Student Engagement

Learners Thrive with a Public Audience

June 20, 2009

I drove over to Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, this morning. I had been invited to see a set of culminating presentations of collaborative research projects by college students and alternative-education students from a local middle school.

As I sat in the small audience -- one of about five outsiders who had responded to the invitation to come be part of the event -- I was struck by how important it was that we were there. Yes, there were only a few of us, but the kids knew we were there. They saw their principal and a former teacher who now works with technology at the school district level, as well as three others they didn't know -- one of those three being me. But we were adults, and we were there, and we were all leaning forward and listening intently to their words. We cared.

I did not know the kids. I was there because of an invitation from my friend, Gretchen, a wonderful middle school science teacher just finishing a year as teacher in residence in the education department at Bates. These projects were done during a short-term course she had taught around research-based fieldwork in a middle grade science program. They had done research at a nature preserve Bates owns that contains forest, rocky shore, and sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean, near Bath, Maine.

These were middle school kids, and so I watched their body language and social interactions to see how the audience affected them. What I saw was a uniform desire to do their best, and a willingness to engage not only with content but also with their audience in a mature and thoughtful way. I am confident that the presence of a few extra caring adults in the room made a difference.

One group had studied the beach, paying close attention during a week's time to the movement of sand. They measured erosion and deposition of sand at various points on the beach and used their results to eloquently describe how a beach -- a place that appears to the nonscientist to just sit there -- is actually very much in motion.

The audience applauded at the end of each presentation, and, once the students were all done presenting, asked serious questions about the research -- not simply out of politeness but because we had been engaged. These teams -- college students working with kids involved in alternative education programs -- had done interesting work and had produced informative presentations.

So, this made me want to ask, how do we get other adults into your classroom to be part of our kids' audiences? Or do you take the kids' work on the road? Have you seen the presence of nonteachers and nonparents who care about the work make a difference for kids? Have you seen what I saw that day at Bates College, in room G-52? Please share your thoughts.