carry us into a world that is constantly connected and moving.

3. Expand your audience

I read your paper. I edit your paper. I grade your paper. Yawn. While I am an objective, worthy audience, I am simply one person. Today's student has the ability to reach out to millions on a daily basis and simply ask, "Is this good?" This project will present many windows to your work and engage you in a learning community beyond the walls of the Science Center. Learning should be transparent and open. Please allow others to collaborate with you as we engage in a new learning community.

4. Collaborate

One of our best resources as learners is our ability to connect. We can connect like never before and have the opportunity to engage with others from around the world on a daily basis. If we can learn anything from the web 2.0 generation it is that the ability to share and learn from each other is limitless.

5. Deconstruct an issue transparently

This project will open up your research and allow others to see how you are progressing. This project will model an environment of constructive criticism and intellectual discourse. There is no room for bullying or inappropriate criticism. This environment will employ transparency so that we can share and learn from each other.

6. Make many mistakes along the way

Unlike traditional assignments where mistakes are marked wrong, this project will mark your mistakes as learning steps. I encourage you to take risks and seek out information beyond what you think may or may not be right. In this forum, being right is hardly the end goal. Rather, the pursuit of greater understanding while exercising all of your options within a moral and ethical framework.

7. Share

What happens when you take notes within a notebook? You eventually close that notebook and put it into a bag, or drawer. Only you possess that information. This is hardly the way our world works today and hardly the way we will conduct our research for this project. By conducting research that is transparent, it will allow us to use a variety of sources and learn from each other.

8. Provide Constructive Criticism

One of the benefits of transparent learning is the ability to not only receive feedback from the instructor but to seek feedback from a much larger audience. This community we are creating will allow us to bounce ideas and critique work as we progress. While I will also take part in this critique, I urge you to consult your classmates for feedback and suggestions.

9. Eat a sandwich

A sandwich is like a well-constructed argumentative essay. It contains many layers but is constructed in a central...Ok, I can't continue with this nonsense. Just make a sandwich and enjoy it.

10. Engage Others

This type of work will require you to engage an audience and be a participatory learner. It is hard to sit back and coast in this format and will require each student to be an active participant in the learning process. I look forward to learning from each of you and creating a community of resources.

After I made this list, I sat back and imagined the project unfolding. What did this student learn from my English 101 class? How are they different? My learning objectives were clearly stated from the beginning, but I wanted more for them. I wanted them to go beyond reading critically, critical analysis, evaluating a writing task for purpose, audience, etc. I wanted them to not only write about this world, but also engage with it. My hope is that they understand that learning can take on various forms. The classroom is only one learning environment.

No matter the level of teaching experience we have all encountered moments where we feel disconnected from our students. This hardly means we are an awful teacher and need to forget everything we have learned and start over, but simply react. Find the best way to connect with students and realize that not all connections will suit every student. Connections can be made through a variety of ways. The key is not to overhaul the entire system, but simply adapt and change as you progress. Set a course for learning and be prepared for rough seas. Create a practical alternative or adaptation that blends elements of what we have been doing and what we would like to do better. The connections will follow.

Comments (32)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Graziella Reynaldos's picture

'LIKED YOUR "REFLECTIVE" BLOG; ESPECIALLY, TERM "LEARNING STEPS" FOR INCORRECT ANSWERS; AND HAVE FUN! ALSO, NOTED USE OF "TRANSPARENT," CURRENT POPULAR BUZZ WORD, & SHARE AND COLLABORATE.

candi cabaniss's picture
candi cabaniss
human being

This is of no use to a room full of students who do not want to read. Though I am not sure that there is a way.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Candi-
how old are the students you are working with? It sounds like you are having a tough time of it. I think our attitudes in the classroom are contagious as well. Have you talked to the kids in a meaningful way about why they are not reading? Is the stuff to easy, too hard or simply boring? Can you construct a new way to reach them, by trying to differentiate lessons for kids on different levels, or find genres they do find interesting?
A friend of mine often says "rules are like rubber bands. You have to stretch and even occasionally break a few"- and it sound like you might need to go outside of the "normal" stuff to help the kids understand why what you are teaching them is important and relevant to them. If you can't explain that to them, why should they be doing the work you're asking of them?

Lisa Dabbs's picture
Lisa Dabbs
Edu Consultant. Blogger & Social Media Marketing at Edutopia
Blogger 2014
Facilitator 2014

Andy...loved how you took this and made it so meaningful and engaging for your students! My son's were in nightmare English classes and what you offer here is a breath of fresh air.
Candi...It sounds like you are struggling for sure. Are you a new teacher? Are you working in a low income area where, kids seem to struggle. more with literacy? As a former principal and literacy coach, I know it's tough when kids can't read, but they can accomplish great things, given the time to reach their goals. Wondering what we can do to support you? Let us know and I'm happy to send some resources.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Hi Candi
I've been there- and I've seen a lot of teachers in similarly tough spots. Here's hoping that today is a better day for you. If you have a minute, can you tell us a bit more about what you're seeing in your class that leads you to believe your kids don't want to learn to read? (I'm not doubting your interpretation, but a little more information might help us to figure out how to help you help them.)

Keep taking deep breaths and keep in touch.

candi cabaniss's picture
candi cabaniss
human being

Fair questions.

Apologies for the long document, but I would rather not double post.

Tactics, not strategies.

I do not have the problem. I found this looking for solutions for my daughter. She is teaching her first year in a rural place with a school with serious problems. She is the English department for 10th-12th grades. Me? I teach high school science. The disconnect between our two fields in my class is wide.
But back to my daughter. Meltdowns are about twice a week. She is non traditional and does want to do well, wants to make a difference; which is her major source of frustration. She has never not succeeded before. She is ready to make their consultant eat a desk when he says "make it relevant" without as to "how". Look I made a literacy coach leave the room when she kept spraying nonsense at me instead of answering the question "how do I get them to read and understand and remember this here text from the book" and I kept pushing. No, I did not loose my professionalism but when I ask a question I want an answer or "I don't know." Sad to say my other experiences with literacy coaches has been negative. The one she has seems to be on the ball. Part of the problem is there is a difference as we know between Reading, Literacy and English.

"1. Have fun "
What does this mean? Really? Engaging, entertaining students is needed. But plan hard work is boring.
"2. Learn beyond the walls "
It takes a lot of time to find these resources then train your students who to use them. Personally I do not think they are the panacea people seem to think they are. But that's me. Daughter did so, had a web search on L'morte d'Arthur. Bellwork the next day....Student "Who's Arthur?"
I could go on. The letter may be an honest attempt to help, but it is too vague. If students could be engaged there would be no problem. If they found it relevant or fun or whatever. Kiddo's students have never been asked to perform or excel, then she's there and she refuses to give them worksheets and believes that if they should read and write about quality literature.
From Whitney-
"how old are the students you are working with? " 10-12th
"Have you talked to the kids in a meaningful way about why they are not reading? Is the stuff to easy, too hard or simply boring? "
yes, yes, and yes and they have never been asked to perform . As I said, daughter's class. I even mentioned quit "talking to them". They've been "talked" at all their lives. We do not need a talk, we need a "plan".
"Can you construct a new way to reach them, by trying to differentiate lessons for kids on different levels, or find genres they do find interesting?"
Go for it. Suggestions?
Lisa
"Candi...It sounds like you are struggling for sure. Are you a new teacher? Are you working in a low income area where, kids seem to struggle. more with literacy? As a former principal and literacy coach, I know it's tough when kids can't read, but they can accomplish great things, given the time to reach their goals. Wondering what we can do to support you? Let us know and I'm happy to send some resources."
Suggest a plan.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Hi Candi-
First, this has students' responses to what engages them- it might help: http://preview.tinyurl.com/edutopia-kidsspeakout

I also think there are a couple of other things at play here. First, as a first year teacher, your daughter should have a mentor (though I have no illusions about the quality of some mentorship programs). Is her mentor of any help? Are there teachers who *are* able to succeed with these kids who might be able to provide some insight? I'm always in favor of seeking support from those inside the system when external coaches are missing the mark (and, as a school coach, I have little patience with folks who spout platitudes when real strategies are called for).

When I work with beginning teachers, I usually use Quinn's Six Questions (http://schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/quinns_six.pdf) to help them refocus on the content they're trying to teach ("literary devices and elements of plot") which often gets confused with the medium they're using to teach it (Mort d'Arthur). I also encourage them to focus in on a small, non-negotiable set of concrete skills that kids have to know to pass the class and then make them transparent to the kids. (If you show me you can do everything in Column A, you get a C; Columns A and B, you get a B; Columns A, B and C, you get an A)

If the only goal is to just get the kids to read, period, then let them read anything (within reason). Motorcycle magazines? Graphic Novels? The owners guide for their car? Twilight? Fine. Whatever they'll read.

candi cabaniss's picture
candi cabaniss
human being

Thanks for link
"your daughter should have a mentor (though I have no illusions about the quality of some mentorship programs). "
Yes, do not know the quality. She seems wanting to do well. I was at the school for 3 days helping kiddo set up classroom. Also, have to maintain professionalism and not interfere too much. New principal, lots of beginning teachers, mentality of old guard. You know the story, just the characters change.
"When I work with beginning teachers, I usually use Quinn's Six Questions"
Never seen it but it was part of what I do. There are some things universal.
I was four hours with her and another beginning teacher helping them make lesson plans. My first question is "what do you want them to do?" not "know" or "understand"...."do"
Part of it was in spite of their classes and support, nobody taught them how to make a lesson plan. I like breaking things down as much as possible.

"If the only goal is to just get the kids to read, period, then let them read anything (within reason). Motorcycle magazines? Graphic Novels? The owners guide for their car? Twilight? Fine. Whatever they'll read."
Working on that. Now how to get them to read? Some do. She's willing to give them time in class to read. Some don't. So what do you do?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Your daughter (and her colleagues) is lucky to have you!

"Part of it was in spite of their classes and support, nobody taught them how to make a lesson plan. I like breaking things down as much as possible." Ugh. As a teacher educator, I'm amazed at how often my colleagues in other institutions lose sight of the concrete stuff teachers have to be able to do. What form are you using with them? We use Quality Criteria- Form (what will the work look like when it's done and done well?), Content, (what will the students demonstrate they know?), and Process (what will the students show they can do while they're working?) For your daughter, I think the Process Criteria will be key.

She can start off with a conversation about what she expects the room to look and sound like during reading time. Make a t-chart of concrete, observable behaviors. Kids earn points (daily points, process grades, whatever she wants to call 'em) for demonstrating those behaviors. They lose points when they don't. Combine that with a MOUNTAIN of different materials (including digital stuff- does she have iPads? iPod touches? Books on tape? Computers on which she can load approved reading lists?) and reading time that is bookended with written work or a set of discussion prompts about what students read (text to text, text to self, text to world connections? Summary of what the text said, etc).

Remember too that it's October, she's a new teacher and the kids are still trying to figure out if 1) she really means what she says and 2) she's going to be able to "stick" as a teacher. Part of this is going to be about winning by continuing to show up.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Candi.

I understand what you are saying- it's like Dr. Phil- We need to put verbs in our sentences and get an executable plan that works (or at least can be modified- as we all know that even in the military, the best laid plans never survive contact with the "enemy"- they get a vote, too, and you have to be able to improvise, but the plan acts as a foundation.)

I start lesson plans with the "What do these kids need to get out of this lesson? What do they need to know? What's important here?" because this sets the goal- you know when they have done X, Y, or Z, everybody wins. Once you have that, you can work backwards and figure out what they need to do. So let's give an example- my kid is in 10th grade english right now. The teacher wants them to learn compare and contrast skills while working on their writing. The goal is a well written five paragraph essay comparing and contrasting two pieces of writing, in this case, the Epic of Giglamesh and The Noah's Ark Story. Kids have to read these pieces- and I guess if they won't read, maybe you go back to audio books or reading it aloud to them and talking about it as you go. Asking all those "What does this remind you of? sorts of questions along the way. Then they do the second story and discuss that. They then write a paragraph for each, discussing what they thought of the story, and whether it seems plausible as an explanation of the great flood. You can even have them start to think about global warming, and could we build an ark now, and who or what would we put inside? (I even think there's recent hollywood movies with this concept in play.) then they do a full compare and contrast 5 paragraph essay, incorporating what they've learned, what they think about it, and what we would do if faced with a similar flood ourselves.

Does that help at all?

Some kids could also do projects, videos, write about what they're reading on a blog, or in a journal, or discuss it in class along the way. Anything is possible, but it all goes towards the end goal of working towards the higher order thinking skills of compare and contrast and writing a good essay.

If you don't have the core of what you want them to take away from the lesson or unit firmed up, its easy to get lost in the choices of materials, or projects and the rest of it, all of which are just "artifacts' of the learning and thinking we're trying to get them to do.

If they refuse to read the literature you choose, heck, they could even compare and contrast, with strong arguments, different cafeteria lunches or car models or TV shows- if the writing is done well, the arguments are persuasive- they've met the goal, but through alternative means.

Not everyone can inspire a kid to like Shakespeare. Not every kid is patient enough to wade through difficult prose. But it doesn't absolve us from teaching them the skills they need, and in the end, I think we're just as concerned about the skills as having had someone read Cantebury Tales and the Epic of Giglamesh.

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