Professional Learning

Inspiring Students to Engage and Invest in School

May 23, 2009

As our two-year arts@newman pilot program comes to a close (read more about it), we are entering the process of evaluating and reporting on our efforts, posing questions for future growth, and reflecting on the incredible journey we have undertaken.

In the final few blog entries for this academic year, I wanted to publicly reflect on some of the original goals of our program and share some of my thinking as I plan next year's program.

Engagment as a Goal

One of the original goals of the arts@newman initiative was to explore how an integrated arts-based model could help engage those students who found themselves on the edge of this place we call school. Lately, I've found myself thinking a great deal about the idea of student engagement. The phrase definitely has currency in 21st-century educational conversations; many would argue that, without engagement, there is no real and lasting learning.

I agree that engagement is an important element in creating and nurturing powerful learning environments. In fact, for a while, I was thrilled that students enrolled in our arts@newman program were excited about coming to school, often arriving well in advance of the opening bell and participating in our online forums during evening and weekend hours.

School has become a very positive place for many, and much of that sentiment has to do with the type of work in which students have been engaged. I was confident we were well on our way to fulfilling our goal regarding student engagement until this spring, when I had one of those experiences that forced me to go even deeper with some of my thinking.

Having a Hook

We were working on some investigations related to mechanical efficiency and simple machines. As a unit energizer, I introduced students to the world of Rube Goldberg, including some of the modern-day Goldberg machines that had been designed and presented online. (If you're not familiar with the concept of a Rube Goldberg machine, think back to the Mousetrap board game you may have played as a youngster.)

Students became so excited about the concept that the possibility of creating their own machine -- the intended culminating task for our work -- took over the thinking, the conversations, and the spare time of many students. They were engaged, they were excited, and there was no stopping them! I put aside my original unit plans and let them continue designing their machines, pausing every couple of days to connect their efforts with the science concepts that were part of our unit work.

I'll never forget the look on Carlos's face the afternoon we were forced to interrupt our Rube Goldberg work to attend to some other required activities. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he became very distracted.

You see, Carlos had not only been engaged in the work that he was doing, he had also actually developed a stake in whether his machine would do what he planned for it to do. He thought about his machine on the way home from school, and it became part of his family dinner-table discussions. Carlos would come to school early each morning and immediately begin tinkering. There was no doubt that he was constantly thinking about his machine work, and it was going to take a great deal of effort to refocus his attention.

Dedicated to the Deed

It was then I realized in a very real way that there was another important dimension to student engagement, one I had not yet officially integrated into my thinking about the arts@newman initiative: investment.

When we talk about engagement, we are often referring to what we do as teachers to affect a positive learning environment. We talk of being an engaging teacher, or of designing tasks, activities and environments that are exciting and engaging for students.

To speak of investment, however, is to speak of something that is more related to how a student responds to a task. When students are invested in the work they are doing, they become -- quite literally -- wrapped up in the design, implementation, and outcome of the task. It's quite a visceral response, one that may begin with engagement but becomes richly personal. When students are invested in a particular piece of work, it becomes something that matters to them.

In my own schooling days, it was often reported that I spent too much time daydreaming in class. To this day, I remember staring out the window and thinking about what I was going to do after school. In elementary school, my plans involved such crazy ideas as building a backyard spaceship or a neighborhood clubhouse or redesigning my bedroom.

In high school, my ideas matured, and I imagined how I would rewire my stereo system so I could listen to it throughout the house, or how I could entice a girl named Barb to go out with me on Friday night. Though I may have been somewhat engaged in school activities, my investments lay elsewhere.

We all have the experience of the type of investment to which I am referring. Many of us have witnessed a level of investment on the part of our students.

What's Next?

So, as we move into the next phase of our implementation, I'm thinking about how the program we have begun -- much of it grounded in the idea of increased student engagement -- can mature to include reflection on how the arts-based work that we plan might lead to a greater sense of investment on the part of participants.

How do we move to a point where more of the school-based tasks in which students are engaged actually become the stuff of their dreaming when they leave us at the end of each day? How can our schools become places of deep and rich investment? Please share your thoughts.

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