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Author Interview: 'Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement'

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and author of such books as: Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student EngagementDIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and HistoryDIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science, and 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. She has been a staff blogger for Edutopia since 2008 and shares all things middle school at tweenteacher.comShe has been a proud member of the California Writing Project since 2008 and was selected as a National Faculty member for the Buck Institute in 2017. Follow Heather on Twitter: @tweenteacher.

LF: How do you define "student engagement" and why do you define it in that way?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

I think the best way to define student engagement is to ask the students themselves. My student Camila answered it like this: "If I'm being engaged, I'm actually enjoying the lesson, and I'm following along with it. And without being engaged, it's like, 'OK, that's interesting,' but, you know, you don't really grasp onto it so clearly." My colleague, Liz Harrington, an amazing fellow of The National Writing Project and a featured teacher in the book, says that, "Engagement is more to do with students getting into the learning, whatever the learning is, whether it's reading a text or writing an essay or doing a role-play, being engaged means putting all of themselves into it."

There's a common misconception, however, that engagement has to equal fun, but that's not always true. Engagement can be challenging. Engagement can make you sweat. Engagement can also be uncomfortable, and that's not necessarily enjoyable. Even the students know engagement doesn't always mean fun. My student Wiltur recognized that, "It's not always fun but you're focused on learning and what's coming into you... it's more of 'I understand and I can take whatever I'm listening to and learning and connect to it and comprehend it.'''

Being engaging is about luring the kids into learning. I always think of Captain Picard, with his "engage." It's used to mean connect, move forward, advance. And we want these students to be so engaged that they can't help but move themselves forward. 

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LF: You identify nine practices to promote engagement—collaboration, use of visuals and tech, relevance, movement, choice, teachers showing that they are human, encouraging creation, using different and new ways to teach, and mixing up the way we teach.

You've identified these practices through student surveys, but they are also—broadly-speaking—supported by research. Given all that, why do you think some teachers don't apply those methods in the classroom?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

I think in some ways it's an all-or-nothing fear. I think some teachers shy away from engagement strategies because they are consumed by content and consumed by the myth that they have to be the ones driving that content. The fact is, however, that when students are engaged, the teaching itself takes less effort from the teacher. The students begin to drive the content. And let's face it, it's easier to teach engaged students than disengaged ones.  

I do admit that prepping an engaging lesson does take more frontloading than prepping one without thought of the student engagement layer, but how else can we do what we are tasked to do? Students cannot learn without being engaged. Period. Author and teacher Kelly Gallaghar said it best when he said, "Engagement first, then content, then rigor," and I couldn't agree more. It can't be in a different order.

But the "why" teachers may not apply these methods is as varied as the teachers themselves. Some are facing opposition by a lock-step department or frightened admin team. Others don't apply the methods because it can feel like yet another prep. It's not laziness; it's reaching the level of "can't take another thing on." However, when students are engaged, it's like a jolt of caffeine for the teacher. We talk about the enthusiasm of the teacher driving the enthusiasm of the students, and while that's true, the same can be said conversely: when kids are lit up with learning, their engagement shoots through us too.

But the fact is that we are all, as humans, going to find comfort in some strategies and not others. This book is about teacher choices even while it also highlights student choices. It's not about taking every single practice on and using them every single day. It's about thinking about this other layer of content, not a Common Core or state standard, but an Engagement standard. It's about thinking about a content layer that focuses on our clients and whether they are truly absorbing, in the deepest way possible, what we need them to learn. The book helps scaffold how to hit these nine standards of engagement so that a teacher can pick and choose what is most comfortable for them to utilize and to, hopefully, dip their toe into a strategy that may not be the most comfortable. The book also offers classroom examples through written step-by-step lessons and videos, so I'm hoping that the all-or-nothing fears can be shut down in lieu of "let's try it" confidence.

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LF: Which of those practices do you think are most difficult for teachers to use, and what might be initial steps for them to try?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

That's a toughie because I think people are drawn to or repelled away from different strategies for different reasons. I know many teachers who believe going from the "straight rows" method of teaching to more collaborative grouping in the classroom is the hardest jump to make. I certainly think that might be the scariest, but it's not necessarily the most difficult. It's scary to go from zero percent to a successful percentage of collaborative grouping, and according to research, at least 60 percent of your classroom time is necessary for true effectiveness. It's frightening. I know. I remember when I myself made that leap. I fought it for a long time because I was fearful.

The following excerpt from the book describes what was going on in my head at the time:

Would I have control?

How will I manage classroom management?

Will I ever be able to sit down again?

How will I assess who knows what?

How will I learn their names if they aren't facing me the whole time?

Some of these sound silly, I know. But it's where my panic, lizard-brain was at when I first made the shift. When I look back now, it seems ridiculous, because so much has become better and more effective. The answers to the questions, it turned out, were as follows:

Would I have control? Kinda. They ran things better than I could imagine.

How will I manage classroom management? When they are engaged, I didn't have to "sit on" them as much.

Will I ever be able to sit down again? Yep. With them and next to them.

How will I assess who knows what? They are talking more than ever about the content. Just by walking around and keeping me ear open, I learned more than taking only those hands that were raised.

How will I learn their names if they aren't facing me the whole time? You learn by hearing them speak far quicker than by face alone.

But I think that the most difficult strategy to really utilize on a day-to-day basis is the need for learning to be meaningful. In a way, it requires us to push back on some of the content we're tasked to teach, or it requires us to look at our content in a different way. Textbooks rarely connect content to that which exists in the world beyond school, so we have to help students make those connections themselves. And maybe it's not the content that needs re-evaluating; maybe it's in the kind of activity we are asking students to do. Cornell Notes help students to organize but if you do it for every chapter, does it retain its meaningfulness? Readers Theater is fun, but is the teacher ensuring that it's more than fun, that it has purpose? By identifying the purpose of a standard or an activity, you can tweak them into more meaningful alignment. What can you do with Cornell Notes to add value to the routine? What can you do with your Readers Theater activity to enhance its focus on literacy?

Ask yourself why they need to learn something. And if the answer is only "because it's on the test" or "because it's the next page in the textbook," ask yourself if you can ditch it. Cull. Prune. Streamline. Make what you teach and how you teach it valuable to the skills and lessons they need to learn beyond school's walls.

LF: What would you say to critics who might say that students are not always the best judges of how and what they should learn because they are kids and teachers are professionals?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

What does one mean by professional here? Are we talking about those in higher education being the professionals? We all know academics who have studied education only to find that their ideal strategy struggles to take hold when faced with the real-life challenges of on-the-ground teaching. Are we talking about teachers being professionals here? I've also worked in schools where some teachers don't think of themselves as academics and don't continuing learning about implementation. They halt their own learning after a certain point. The fact is that academics and those who focus on implementation are sides of the same coin, yet there still remains a "we know best" attitude from both sides. That halts progress, and we can't have a complete, informed conversation about what works without the voices of the students as well.   

But do you know who does know best? The students.

We have to acknowledge that there is a disconnect between how we've been taught to teach and what we know works now. Only by bringing all stakeholders to the table will we crack this nut because the only stakeholder living through this generation of learning are the students themselves. By asking the students what engages them, we can see that that there are certain strategies that, despite environment, can work. By asking the students what engages them, we can also see that when we neglect to focus on engagement, nothing will work.

But there's another reason why we need to listen to the students. They are earnest. They have no reason to want anything but to be engaged. When I surveyed the students, not one said that engagement equals what's easy. Each respondent clearly wanted to be engaged and learning. Their voices are clear and on-point.

This book helps prove that the academic research is backed up by student voice and that the students actually can recognize what works, and doesn't work, for them. We are all in a partnership together to help these kids. It is a Student Achievement Equation, so to speak.  

We all have a voice to be heard in how students learn best, and we all of a place in the equation. Students included.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

You can see the Book Trailer here.

I want to share the history and process of this book a little bit as a call to action of sorts. This all started in 2012 when I surveyed my own students and asked them what engaged them as learners. I surveyed all 210 students and found that they all of their responses could be categorized into 9-10 strategies. This became a post for Edutopia. Then, in 2015, I decided to widen my survey. I conducted a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and it was amazing to see that all of the responses, regardless of where the student came from or what model of school they attended, still fell into the same categories. My challenge to every teacher is this: no matter what model of school you teach in, ask your students what engages them as learners. It can help drive your teaching and help your students more deeply embed their learning.  

Here's a downloadable to the engagement survey in case you should wish to try!

LF: Thanks, Heather!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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