George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Comments (33) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Heather Myers's picture
Heather Myers
3rd Grade Teacher from Corona, California

I completely agree with your ways of engaging students. We have to remember that all of our students are different and to take time to reflect on the best ways to relate to students in order to engage them in class.

Rick - I LOVE the use of your engagement strategies in my class. I also use a deck of cards and call on my students at random. Usually, this is after students have had a chance to talk to their teammates. I hold the expectation with them that they MUST have an answer and this way they feel more confident knowing that they could be called on to give an answer. I also incorporate your idea of including joker cards as well as a Waldo card in my deck of cards. This is a great way of keeping my students engaged because they are always waiting to hear a joke or to find "waldo" in our classroom.

Whether a classroom has incorporated a great deal of technology or not, the strategies for engaging students above are very important no matter what bells and whistles a classroom has. I will keep these ideas in mind while working with my own students in order to keep them engaged as much as possible.

Tiffany Collins's picture

I think its a good idea to re-evaluate your classroom strategies when you see the students gettting used to what's going on in the classroom.

Larry Hartog's picture

Andrew, am repeating what other have already said. Your comments about making it fun and understanding they have to write for larger audience stuck with me. If teachers ask for ways to make a project fun and trust their students to deliver, learning will be enhanced. The practice of writing for a larger audience will improve the student's focus and improve their writing.

Jessica Piper's picture

Many of your suggestions I have already taken to heart, but I think the biggest with kiddos is overall engagement...NOBODY learns when they are bored. I know I don't--I tune out, I grab my phone, or play on my Mac. I wouldn't expect any less from an adolescent.

The biggest turn around for me was when I introduced want to know something? Google it and tell me what you learned. You want to write something? Go to and post it for the world to see, read, and comment on. It has made such a difference to my classroom...I am not the holder of the wealth of information about me what other people know and how you can blend that with what I give you in mini-lessons=)

Kathleen Cushman's picture
Kathleen Cushman
Author and speaker about lives and learning of youth; co-founder,

I really like how you took responsibility for living up to your own standards! Change only happens by each of us doing the small things that align with what we envision. Now I'm curious how your students responded to the changes in your reading and writing assignment. Have you asked them? Can you tell a difference in the quality of the work? Are they reaching out yet to a larger audience, and if so, is it making a difference in the ideas and evidence they are bringing forward? Is anyone asking outsiders for critique (and is anyone responding with useful feedback)? Keep us posted!

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

I loved your strategy 3 of expanding your audience. I started using this idea with my writing time. When students finished their writing, instead of me grading it and having it disappear into never never land (maybe the recycling bin), the student type up their story. It is then posted on a classroom blog, where other students and adults comment on their writing. Here is the classroom blog.

(During testing we are not able to get into the computer lab to post to the blog . . . so there are not many posts after March.)

This has really energized the students and gotten them much more excited about writing.


Shrikant's picture
Parent of 3 junior school students

Bravo. If only all the teachers strive for it, it will be a very different world. We have gotten so much busy with churning our graduates in numbers that we ignored the quality of their learning experience and forget these are real people who have brilliant minds. If only we encourage them to use them and use them often, we will see most of real issues fade away. Thank you for the list, well put.

Marge Tye Zuba's picture


Wondering if you learned any of these tips are a result of your time at CC in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

Graziella Reynaldos's picture


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