(Re)Defining Student Engagement

“The best evidence for student engagement is what students are saying and doing as a consequence of what the teacher does, or has done, or has planned.” – Charlotte Danielson

This past week I conducted instructional walks in ten different classrooms. Using only paper and pen, I wrote observations describing ten distinct teaching styles. These initial visits have confirmed what I have known for several years of experience as a school principal and teacher evaluator: Engagement in learning happens most frequently and deeply when students are actively involved in instruction.

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photo credit: IMG_6414 via photopin (license)

Engagement (student involvement in instruction) can be described in a variety of ways. I think too often engagement is exclusively predefined by educators as “hands on”, “students doing more talking than the teacher”, or “active”. These descriptors may all be key indicators of engagement. But the definition should not stop there.

For example, I was the fortunate observer of a math lesson that would seem to run counter to this pattern, at least at first glance. The learning target: Demonstrate multiple ways to solve multiple digit addition problems. The teacher, who already modeled a few problems by working through them in front of students on the document camera, asked if there were three students willing to show their peers one of three ways to solve a given problem. Several hands shot up. Once selected, the three volunteers headed to the board.

The rest of the class was directed to also try one of the three methods at their desks. As some students completed the problem before others, the teacher, who was roaming around the room doing spot checks and providing quick feedback, announced, “If you solved it one way, why not try it another way?” Every student who was ready took her up on the challenge. This option gave other students more time to work.

Once the students at the front of the room were done with their work, they went back to their desks. Their faces beamed with pride. The teacher went over the process with the whole group: “Yes, you regrouped here…the place value alignments are accurate…” The teacher also asked the rest of the class to show their work on their dry erase boards with their partner sitting next to them. “Did your method work just as well as your partner’s? Talk about that.” They did.

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photo credit: UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows via photopin (license)

We in education talk so much about engagement in concert with terms like “collaboration”, “technology”, and “passion”. Is this where the best learning takes place? Sometimes, maybe even often, but certainly not always. For example, I can have passion about something, but if I don’t put the necessary time, thought, and energy into developing the skills and understandings related to it, then it is merely a hobby and possibly not worth knowing well. One passion of mine is writing. If I didn’t sit down and “do the work”, I’d have nothing but half-developed ideas floating around in my mind.

It’s important that we take the concept of engagement and rethink its meaning, as it has been defined within the context of today’s classroom. Consider:

  • If students had been left to their own devices and allowed to work in loose groups, what guarantee would the teacher have that everyone was developing a better understanding while this collaboration was happening?
  • Speaking of devices, kids could certainly have seen some worked problems online prior to class, and then provided more time during class for the teacher to work with students who needed the support. But could we be assured that every student watched the recorded instruction actively and without distraction?
  • As a former middle level mathematics teacher myself, I know how challenging it can be to instill a sense of passion for the subject. By including the students in the instructional responsibilities, everyone had a stake in the process and the outcomes. Passion is then connected with purpose and community.

I call on all school leaders, myself included, to put aside our biases and misconceptions regarding student engagement, as we engage in our own learning experiences during our frequent visits to classrooms. When classrooms that are set up in rows of desks are described as “tombstones”, we make unfair generalizations of a teacher’s abilities to educate their students. When we document the lack of technology integration in a lesson that has no need for it, we show our bias toward a maximalist approach to digital learning. When we find a quiet classroom, it may be inaccurate to assume that learning isn’t occurring. Let our student actions and dispositions guide our professional assessments.

Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

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photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Determining What is Lifeworthy Learning in School

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” -Yogi Berra

In a previous post, I asked those that I am connected with online what they feel is the one thing a student should know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave their respective school.

I also asked this same question of the members of our school leadership team, our school’s parents, and our outgoing 5th graders.

Why do this? We have two days of curriculum writing planned for next week. Our goal is to develop at least an outline of six content units of study for each grade level. There’s so much to teach and not enough time. We have to be picky about what’s essential. These units will be scheduled throughout the year, hopefully incorporating literacy and other areas of instruction. Using the Understanding by Design process (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998), we also hope to create more useful assessments for our students, performance tasks that allow them better opportunities to show what they know.

By gathering input from more stakeholders, the idea is there will be more ownership in this process of designing instruction. Parents and students have also been invited to our actual curriculum writing days. Their roles will be as a representative voice for all students and parents as we work together to make their school experience even better. Our school definitely has some successes, but we also have opportunities for growth, such as making learning opportunities more accessible for our marginalized students, and to better integrate technologies so they are a transformative piece of instruction, instead of merely augmenting current practice.

I took all of the input provided by our teachers, parents, students and my PLN, and condensed their ideas down into six-word-or-less learning statements. They were written on large Post-its and displayed in our LMC, which will serve as our workspace.

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I left some spaces open, to allow for more suggestions for what we as a school community feel is an essential outcome of a student’s school experience. David Perkins refers to this idea of what’s essential as “lifeworthy learning”, from his book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014).  LIfeworthy learning goes beyond basic skills, preparing for an unknown future and expecting students to generalize bigger concepts across disciplines and experiences. It is more than just a personalized learning experience or a fun activity, Perkins states.

The basic curriculum can’t be molded around the individual enthusiasms of learners. We need to figure out what’s likely to be lifeworthy for most students, kindling enthusiasm there as much as we can while also making room for individual learning experiences. (16)

Here are a few of our proposed lifeworthy learning statements:

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You can view all of the statements by clicking here.

The purpose for this display will be to look for ways to include these skills and understandings within units of study when appropriate. This process will happen after we review our mission and vision, recommit to our beliefs and best practices, and introduce the Understanding by Design process.

Here are a few questions I’ll be throwing out to our group when we arrive at this point in our time together:

  • What is stated here and it should be?
  • What is not stated here, but you feel should be?
  • What is not stated here, and it should stay that way?

This last question might be the most important. I have found conversations around instruction to be very powerful when a faculty finds consensus on what to stop doing in classrooms. Writing these obituaries may have a larger impact than on anything we might add to our instructional toolbox.

What are your thoughts on this process? Have you had any experience in determining what’s essential and lifeworthy for student learning with a group of educators? How have you “trimmed the fat” from curriculum in a fairly agreeable manner? Comments on this topic are welcome here.

(For a good description of this unit design process, check out the post Planning for the Planning on the Two Writing Teachers blog.)

Great Teaching is Magic

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I am currently reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking, 2009). This fantasy is the first book in a trilogy that takes that next step after the Harry Potter series, adding more mature themes to a similar story about students attending a school for wizardry. One passage gave me pause. I earmarked it, so I could share it here. It is a quote from one of the professors, as he lectures to his new students.

The study of magic is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Magic is a craft. When we do magic, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change in the world.

As I read this passage, I thought, “What if you replaced ‘magic’ with ‘teaching’?” (I had recently filled in for a few teachers who had gone home sick, and I was reflecting on my experiences at the time.) Here is what the revision looks like:

The study of teaching is not a science, it is not an art, and it is not a religion. Teaching is a craft. When we teach, we do not wish and we do not pray. We rely upon our will and our knowledge and our skill to make a specific change in the world.

Doesn’t that substitution just fit like a glove? Of course, I evoke the word “teaching” with the highest regard. I am talking about the type of teaching that anticipates kids’ questions before they ask them. Teaching can be considered a craft when the teacher is constantly reflecting on their practice and making improvements, often during the lesson itself. Great teachers realize that what makes an impact on student learning is a thoughtful combination of their will, knowledge, and skills, and that each ingredient is enhanced when brought together with intention.

So to summarize the analogy…

Ordinary teaching may be an art. We can capture our students’ interests and keep them captivated with our presentation skills. But what deep learning do we have to show for our showmanship?

Sometimes teaching is simply a science. The objective is posted, students are clear on the intended learning, and there are opportunities to check for understanding. But how does the learning go live and take a life of it’s own, led by the classroom as a learning community?

Great teaching is neither an art or a science. Great teaching is a combination of the two: great teaching is a craft that constantly needs attention, inspiration, and reflection. Great teaching is magic.

Moonlighting as a Teacher

After seven years, I am back in the classroom. Well, sort of.

At a recent mass, our priest made an appeal to the congregation asking for volunteers to teach religious education on Wednesday nights, also known as CCD. I would already be there, dropping of and picking up my son, so I volunteered to be a catechist.

I had everything I needed: A teacher’s manual, textbooks and activity books for the kids, a roster, and a template for preparing lessons. The lesson plan framework was pretty specific. It was suggested that we detail the pages to be read, activities to design, what types of discussions to facilitate, and any assignments I might want to have my students do as homework.

As a beginning teacher, these would be very helpful. I was appreciative of having all of the material ready for me ahead of time. But prior to becoming a principal, I was an intermediate teacher for seven years. As an observer and evaluator of instruction in classrooms for an equal amount of time, I have come to the belief that the lesson plan is more than a series of steps. There is a flow to a great lesson. It considers how to engage the learners. An excellent plan of instruction considers what should happen, but also considers what might. The plan always is steering toward that essential understanding or skill, but is able to change directions or provide multiple pathways to get there.

That is why I use the simplest framework I could think of: BME, or “Beginning-Middle-End”.

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I have no idea if someone came up with this before me, so if I have replicated anyone’s work, my apologies.

When I prepared my lesson (the concept was “faith”), I thought about how I would want to begin. What would capture their hearts and minds – a question, a quote, or maybe sharing an interesting piece of information? How I did elect to start was directly related to the concept. However, I did not post the learning target on the board and point my finger at it, saying, “In today’s lesson, we are going to…”

As I developed the meat of the lesson – the middle – I described the activities I wanted the students to participate in, but not too specifically. I wasn’t 100% sure how the beginning was going to play out, so I wrote a few instructional strategies to consider once we got started. It was during this time that I specifically pointed out what we were learning.

In the end, my plan was to have the students motivated enough to find the answers to their questions that they couldn’t help but share with the class with the help of the text. I modeled how to organize our information around the concept of faith using a Frayer model. I demonstrated this first, and then stood by and wrote their responses on the easel paper where the organizer was drawn out. Students who felt comfortable writing their responses independently were handed the marker. I closed out the lesson by commending everyone for such thoughtful responses and being active learners. We went through each response together to review our thinking before we left for the night.

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To be honest, we didn’t respond to every question in the activity book, nor did I take their workbooks home to check their answers. If I gave my students a test on the content from the textbook, they may not pass. I guess that is something to be aware of for next week. On the bright side, I felt like we had a better understanding of the concept of “faith”, and how it applies to our own lives. I also feel good about giving the students a few learning strategies while attempting to understand the content. I’d like to think it was integrated, authentic, and meaningful.

I hope through my experience as a teacher again, however limited, that I will keep my instructional skills sharp, develop a better perspective about the role of the teacher in today’s educational climate, and try out some of the great strategies I see my own staff using every day.

Guided Reading within the Daily 5 Framework

I was filling in for a 3rd grade teacher, who needed to attend an assessment meeting on behalf of one of her students. When I walked in, she had me start the third of four rotations. She uses the Daily 5 framework in her classroom, so students not meeting with me were engaged in tasks such as reading to self or working on writing.

Our goals for guided reading: Expression; fluency; decoding; self-correcting. A tall order!

The group coming to me was reading a Time Warp Trio title. The students seemed motivated to dig back into this authentic text.

Not having taught guided reading in some time (I have been a principal for seven years now), I relied on what I know now – the Ongoing Cycle of Responsive Teaching:

OLM Cycle

I started the group by modeling what strong expression and accurate reading looks and sounds like. After I read a page aloud, I asked the students to tell me what I did well.

Student A: “Your voice went up and down.”

Me: “What do you mean?

Student B: “When there was a question mark at the end of a sentence, your voice went up at the end.”

I could have very well told the students that this is what readers do, to change the pitch of their voice based on the type of sentence. But I decided to let them arrive at this conclusion. In this manner, they own the learning and have a better chance to apply it to their own reading.

Instead of having the students each read aloud a page from our common text, I asked the group to read the next two pages silently and identify a part where expression was needed to best understand what the author was trying to convey. They read without a peep for the next couple of minutes.

When we were ready to share, I didn’t have them simply point to the line that evoked strong expression. Each student was encouraged to read aloud the text that demanded a specific tone and pitch. If we felt that the student read the part with accurate expression, we gave him or her a thumbs up. If there were corrections to be made, I briefly pointed out how they could improve, but only after I noticed what they did well.

All of this occurred while the other students were working independently. We got through two groups in my brief time there. While I asked one group to read the rest of the chapter independently, I met with another group that still needed some scaffolding. While the scaffolded group was working independently, I snuck a few minutes back to meet with the first group and check their understanding of the remainder of their reading.

Teaching is a very complex task. I have no doubt that it is one of the toughest and most rewarding jobs out there. Yet I feel that we can sometimes make our positions more difficult than necessary. By setting up a structured system, such as the Daily 5, during our literacy instruction, we give ourselves the opportunities for specific and tailored teaching for those students that need our support the most.