One of my professors in college called it “magic pixie dust,” the ability of experienced teachers to effortlessly engage students. Student engagement is a nebulous area of practice; it is hard to define and measure. Further, how does one discern authentic engagement from compliance out of fear of punishment. Early in my career I equated a perfectly quiet classroom with engagement. As I have become more confident in my practice, I have gained appreciation for the boisterous characteristics of a class where students are discussing, debating, and sharing research; however, there are still frequent times when I want to transition from that to quiet independent work. Transitioning between the two while maintaining student engagement is difficult and figuring out how to manage it has been a focus of mine the past couple of years. There are a couple strategies I have found work well.
Keep Students Accountable to Their Peers
Following a lively debate, I once asked a class to settle down and engage in silent reading of a class text. The energy created by the debate made this task ostensibly impossible. I wanted to avoid chastising the class as I disfavor the mood it creates. I also did not want to alter the lesson plan and eliminate something I felt was crucial just to get the behavior I wanted. A suggestion I received from a colleague I discussed this problem with proved to do the trick for the following periods. He advised next time to simply announce how many students had already gotten on task to prompt further engagement.
Next period after giving directions to settle into silent reading after the debate, I waited until about half the class began the task. Then I announced to the class, “I see 50% of us have begun the silent reading, which is good.” This statement prompted more to get on task. Saying then, “I see 80% of us are now on task” prompted the remaining students to get on task. Within two minutes, everyone was reading silently. The investment of time was worth it. This was not magic pixie dust. The use of inclusive language created ownership, inviting students to view the request as “our” task, not solely the teacher’s. Further, verbally rewarding those who were already on task instead of chastising those who were not prompted students to seek the same reward, keeping them accountable to the behavior of their peers. I could have structured the lesson to begin with the reading, but this strategy allowed other factors to dictate the structure of the lesson, not solely student engagement.
Keep Students Accountable to Course Content
Everyone wants to appear intelligent in public. If students know they could be required to share out to the class, then they are likely to put effort into the preceding task in order to be prepared. Having discussion maps numbering seats at a table group provides a simple and
quick way to establish such accountability. While the maps may initially be used to structure different discussions, they can also be used to randomly require responses after discussion or any task for that matter. For example, I might invite a table group discussion, letting students know one person from each group will share to the whole class. After discussion, I then might request that threes among the groups share out. Knowing that any one of them could be the one to share keeps each student engaged in order to be prepared just in case. It is not pixie dust, but rather human psychology.
Accountability is central for authentic student engagement and there are many ways to utilize it. How might the above strategies work in your classroom? What are strategies you use that leverage accountability?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.