5 Questions to Get Students Engaged

Engagement.  The magic word.  I’ve conducted countless Instructional Rounds, learning walks and other observations focused on engagement. Are kids engaged? It’s a great question.  It’s really THE question. And, unfortunately, all too often the answer is no.

Why? Part of it is the sense that stuff is happening TO them—and much of it is a surprise. Many of us advocate for greater student agency—voice and choice over their learning.  But first, we’ve need to provide a roadmap.

As educators, we often have the benefit of some curricula to guide us.  So, we know what we are teaching, how we want to teach and where we want our students to end up.

Often, though, students are left in the dark.  They show up with some vague idea of what they are learning. When asked, they answer with the subject—math- or maybe even the topic (fractions) or the text (The Great Gatsby) but not much beyond that.  And we wonder why they are not more engaged, more present, more excited.

Getting kids to be cognitively engaged depends on a lot of factors and lots of hard and great work by teachers.

To start, though, they …and we should be able to answer the following 5 questions. (Templates are at the bottom of this post)

Here are 5 questions that students should be able to answer:

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
  2. How will I show what I’ve learned?
  3. How will we learn?
  4. What do I do when I struggle?
  5. Why am I learning this?*

These questions will be familiar to those who have relied on the work of Dufour, et al, on building professional learning communities and those who have engaged in a backwards design curriculum process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.

  1. What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?

Include your content standards—but not all of them.  If your district/school has identified power standards, use those.  If not, you determine what’s most important and let them know that’s the focus.

Also, include those life and learning skills that they will gain.  You might want to guarantee greater collaboration or problem-solving skills, for example.

      2. How will I show what I’ve learned?

What are some examples of formative and summative assessments? Does the teacher assess HW? Is there a lot of writing? Is there a major project at the end of the course or each quarter? Will there be an exhibition of learning?

A grading policy is helpful here as well.  (I’ve got lots of thoughts on what that can and should look like, but the important thing is that students understand the practices up front.)

If you allow retakes and redos, a clear explanation of how that’s done and the impact on grades is useful.

3.How will we learn?

What are the usual activities?  Do we take a lot of notes? Will we participate in socratic seminar? Are we expected to explore via cooperative lab work?

What skills are needed/will be developed?  Are we expected to read, speak, explain, draw, act, sing?

Here, I would give students an opportunity to reflect on their level of comfort with each of these and some strategies to ask for and receive help.  For example, the painfully shy student or one with a speech impairment might dread public speaking.  Knowing it’s expected and how they will be supported allows students and teacher to be proactive.

4. What do I do when I struggle?

This is a great time to reinforce a growth mindset.  Let them know and discuss how anything worth doing can sometimes be difficult but that we are all in this together.

This is also where kids need some specifics about their access to additional help. How and when can they meet with you one on one? Do you take email questions? Are they assigned a partner to work with first?

You can keep coming back to this by asking students to reflect regularly on where they got stumped and what they did —or continue to do—to make their way forward.  Of course, a grading system that doesn’t punish kids for not “getting it right away” or indeed a PBL system that is built on struggle is helpful here, but even in the most traditional environments, this can be useful.

5. Why am I learning this?*

Arguably, this should come first,  But I recommend that you explore this together through the school year.  Students can self-assess on this as a part of reflections after summative or formative assessments. This can be a homework assignment once a quarter or every few weeks—ask parents, grandparents, Google, etc—Why should I learn this? What can I do with this now? What will I do with this in the future? How does this tie into what I already know or what I am learning in other areas of school or life?

Come back to this often—weekly, quarterly, at the beginning and end of discrete units of study.  The more students know about the what, why and how  of the lean ringing, the more they can invest of themselves in the learning.

Templates

Here’s a course overview template teachers can use for their own course planning.

Here’s a template to use with  students and families.

Please let me know if this is useful and/or how the templates can be improved.

Wishing you a great year of deep and joyful learning!

Lori

How to personalize learning? Start with empathy.

I recently caught up with a  friend of mine, let’s call her Sheila.  We hadn’t talked in some time and I was glad to catch up on her life and, especially, to hear how her daughter, Carolyn, was doing.

A History of Illness

Carolyn, now  in high school, has lived with a severe chronic illness her whole life that has increasingly caused frequent and sometimes prolonged hospitalizations, which, of course, keep her out of school.  During her freshman year, Carolyn missed four months of school and was just transitioning back when her mom and I spoke.  Knowing that working with the school system to accommodate Carolyn has been akin to a part-time job for Sheila, I asked how it was going. 

An Empathetic School

Sheila told me the school had been great.  They have a program for students with chronic illnesses.  Not only does the team work together to provide tutoring, they also support students socially and emotionally.  An example of their accommodation, Sheila told me, was that Carolyn was allowed to show proficiency on major assignments, rather than being held accountable (I.e., graded down) for missing assignments.

I was overjoyed to hear this.  Navigating schoolwork and missed assignments has been a major source of stress for both Carolyn and Sheila, exacerbated, no doubt, by the fact that Carolyn attends one of the highest performing high schools in her state. KUDOS to this high school for creating such program and by doing so, showing empathy for students whose very real struggles would prevent them from passing their courses if not for these accommodations. Other schools offer similar alternative programs for students who, for a variety of reasons, need a more personalized approach.

Good for one or good for all?

But then, I have to wonder—are some of these accommodations just good practice that can be extended to all students?  If teachers realize that some assignments are simply not essential (and thus can be not “counted”) then it stands to reason that they’ve already done the hard work of identifying what is and is not essential—which standards must be mastered, what each student must know and be able to do to be considered proficient in a particular course of study and allowed to move forward. So why not apply this philosophy to the entire school?

This isn’t about missing assignments or not holding students accountable.  It’s about how we think about learning in general.  If we can allow flexibilities for some, let’s do the same for all.  Giving each student what she needs, when she needs it just makes sense.  If we do that, the learning will follow.

Give students ownership with the Jigsaw

Differentiating learning for all students is hard enough—now we are asked to think about giving students a choice and voice in their own learning. Seems like more work for the teacher. And, on the front end, it is.

But here are some ways to make it easier.

1) Give students choice in a JIGSAW. Usually, jigsaws are used by teachers looking to differentiate learning for their students. The teacher chooses 3 or more materials related to the topic of discussion. The materials may differ according to reading level or interest or, sometimes, are simply a number of related resources that are valuable, but there are just too many to have each student read each one, so using a jigsaw allows students to get summaries from their peers.

You can also do this with a flipped Jigsaw—in which the students read or view (in the case of a video, etc) their chosen piece at home, take notes and prepare a summary to share with their peers the next day.

2) Then, allow students some choice in how they create a product to share with their peers. Usually, after a jigsaw, I’ve provided a choice board— a menu of activities the group can do to make synthesize their learning. This is great. It gives the group a choice and, done well, teaches students how to make group decisions and then work together. (See examples of choice boards here and here)

But you could do this differently. You could do the meaning making part of the jigsaw in class. Students either read and create summaries in their home group in class or they’ve done some of this work at home in the flipped scenario, and then come together briefly to create a group summary to bring to their rainbow groups. Then, have the rainbow groups come together for discussion of all the readings/resources and make sense of them tougher, engaging in dialogue and debate (structured or unstructured based on their familiarity with the process, age, your preference, etc). After that, instead of working on group projects for the final piece, students might choose to work individually—or some might work in pairs, or you might have a sign up sheet (physical or on a shared document) where students sign up for the type of final product they want to create. So, you might end up with 3 groups of 4 students who want to create a game based on the readings and 2 students working individually to write a poem and others doing any number of appropriate learning tasks. (Note that the options in the choice board should have accompanying rubrics whenever possible in order to ensure rigor).

Finally, I would recommend bringing the class together for presentations (OR having the students make videos of their presentations for their peers to watch at home) and including some sort of feedback sheet from peers. (More on that to come).

One last thing—I don’t think it’s possible to overuse the Jigsaw. If you are new to differentiation, ad/or if you find it incredibly time-consuming, why not return again and again to something that works. You can mix up HOW you assign pieces or give choice, you can mix up the activities or questions in the home group and the rainbow group, you can have students do the final product in groups or individually. The final products can take hours or weeks or days. I would love to see examples from others.

How to Incorporate Retake Tickets in Your Classroom

In theory, most educators likely agree with the philosophy behind Mastery Learning—that there are specific standards that matter most in each course and that our goal is to make sure that each student truly masters, or reaches proficiency, on those standards.

Yet, once we move the the details of how it works, sticking points arise.

In my experience, one of the biggest was coming to agreement on the idea of “sufficient opportunity to demonstrate proficiency”. Teachers, understandably, worried about the following:

1. If students know that they can keep trying, they won’t put effort in the first time around. i.e, they won’t study hard for test on Tuesday, knowing they can just make it up on Friday.

2. Teachers will be inundated with creating multiple versions of tests in order to allow for retakes and THEN, they will have to correct all of those.

Here’s how I would address those reasonable concerns. (I would love to hear others’ thoughts.)

I do think the first concern is somewhat unfounded. Most students don’t want to keep taking the same, or similar, assessments over and over again. However, we do want to make sure that retakes aren’t just for getting a better grade, but are an opportunity to show mastery of important standards.
Therefore, I recommend using a RETAKE TICKET.

Here’s WHY:

a. It puts ownership on the student. As she reflects on her learning, she has to articulate where she’s having trouble and what she, in partnership with the teacher, can do about it.

b. It connects teacher, student and parent. Including space for parent comments and not just a signature brings the parent into the conversation about the student’s learning.

The second concern, the one that reasonably worries about teachers’ time to create additional assessments, is valid. Here are my thoughts:

1. Only have students redo work that was sub-par. If a test was designed to assess proficiency on standards 1, 2, and 3 and the student demonstrated proficiency in standards 1 and 2, then he/she now only needs to demonstrate proficiency on that 3rd standard.

2. Use the same test. At my children’s school, students are required to do “test corrections” after math assessments. It’s a wonderful practice because it forces students to reflect on what they know and don’t, where and why they made errors, and how to come at a problem differently in order to solve it correctly. Currently, “test corrections” is its own grading category, counting for far less than assessments in calculating a final grade. I would recommend simply replacing assessment grades when test corrections show proficiency.

3. Put a “hold” on the grade. Make it clear that the original assessment grade will be adjusted once the student demonstrates proficiency. That might be done via test corrections or at the next point of assessment.

A couple of other points about retakes. I know some teachers and schools set a cut-off grade for retakes. For example, a student who scores an 80 or better cannot retake the test. I don’t get this. Yes, we want to avoid grade-grubbing (and in my perfect world, we wouldn’t use traditional grades), but if a student wants to go deeper, self-correct, get better—then by all means let him or her. In using the retake sheet and comments, we can see if the student’s motives are about true learning. If not, that’s fodder for a conversation—but not a reason to not allow.

Also, I can hear teachers saying, What about the kid who always needs a retake? Well, this is the same problem you would have if you didn’t allow retakes—the kid who is failing class. It’s time for a conversation with student, parent and, perhaps, a learning specialist to begin to figure out why the student is either not learning or not performing.

Really, these are just steps along the way to shifting mindsets—of students and educators. Mastery learning is a mindset, not just a set of strategies that tinker around the edges of the old system. However, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And using retake sheets is as good a step as any.

P.S. Another way to shift the burden from teachers to students is to have students self-assess. That’s another post 🙂