Yes, they should.
But we all know that they don’t. In fact, many hate it.
By high school, many students have become disenagaged. And we’re losing some really bright minds along the way.
My friend Kelly and I have talked many times over the years about her son, Jake. For years now, Kelly has been frustrated—wondering how to support this boy she loves so much. Parent teacher conferences focus on what a great kid Jake is—how articulate he is, how full of enthusiasm about the stuff he loves. However…there’s the issue of not completing homework. And losing papers. And indecipherable handwriting. And occasional distractedness.
So, Kelly asked me. What should we do? Should we get him a tutor? A peer mentor who will help him create better homework habits?
Here’s how I see Jake. This is a kid who, at age 8, devised a trap for Santa. Wanting to get a glimpse of the elusive fat man, Jake created an elaborate trap with trip wires and bells. (It would have worked, too, if someone hadn’t tipped off Mr. Claus at the last moment.)
This is a kid who spends hours, days, months focused on projects that often involve digging up the yard and rigging contraptions. He contemplates problems and devises solutions. He’s curious and visionary. He tries, fails, learns and tries again.
And his grades are pretty lousy.
Does that add up?
So, what I told Kelly is this. If it’s a choice between better grades and his enthusiasm, joy, curiosity and creativity….well, the choice is clear, isn’t it?
This shouldn’t be a choice.
That doesn’t mean that kids don’t need to practice or that they don’t need to do work or thinking beyond the school day. Often, they do. But not always. Experiment with ways to balance practice, skill development and responsibility. Middle school math teacher Michelle Russell ended up doing this. What will you do differently?
…including the above-mentioned homework. While some may think they are better suited for elementary school, the truth is they work at all levels. I’ve worked with HS teachers to create summer reading choice boards (that included options for watching videos, listening to podcasts or audiobooks as well as space for student-created options). I’ve also used choice boards when creating professional development opportunities for teachers!
Kasey Bell shared some choice board ideas on her site, Shake Up Learning.
Here’s my Smiley Face Self-Assessment. Don’t be fooled by the name—this isn’t just for young learners. A colleague adapted this for use with his AP Physics classes—with great success.
Ask for feedback about projects, assignments, their child’s response. (I included a more detailed, teacher-facing overview template in my last post.)
Why do you do this work? Why do you teach? What do you want your legacy to be?
Here are some hints:
YOU are preparing students for a future you cannot fully imagine or appreciate. Therefore, YOU need to create the conditions where they will learn how to learn. YOU have complete control over whether students are cognitively engaged, thinking hard and working with enthusiasm.
For more thoughts about this, see the awesome Catlin Tucker’s post about Articulating your Why
All kids can love school. All kids can learn deeply and joyfully every day. So can you
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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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!