What does the following video have to do with the topic of student engagement?

Well, even if you’re not interested in the answer to this question, this video is definitely worth watching for a good laugh!

What’s not so funny though is the topic of student engagement (or lack thereof).

I ended last week’s post describing how students can easily lose sight of purpose.  Students had just completed creating and publishing a video lesson teaching how the regional geography of a specific Native American tribe impacted the tribe’s culture.  The food they ate.  The clothes they wore.  The tools they used.  And so on.  One last time, here’s an example of the finished product:

[vooplayer vooid=’ODA2NDQ=’ width=’542′ height=’318′]

After the writing and social studies unit were finished, I distributed to each student an index card and posed the following:

In your own words, explain the “big idea” of the unit and provide one supporting example.

I orally provided a sentence starter for the class:  “The big idea of our unit on American Indian cultural regions is….”

I collected the index cards and assessed them using the following criteria:

Green:  understood the big idea

Yellow:  somewhat understood the big idea

Red:  did not understand the big idea

Here’s a screenshot of the results:

Image-1 (1)


The remaining students not seen in the first screenshot

To be honest, I was a little disheartened.  Here’s why:

As teachers, we do many things to make concepts “stick.”

We tap into background knowledge.

To begin the unit, students used an online map, part of the online component of our social studies program, to plot surfboards, skis, and canoes according to the geographical locations of where these objects would be found.  Discussions ensued about the connection between the activities we see today and the regional geography of where those activities are found.

We break down information using graphic organizers.

Students used several graphic organizers along the way, including the ones shown in last week’s post.

We provide visuals.

Laminated visuals were placed on the board as we worked through each section of the unit, along with visuals placed on classroom maps. Students also drew and plotted visuals using online tools.

We use anchor charts to display and reference information.

In my classroom, there is a social studies timeline that grows as we move throughout the curriculum.  Coinciding with the pictures and descriptions that comprise the timeline are, on sentence strips, the enduring understandings, including Regional geography impacted the development of Native American societies.

We create engaging tasks.  

Students loved doing the screencasts. I don’t think that was the problem.

We spend time finding engaging and quality instructional material. 

Ted-Ed as a mentor video.  Quality.

We create heterogeneous groups.

We use preferential seating. 

We use randomization techniques, such as “pick-me sticks.” 

We use “turn and talks” or “think-pair-shares.” 

We use self-assessment techniques.

We meet with students individually and in small groups, giving precise feedback.  

We have students reiterate that feedback, in their own words, to increasing understanding and retention.

I could continue with the number of things we as teachers do, all in an effort to maximize results and increase learning outcomes.

So what happens when those results aren’t actualized?  Where’s the breakdown?

I believe things, such as certain math concepts, are cognitively above the developmental level of some students.  But the targeted learning outcome here?  I think all of my students are plenty capable of understanding it.

I could reason with myself and say, “Hey, imagine what the results would look like had I not been doing all these things?” Or perhaps I could just conclude, “Some kids don’t listen and/or aren’t invested in their learning.”

Or maybe I could shift the onus to myself.  Am I doing something wrong as a teacher?

I tell my students that at the end of every lesson, there should be a deliberate and mental practice of reflecting, “What is the one thing I can take away from this?”  I tell them that they should make this a habit with anything they do.  After an instrumental lesson. After a basketball game.  After play rehearsal.  Whatever it may be.  And that it’s all these little takeaways – over time – that makes someone extraordinary.

We should be striving to be extraordinary teachers who produce extraordinary students who turn into extraordinary human beings.

So, following my own advice, what is my one takeaway after assessing student understanding of this unit only to find less than optimal results?

Before I answer this, let me first state that I showed my students the cat vs. mailman video.  They found it funny of course.  But with it I sought to convey the notion of engagement.

I referenced the cat.  The cat sitting on the window sill.  Waiting.  Looking.  Listening.  All for the mailman to deliver the mail.  And when that mail comes, that cat goes after it. The cat is engaged!

I explained that we as teachers are mailmen of sorts.  Mailmen with messages that we’re constantly delivering. Messages to be opened up. Through the words we speak, through the gestures we make, through the activities we plan.

But in order for that message to be received, they need to engage!

I explained that their ears should be perking up, just as if they were the cat in the video and heard the mailman coming to the door.  Elaborating further, I went on to tell them that this should happen when I say things like:

“This is really important…”
“You need to know this….”
“This is a big idea…”
“Here’s the takeaway…”
“Today I want to teach you…”

And then it struck me.   How often am I explicitly teaching listening skills?  And by this, I don’t mean “talking” about listening skills.  I mean really teaching them.  Teaching things like:

Listening for signal words/phrases. (Like the ones above)

Paying attention to intonation and/or body language. (From both peers and teacher)

Determining importance (“Hmm,” the student should think to him/herself, “I’m noticing my teacher has posted this on the wall. Must be pretty important!”)

Self-monitoring and fix-up strategies (How am I doing?  What can I do to get to where I need to be?)

A lot of the above is commonplace in good reading instruction, but in “good listening instruction?”

Good listening instruction.”  That just sounds foreign, right?  And what does that even look like?

But maybe that’s what we need more of.

For sure there are a lot of forces at work in terms of student engagement.  The onus is not just on the teacher.  Many times teachers are providing a surplus of ways for students to access and tap into the information and concepts, and the axiomatic statement proves true:  “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.”

However, as teachers, are we spending enough time explicitly teaching listening skills?  And so, this finally brings me to my takeaway:

If we aspire to have students engage to the fullest extent, maybe we should take a step back.  TEACHERS are constantly using a repertoire of strategies to increase student engagement, but perhaps we also have to look more at teaching STUDENTS a repertoire of strategies to engage THEMSELVES.