- There are Kinder Ways: Engaging Hesitant Students Pt. 2 - April 1, 2016
- There Are Kinder Ways: Engaging Hesitant Students - March 21, 2016
- Teacher Burnout: A Series of Fresh Starts - February 10, 2016
- Adventures in Going Paperless: Making Assumptions about Digital Literacy - December 16, 2015
- Adventures in Going Paperless: Step Two, Navigating Digital Feedback - November 12, 2015
- Adventures in Going Paperless: Step One, Taking the Leap - November 3, 2015
- The Problem of the Chronically Absent Student - October 5, 2015
- Why We Write from Day 1 - September 17, 2015
- Trusting Teachers Creates Truly Successful Schools - September 1, 2015
- The Challenge of Getting to that Messy First Draft - August 7, 2015
Last Saturday, I watched my eight-year-old daughter melt into a weeping pile of helplessness.
It was her baptism. My husband’s side of the family is Catholic, and a few months back, she expressed a desire to be baptized. Even though I am not Catholic, I supported her decision, and we put the wheels in motion. My husband took her to weekly classes, which she went to without question, and in the week leading up, they attended Holy Week masses and run-throughs of the event.
On the day of, I knew she was nervous. She bounced from activity-to-activity with an exaggerated energy and only picked at the food she was offered. She appeared excited as we made our way to church, but as mass progressed, her excitement transitioned to silence.
When it was finally time, along with the other candidates, we approached the font. She gripped my hand as the first stepped in, and when her turn approached she looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, “I want to go home.”
I picked her up, hugged her, and then passed her to my husband, as recent growth spurts have made it a bit tougher for me to carry her for long, and he held her at the side of the font while the priest sprinkled a few drops of water on her head. Tears gave way to sobs, and as soon as we were able, we walked to the “cry room,” a small room in the back of the chapel where parents could take noisy children and still listen to mass. It was supposed to be where my daughter would change into the stunning satin number she’d selected for her first communion, which was supposed to follow the baptism. However, instead of helping her out of baptism robes, I cradled her in my arms as she wept.
“What happened?” I asked once the tears had slowed.
“They were all looking at me,” she eeked out before a fresh round of sobs overtook her.
Now, anyone who knows my daughter would never describe her as a fading flower. In fact, I often refer to her as a force-of -nature. She is opinionated and willful. She knows her own mind, and is generally not afraid to tell anyone what she thinks. She gets along well with peers, and her teacher describes her as “helpful.”
However, there is one thing that destroys my daughter: the feeling like all eyes are on her. I’ve seen it before last night. She never wants to feel exposed.
In my previous article, I questioned the practice of “No Opt Out” as outlined in Doug Lemov’s instructional book, Teach Like a Champion. I read his first chapter through the eyes of my teenage self, someone who struggled with social anxiety and who would have shut down in a classroom where it was demanded that I answer publicly and correctly, the consequence being the rest of the class enlisted to force my voice.
I also think about my daughter in the same scenario. She is smart. At eight, she is reading at a sixth-grade level and on a whim decided to memorize all the multiplication tables. We had a recent argument about the pronunciation of “cleric.” She decided that she was going to say it with a long “e,” regardless of what her English teacher mother said. We went a few playful rounds about it, and at the end, though she refused to concede, we were laughing. But if I were her teacher, and not her mother, and I had questioned her pronunciation publicly and then made the other students in the room chant the word at her, it would have ended with tight lips and tears instead of laughter.
My daughter and I are only two examples of people who might struggle with Lemov’s method. We have a number of students who could respond poorly. We have ELL students insecure in their burgeoning grasp of language. We have learning-disabled students who fear that whatever they do is somehow wrong. We have students in stressful living situations coming into our classes in no state to speak out.
We must take that into account.
I criticize Lemov’s method, not because I want an ever-silent classroom where students disengage and retreat. Quite the opposite, I want my students to feel empowered to speak and to share. I want them to try. I want them to engage with me and with their peers and help each other out of a jam when needed. I do not, however, want them to feel forced to do so in a way that puts them on the spot or where they feel that an “incorrect” response will be called out.
So the question then becomes how.
How I run my classroom is greatly influenced by the Oregon Writing Project, which employs a model based on sharing and community. It celebrates the individual writer and his or her personal strengths while employing those strengths to elevate the class as a whole. Communication is required, and students have to feel safe to share. In order to accomplish this, we start writing and communicating from day one, but in ways designed to make students feel safe, not singled out.
I would estimate that about 75% percent of the work in my class is accomplished in groups of 3-4. They work through challenging readings together, share evidence, create group thesis statements, analyze mentor texts, and read and edit each other’s work. I find that the smaller number allows a place for every voice, and I can easily monitor 7-8 groups to make sure they are staying on task and having productive discussions. When it is time to bring it back to the class as a whole, I ask groups to elect a spokesman to share out. Inevitably, there is at least one who doesn’t mind being the voice for the group, and while some students might never choose this role, I know that they at least participated in small group discussion.
Not every class discussion has to involve speaking. In silent discussion, students respond to stimuli (photographs, quotes, poetry, short articles) on a large piece of paper. They begin by commenting on the piece itself, but eventually respond to tablemates. The paper then moves to another group who continue the discussion. All of this is done in complete silence. For accountability, I require that students initial their comments, and discussions are usually followed with a short piece of personal writing to synthesize what they gained from the activity.
Technology affords us a whole new set tools for the engagement/assessment toolbox. My class does most work in Google Classroom where I can open threads for comment. There are also times when I create a document that the entire class can edit, for example, recently we were reading The Great Gatsby and exploring the idea of motif. I projected the class document and asked students to each find at least one mention of the weather from what we’d read so far and type it on the document. On my screen, I could see who was posting. If I wasn’t seeing someone post, I could simply walk over and check in individually. Groups then used the document to discuss how Fitzgerald had used the weather motif.
Mixers (aka Tea Parties)
This is a popular strategy in my department, and with good reason. It is an easy way to get the entire class moving and talking. Students adopt a particular persona, usually a character from a novel or person from history. They then must meet and gather information from others in the room. All discussion is one-on-one, and I find that most students buy in quickly, especially if I place a snack in the middle of the room. Often, shyer students hang back a little initially and might simply explain the character instead of fully taking on the persona, but they still engage, communicate, and gather information.
There comes a point in every writing unit where I want my students to read what they have written out loud, either as part of the editing process or to celebrate what they have written. Editing read-around happen in response groups where readers are instructed to listen for any hiccups as they read as a sign for a need for revision. Others in the group are asked to listen for at least one thing they like about the piece and to communicate that before asking questions or giving suggestions.
When we share as a class, I allow students to decide how much they want to share, maybe it’s the whole piece, or maybe it’s just a favorite sentence, and ultimately, though I encourage everyone to share something, I know that sometimes students have written something too personal to share with the entire class, and will not force their hand.
These are a few techniques I have had success with as I work to improve engagement in my classroom, and while in an ideal world, I would have 100% engagement 100% of the time, I know that bad days happen, and I respect the bad day. I try to think about the reasons behind an “I don’t know,” or a silent mouth because I fear that if I don’t and I force the voice, I will lose the chance to engage with that student permanently.