Student Engagement

What is Deep and Joyful Learning?

March 11, 2021

I believe that ALL students can and should learn deeply and joyfully every single day.  (I also believe that everyone should find great joy–daily–in their work, but that’s for another post.)

So, what is Deep and Joyful learning, anyway?  Sometimes when I wonder whether or not I should use the phrase.  In particular, I worry that the “joyful” part sounds fluffy–that it sounds like I care more about superficial happiness than I do about rigorous learning. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

I liken deep and joyful learning to the way you feel after a really great run or a spin class or game of soccer.  You know, how you give it everything you have, you dig deep, and you end both exhausted and elated.

It’s like that.

You see this in classrooms regularly.  Students are buzzing with enthusiasm as they solve problems, make new meaning or transfer their learning in one area to another. I ask you, is this happening for all students every day in your school? If we’re truthful with ourselves, probably not.  

Even setting that expectation probably feels overwhelming. After all, teachers have so many standards to cover and their jobs are so complex, that to ask them to make sure each student is joyfully learning seems like a huge ask.  And sure, as with any goal, we set ALL or 100% of students as an aspiration–knowing that the higher we set our targets and expectations, the better chance we have at getting better results.

OK, but HOW do we do this. From what I’ve observed, it’s all about regularly and repeatedly using a few high leverage strategies that allow students to develop multiple competencies simultaneously.

In synthesizing the work of Michael Fullan, Monica Martinez and the Hewlett Foundation, CASEL, and Tony Wagner, three distinct competency areas emerge:

  1. Academic–skills like critical thinking and complex problem-solving built around standards
  2. Interpersonal –skills like collaboration and communication
  3. Intrapersonal–skills like self-awareness and self–management and the ability to set and achieve goals and learn from mistakes.


In subsequent posts, I’ll go deeper into the importance of each area and share some strategies for developing them in and alongside our learners.



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3 ways to invite parents inside the black box of education

November 16, 2020

Three ways to invite parents inside the black box of education - Lori McEwen Educational ConsultantIn 2013, Cuban and Tyack wrote Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education. In the book, they assert that even significant educational policy changes have largely left classroom practices untouched.

Few educators would argue with that thesis. Part of the issue is that the practice of teaching is largely a solitary one. Even schools that have embraced collaborative practices such as Professional Learning Communities or Instructional Rounds still have rooms of 1 teacher to 25 students, with doors that shut out the rest of the world.

Enter Covid and the move to remote learning, however, and suddenly the doors were opened wide. In this case, though, it wasn’t other teachers peering in, but parents and caregivers.  And, as we know, that didn’t always go so well.  Parents were often frustrated by unfamiliar material and teaching practices and felt both overwhelmed and helpless.  Perhaps partly as a result of this, we saw a push from parents to get their children back in school as fully and quickly as possible.  One almost gets the sense that parents were thinking–”I don’t care what you do with them all day, just don’t make me do it.”

This is unfortunate and represents a consistently missed opportunity.  Of course, we should not expect parents to take on the role of teacher, but we’ve also done a disservice over the years by keeping instructional practices inside a black box–so much so that when it was forced open, many parents had a tough time deciphering the contents.

So what can we do to promote greater transparency (and with that, greater student engagement–the focus of an upcoming post).

Here are a few steps:

1. Every single course has a “course overview” to be shared with parents at the beginning of the year and referenced frequently.

As I’ve written in earlier posts, if we want to build student ownership of learning, school should be a series of surprises. Instead, we can let students know what they will learn, why they will learn it and how they might demonstrate their learning.  A Course Overview does this by listing the power standards for each course and describing the types of typical learning activities and assessments to be used in the course.  From there, teachers can invite student participation in co-creating the learning, but the overview provides a clear and coherent frame for the course.

Similarly, parents can review the overview and ask questions about it during discussions (perhaps during virtual open houses and/or during the events described below).

2. Schools run frequent, interactive “curriculum” or “teaching and learning” events for parents.

Because everyone went to school, most assume that they understand what’s happening. But both content and pedagogy have changed over time.   Math, in particular, is likely to be unfamiliar to many parents.

Not only does the Algebra course my son took in 2015 look very different from the Algebra I struggled through in 1984, but elementary math instruction has also changed considerably. For one thing, there is considerably more focus, from an early age, on real world problem-solving that goes beyond the word problems of yore. There’s also a recognition that we need to allow students to engage in “productive struggle” in order to deeply engage with mathematics.

But parent comments like  “The teacher doesn’t teach! My kids tell me they have to do all the work” tell me that we haven’t shared with parents the why behind any pedagogical changes.

We could use in-person or online “teaching and learning” events to showcase new approaches, perhaps using a shared text like Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, for example. Parents, teachers and students could collaborate on rich problems together, gaining a mutual appreciation for new ways of learning.

3. Institute (student-led) digital conferences in place of the traditional parent/teacher conferences.

Covid has forced us to embrace new ways of communicating, and the move to online conferences might be one of the best changes worth sustaining.  Rather than rushed 20 minute sessions with adults sitting in student desks, we can move to a more relaxed online setting that allows for greater flexibility for teachers and for working parents.

Using the course overview and student artifacts as a guide, parents and teacher can engage in a deep discussion about the child’s strengths and opportunity areas.  If possible, having the student lead the conversation in terms of their own mastery of standards and competencies and explaining how they plan to proceed in the course is the best way to expand ownership. Then, if the parents and teachers feel the need for an adults-only conversation, they can arrange that as well.

Covid has broken down some of the walls between school and home. Let’s build upon that so that parents and teachers are true partners in the work of engaging and educating students.

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Teachers, are you afraid to say yes?

March 11, 2020

Are you afraid to say yes?

I bet you are, at least a little bit.

Saying NO is easier.  It’s safer.  It lets you maintain control.  NO is the word of restraint.

I think that’s why it’s a first response for so many teachers.  Too many “yeses” and all hell breaks loose —or so we think.

And, like everything, that can be true when the response is reactive rather than proactive.

But a well-placed YES can change everything.

Just a few days ago, I was working with a team of High School English teachers who are working to make their classrooms even more student-centered.  One of the tools we’ve used to contemplate the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning is Scott McLeod and Julie Graber’s terrific 4 Shifts Protocol.  We use the protocol to review lesson plans and determine a focus area for observation.  We then visit one another’s classrooms and provide feedback.

Sabrina had a terrific plan. She and her colleagues had developed a research unit on genocide.  Students first read The Book Thief, did some group research on the Holocaust and were now researching other genocides.  They then had a wide choice of methods for demonstrating their learning to one another—including infographics, slide presentations, etc. Thinking about the shifts, I asked her who had determined the assessment products–Was it the students, the teachers, or both?  It was the teachers, she told me.  Had they asked the students for ideas, I wondered? Or had they considered leaving a space for “other” in case the students wanted to try something different?  No, they just hadn’t thought of it–but she agreed that would be great.

In her classroom, we observed actively engaged students. Their curiosity was ignited and several were toggling between researching their topic and determining which of the products would be the best vehicle for displaying their knowledge.

The plan called for students to create individual products, though they could and were talking to one another to get feedback, discuss the pros and cons of presentation choices, etc.

One group of students, however, appeared to be collaborating at a deeper level and out of the blue they asked Sabrina if they could create a podcast as their final product. It was as though they had been eavesdropping on our lesson review conversation!

Sabrina immediately gave an emphatic “YES!”.

Later, she told me that a day earlier she might have said, ‘no”.


Because she hadn’t considered this possibility.  She was more comfortable staying within the lines of what the teacher team had created.  But, based on our earlier conversations, she decided to say yes and give the students more ownership.

So, what changed her mind:

  1. She’s convinced that more student ownership leads to deeper engagement AND deeper learning.
  2. She put the responsibility on the students to make sure their proposal still met the requirements of the assignment.
  3. She plans to have all students write a reflection about what worked and what didn’t and what they might do differently next time.

What’s the worst that can happen? The students might find this wasn’t the best way to demonstrate their learning. So what? In addition to self-reflection, students will also give feedback about their peers’ products.  All of this will build their metacognition while also providing Sabrina and her colleagues the information they need if they decide to use the project again in future classes.


And all because she said yes.

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Teachers, why all the “shushing”?

March 1, 2020

Shhhhh. Finger raised to lips, teacher looks sternly at students. Once again, “sshsh:


What message are we sending our students when we shush them?

I recently posed this to some teachers I was working with.  I’d noticed it in their classrooms and in others the day before.  Now I couldn’t help but hear it.

And I cringed every time.

Look, I’ve done it. We all have.  But when have to ask ourselves—what’s happening in a class that leads to the shushing?

Are kids talking “out of turn”?  If so, why?

Are they trying to get clarification from another student? If so, why?

Are they shouting out the answer?  If so, why?

In the first example, let’s ask—when should they speak?

Why isn’t this the “right” time?  When CAN they speak?

More importantly, what happens when kids talk?

         They think.

         They inquire

         They communicate

         They make sense of things.

And when we shush, we shut that all down. We reinforce compliance and we make it clear who the class belongs to.

Shushing—that thing that we have ALL done at some point or another—likely means that we haven’t established a classroom in which students’ voice matters, in which they can engage with each other and with the teacher.

Let’s stop shushing and start creating robust classrooms full of meaningful dialogue and chatter.  That’s when we think. That’s when we learn.

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