This is a longer version of a post that I edited down for Edutopia. You can read the full version here or the shorter version there.
As part of my family’s summer travels we stayed with some friends who had recently moved into a new house. They discussed wanting to change a light over their table to a ceiling fan and I happily volunteered to take on the task. Here was a chance to offer something to them as thanks for hosting us and a way to help them improve their new home.
Once the electricity was off, the old fixture was down, and I opened the large cardboard box with the new fan my goal was clear. There was no need to remind myself to focus or pay attention. The fan needed to be mounted over the open hole in the ceiling and working before people began to arrive for the five year old’s birthday party that was beginning in three hours. I sorted the various pieces, regularly consulted the instructions, and slowly, a fan began to take shape.
After about half an hour my arms had become heavy from holding pieces up while standing on the ladder but my mind was interested only in the process. I went to unscrew the plate covering the old light switch and skipped a breath when I saw what was inside. There were more than two black wires. The fixture was on a three way switch and the new fan switch was not compatible. This was unexpected– my friends hadn’t told me that this was a three way switch!
At this point I was not separate from my task. I had become what I was doing. Because the fan was controlled by a special switch, I had to figure out how to change the circuit from a three way to a single pole and then finish with the fan installation. I took a brief pause to look at the scene: the table was pushed to the side of the room, the drop cloth and ladder were covered with tools and fan parts. Without wasting more time I dashed towards the computer to get the information that I needed to proceed.
Sadly, moments of full immersion are not the memories that most of us have from when we were students. Yet, it is clear that schools, and learning would be so much more powerful and effective if students were so deeply connected to their work. What would it take for students to regularly experience the type of engagement where they cannot be distracted and become lost in their work?
Learning that leads to deep engagement needs to be thoughtfully and carefully structured to work for many different types of learners. One of the wonderful challenges of our craft is to structure learning so that it draws in young people with many different interests, abilities, and skill levels.
My experience with the fan involved a task with a clear final product. I was motivated to succeed and had a deadline. I encountered a challenge midway and needed to do more research in order to solve the problem. My past experiences have taught me how to quickly find the information that I needed to move forward with the project.
Similarly, deep student engagement usually requires a challenge of creating something or figuring something out. Students also often need help or modelling along the way to help them overcome obstacles and challenges or to improve the quality of their work. Engagement is usually lost when learners are asked to figure things out alone and they don’t have the tools, experience, or problem-solving skills to proceed.
An Action Plan for the Year
When I plan for my classes I first think about the desired outcomes for my students before I design specific unit and lessons. This process, which is explained in Understanding by Design, has helped me not only as a curriculum designer but also as a professional with larger goals of growth.
Each new school year is an opportunity for me to develop new skills and try out different strategies with my classes. This year I want to use backwards design to plan for deeper student engagement. I’ve come up with a list of different strategies that I plan to regularly refer to as I plan my courses throughout the year:
I strive to find ways to have my students do work that has meaning in the world, beyond classroom walls. As I plan I will attempt for there to always be a rationale for learning content and and a clear reason for doing the work that we are doing. In the past I have had success designing projects that grapple with current issues or are created for an outside audience. I hope to do more of this.
Just like my own process with the fan, I want to remember that learning is most powerful when it is a process of investigation and discovery. I want to be sure that my students regularly experience the power of these processes and that I do what is necessary to make this possible.
Collaboration makes me a better teacher. I want to find ways to set up new collaborations with both teachers and organizations.
Integrating the Arts
We are all creative beings and when I structure learning and projects well all students feel excited about expressing their ideas creatively.
Presentation & Performance
Engagement is greater when students are creating work that has a wider audience. Whenever possible I want students to present and/or perform their work. Sometimes this can mean presenting or performing for the class and at other times I want to find interested or relevant audiences that can witness and respond to student work. (Here is an example of a student project posted to Youtube.)
When I am smart and strategic about how I integrate technology into my classroom, it allows my students to make their work stronger and reach larger audiences. (Here is an example of a student paper posted to a blog with an accompanying digital story.) I want to make sure that when I use technology it is for a clear purpose and that it helps me achieve the goals above and my larger goal of increased engagement.
After feeling completely spent each June, I am grateful to have time to plan, reflect, and strategize over the summer before I begin each new school year. This “time off” is time that allows me to refocus my teaching and do the big picture planning that helps me to continually become a more effective practitioner.
This summer I was reminded that deep engagement is a powerful process that all learners should be able to experience. As educators it is important that we continually strive to find new ways to help students discover their passions and abilities so that they can become truly immersed in the joys and struggles of learning and growing.