Thursday, May 24, 2012

Student Engagement - Part 3

Here are 3 steps (out of 10) to better student engagement according to math teacher and mentor Tristan De Frondeville. (His article originally posted on Edutopia:

Create an Emotionally Safe Classroom
Students who have been shamed or belittled by the teacher or another student will not effectively engage in challenging tasks. Consider having a rule such as "We do not put others downs, tell others to shut up, or laugh at people." Apply it to yourself as well as your students. This is the foundation of a supportive, collaborative learning environment. To learn and grow, one must take risks, but most people will not take risks in an emotionally unsafe environment.

Create a Culture of Explanation Instead of a Culture of the Right Answer

You know you have created a rich learning event when all students are engaged in arguing about the best approach to the assignment. When you use questions and problems that allow for multiple strategies to reach a successful outcome, you give students the opportunity to make choices and then compare their approaches. This strategy challenges them to operate at a higher level of thinking than when they can share only the "correct" answer. Avidly collect problems and tasks that have multiple paths to a solution. As a math teacher, I create problems that have a lot of numbers instead of the usual two. For example, I can present this problem:
5 + 13 + 24 - 8 + 47 - 12 + 59 - 31 - 5 + 9 - 46 - 23 + 32 - 60
Then I can say, "There are at least three fundamentally different strategies for doing the following problem. Can you find them all?"
Practice Using the Design Process to Increase the Quality of Work

Students in school get used to doing work at a consistent level of quality. Unfortunately, low-performing students get used to doing poor-quality work. To help them break the habit, use a draft-and-revision process.
Many professionals use such a design process to increase the quality of their work. Engineers build prototypes, respond to critical feedback, and refine their design before going into production. Artists make sketches of big works and revise their ideas before creating their final piece. Use the design process to drive your students to produce higher-quality work than they are used to doing when they create only a first effort. Include peer evaluation as part of the feedback they receive.

If I quickly summarize the three, I think of risk-free (or low risk), metacognitive, and zone or flow. I appreciate all three in classes that I have taken, and especially enjoy the design process. It reminds me of one of my favorite classes called Story Analysis run out of UCLA extension's screenwriting certificate program. My teacher, Barney (can't remember his last name), was passionate about exposing us to films that caused viewers to be in "the zone." You know, the movies that take you to a different place or time. You don't even think about the dialogue, acting, music because it is so well crafted. We were challenged to find stories that could take viewers to that place. I loved that class! It motivates me to create inspiring classes of my own.

How about you? What are some examples of favorite in-zone classes that you have taken or been a part of?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Student Engagement - Optimal Learning Experiences

Here's some more insight into "flow" and what it means to be in that creative, imaginative place both individually and within a small group. How could making "optimal learning" the priority in classrooms and schools make a difference? The short term effects are evident at the Key Learning Community School in Indianapolis. But, what about long term effects? What about mentoring students through "optimal learning" so that their interests and gifts match a future career?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was recently interviewed by Edutopia about "optimal learning experiences," and about the Key Learning Community school. Here is an excerpt:

What kinds of school activities are most (or least) likely to promote flow?

If you think of where kids have most flow in school, it's mostly in extracurricular activities like band, music, athletics, newspaper. In addition, if you look at academic classes, they would report flow especially when they work on team projects. That's the most enjoyable part of school. Next comes working on your own on a project and you can go down and the lowest one [in promoting flow] is listening to a lecture and audio/visual. Anything that involves them, that has goals where they can try to achieve, solve a problem, or do something it's going to be much more likely to produce flow.
And an example of a school whose primary focus and mission is "optimal learning:"

Can you describe a school that has succeeded in promoting flow?

The Key Learning Community in Indianapolis that you probably are also studying, they have tried very self-consciously also to include flow into their teaching methods and, I think, very successfully. Essentially, they do it in two different ways. One is that they have a space that is called the "Flow Room" where students can spend at least an hour a week to explore new materials and they don't have to do anything except get involved with whatever they are interested in doing. And this is one of the favorite spaces in the school for kids.
But more importantly, every teacher, whether they teach German or music or mathematics, is aware of how important it is for the kid to experience flow while learning because that would make them want to learn more. Teachers are trying to translate their own subject matter into ways the kid can become really involved immediately and they get clear goals and feedback and they get the challenge matched to their ability. That makes everyday learning hopefully much more motivating to the child so that they will look forward to the lesson rather than be afraid or bored by it.

Have you observed any especially innovative practices at The Key Learning Community?

One thing that the Key School did from the beginning was to hire a video technician and a video camera and they interviewed and videotaped every child at the beginning of the school year, asking them why they wanted to go school, what they hoped to achieve at the end of that year. And for the rest of the year, whatever project the kid was involved in got on the same tape. At the end of the year, the child could have a documentary of what he wanted to accomplish and what actually did happen. Now, to me, -- you know, you say, well, so what? -- I think psychologically, it's a very important thing because you are putting the responsibility for learning on the child. They are responsible for what they're going to learn.
What lessons can be learned from the success of the Key Learning Community?
The neat thing is that the eight teachers who started the Key schools were not really special in any way. They were typical, good, public school teachers who just were so tired of battling against inefficiency of the regular schools that they banded together to start something new. They were able to pull something out that is very rare, namely, they created an environment where kids love to learn, where you walk into school and you see them laughing and happy in a way that you rarely see them in school and involved in their serious stuff, they're doing very, very interesting projects.
So it's possible, but you need to have that kind of focus, single-minded determination that these eight people have because otherwise, it won't happen by itself. And throwing money at it is not necessarily going to help either, unless you give money to people who have that determination already.

The entire article is here:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Student Engagement - Flow

As a very good friend of mine says "good lessons merge meaningful content with engaging lessons." Can you remember a recent time when you were experiencing what Elena Aguilar calls "flow?" -- Working creatively with no concern for time passing? When was the last time we experienced this with our students? Aguilar challenges us to do just that and that doing so would transform our classrooms. What are your ideas about "flow?"

Beyond Student Engagement: Achieving a State of Flow

A former teacher and instructional coach, Elena Aguilar is now a transformational leadership coach in the Oakland Unified School District.

Think about a time when you were really engaged in something, the kind of engagement where you lose track of time and experience feelings of joy and satisfaction. You may have felt acutely focused, physically, mentally, and emotionally absorbed in a task. I've felt this most often while writing, reading, teaching, and coaching -- always signaled by the moment when I notice the clock and, feeling dazed, wonder where the hours have gone.
The feelings are pleasant and there are always outcomes, a chapter written, or a complicated dilemma unraveled, for example. It wasn't until I heard about the work of the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that I learned that this notion has a name: Flow.
I would like to urge the education community to move beyond a discussion of "engagement," with its vague definitions and murky attributes, to a conversation on flow; I'd like to propose that our task as educators is to increase the experiences of flow for students.

What is Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi has identified three conditions necessary to achieve a state of flow:
  1. The goals are clear (i.e. design an experiment which demonstrates xyz, write a persuasive essay, paint the ceiling of the chapel)
  2. The goals are attainable and within one's skillset and ability; and the challenge level and skill level are both high
  3. You get clear and immediate feedback so you can adjust your course
Intrinsic motivation is a key element that leads to experiences of flow; we have to want to engage in the challenging task. I doubt that anyone has every experienced flow with a worksheet or alphabetizing spelling words. Flow does not happen on the low end of Bloom's Taxonomy.

The Road to Mastery

I'm going to assume we all want students to master certain skills or standards, or show mastery of a domain of knowledge; flow is an essential to mastery. Flow doesn't guarantee mastery. I have seen many classrooms full of students who are engaged in an activity, but don't necessarily master any skills. But mastery is not attainable without flow. Flow happens in a moment while mastery takes years. And to push that notion a little farther, philosophers debate whether mastery can really be attained, which is exactly what makes pursuing it so appealing -- as soon as we reach what we think is mastery, we see another level of mastery farther ahead and so we seek to attain that level, and so on. But back to the concrete: Our students can master the craft of writing a persuasive essay, if, perhaps, they've had some moments of flow on their journey.

The Secret

Here's the secret to why it's really worth creating experiences of flow for our students: when they experience flow, we will too. When they're in their student zone of flow then the same will most likely be true for us: our goals are clear, the challenge is high, our skills match the challenge, and we're getting immediate feedback from kids and adjusting so that we can meet their needs and accomplish the goal. It's synergistic and beautiful!
This is why every lesson must have clear and laser-focused objectives -- not because an administrator is going to come in and ding you if they're not posted -- but because without an articulation of a clear goal, students can't attain flow. This is why we need to know what our students know and what they can do, and why we need to be acutely aware of their zone of proximal development (ZPD); this is why we need to do those diagnostics and KWLs, so we can match their skill level to an appropriately challenging task. This is why we need to design lessons and assignments that are rigorous and on the upper levels of Bloom's, that ask students to argue and debate, create, and evaluate.
And this is why we need to check students' understanding every 10 minutes and use a range of formative assessment strategies so then we can adjust course and ensure that they'll be successful with the task.
Of course, a clear learning objective won't ensure flow and there's much more to consider. But as an end goal, I'm proposing that flow should be part of our daily experience in school -- for students and teachers. Maybe we can't experience flow all day, every day, but maybe students and teachers can experience it more often than we do now.
Perhaps flow is the secret to transforming schools, retaining quality teachers, and keeping kids in school. I'm going to make a wild guess that kids who quit school have had very few experiences of flow within a classroom. Let's refocus our energies on creating the conditions for flow to be experienced in schools. We'd all benefit.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Student Engagement

One of the latest buzz words in the education arena is "student engagement." Heather Wolpert-Gawron, an 8th grade teacher and a California regional Teacher of the Year, surveyed all 220 of her students and came up with a top ten. Here's what her students had to say about what student engagement means to them:

1. Working with their peers
"Middle-school students are growing learners who require and want interaction with other people to fully attain their potential."
"Teens find it most interesting and exciting when there is a little bit of talking involved. Discussions help clear the tense atmosphere in a classroom and allow students to participate in their own learning."
2. Working with technology
"I believe that when students participate in "learning by doing" it helps them focus more. Technology helps them to do that. Students will always be extremely excited when using technology."
"We have entered a digital age of video, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and they [have] become more of a daily thing for teens and students. When we use tech, it engages me more and lets me understand the concept more clearly."
3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning
"I believe that it all boils down to relationships. Not relationships from teacher to student or relationships from student to student, but rather relations between the text and the outside world. For example, I was in a history class last year and my teacher would always explain what happens in the Medieval World and the Renaissance. And after every lesson, every essay, every assignment, he asked us, "How does this event relate to current times?" It brought me to a greater thinking, a kind of thinking where I can relate the past to the present and how closely they are bonded together."
"If you relate the topic to the students' lives, then it makes the concept easier to grasp."
"Students are most interested when the curriculum applies to more than just the textbook. The book is there -- we can read a book. If we're given projects that expand into other subjects and make us think, it'll help us understand the information."
"What I think engages a student most is interactions with real-life dilemmas and an opportunity to learn how to solve them. Also, projects that are unique and one of a kind that other schools would never think of. Also something challenging and not easy, something to test your strengths as a student and stimulate your brain, so it becomes easier to deal with similar problems when you are grown up and have a job. Something so interesting that you could never ever forget."
"I like to explore beyond the range of what normal textbooks allow us to do through hands-on techniques such as project-based learning. Whenever I do a project, I always seem to remember the material better than if I just read the information straight out of a textbook."
"I, myself, find a deeper connection when I'm able to see what I'm learning about eye-to-eye. It's more memorable and interesting to see all the contours and details of it all. To be able to understand and connect with the moment is what will make students three times more enthusiastic about learning beyond the black and white of the Times New Roman text."
4. Clearly love what you do
"Engaging students can be a challenge, and if you're stuck in a monotone, rambling on and on, that doesn't help...instead of talking like a robot, teachers should speak to us like they're really passionate about teaching. Make sure to give yourself an attitude check. If a teacher acts like this is the last thing they want to be doing, the kids will respond with the same negative energy. If you act like you want to be there, then we will too."
"I also believe that enthusiasm in the classroom really makes a student engaged in classroom discussions. Because even if you have wonderful information, if you don't sound interested, you are not going to get your students' attention. I also believe that excitement and enthusiasm is contagious."
"It isn't necessarily the subject or grades that really engage students but the teacher. When teachers are truly willing to teach students, not only because it is their job, but because they want to educate them, students benefit. It's about passion. That extra effort to show how it will apply to our own future."
5. Get me out of my seat!
"When a student is active they learn in a deeper way than sitting. For example, in my history class, we had a debate on whether SOPA and PIPA were good ideas. My teacher had us stand on either ends of the room to state whether we agree or disagree with the proposition. By doing this, I was able to listen to what all my classmates had to say."
6. Bring in visuals
"I like to see pictures because it makes my understanding on a topic clearer. It gives me an image in my head to visualize."
"I am interested when there are lots of visuals to go with the lesson. Power Points are often nice, but they get boring if there are too many bullet points. Pictures and cartoons usually are the best way to get attention."
7. Student choice
"I think having freedom in assignments, project directions, and more choices would engage students...More variety = more space for creativity." 
"Giving students choices helps us use our strengths and gives us freedom to make a project the way we want it to. When we do something we like, we're more focused and enjoy school more."
"Another way is to make the curriculum flexible for students who are more/less advanced. There could be a list of project choices and student can pick from that according to their level."
8. Understand your clients -- the kids
"Encourage students to voice their opinions as you may never know what you can learn from your students."
"If the teacher shows us that they are confident in our abilities and has a welcoming and well-spirited personality towards us, we feel more capable of doing the things we couldn't do...What I'm trying to say is students are more engaged when they feel they are in a "partnership" with their teacher."
"Personally, I think that students don't really like to be treated as 'students.' Teachers can learn from us students. They need to ask for our input on how the students feel about a project, a test, etc. Most importantly, teachers need to ask themselves, "How would I feel if I were this student?" See from our point of view and embrace it."
"Students are engaged in learning when they are taught by teachers who really connect with their students and make the whole class feel like one big family. Teachers should understand how the mind of a child or teenager works and should be able to connect with their students because everyone should feel comfortable so that they are encouraged to raise their hands to ask questions or ask for help."
"Teachers should know that within every class they teach, the students are all different."
9. Mix it up!
"I don't like doing only one constant activity...a variety will keep me engaged in the topic. It's not just for work, but also for other things such as food. Eating the same foods constantly makes you not want to eat!"
"Fun experiments in science class...acting out little skits in history...if students are going to remember something, they need visuals, some auditory lessons, and some emotions."
"Also, you can't go wrong with some comedy. Everyone loves a laugh...another thing that engages me would be class or group games. In Language Arts I've played a game of "dodge ball. We throw words at each other, one at a time. If they could get the definition, the person who threw the word would be out...Students remember the ones they got wrong, and of course, the ones they already knew."
10. Be human
"Don't forget to have a little fun yourself."
I'd like to end this post with one more quote, this one from my student, Sharon: "The thing is, every student is engaged differently...but, that is okay. There is always a way to keep a student interested and lively, ready to embark on the journey of education. 'What is that way?' some teachers may ask eagerly. Now, read closely... Are you ready? That way is to ask them. Ask. Them. Get their input on how they learn. It's just as simple as that."
Go on. Try it. Ask.
 (Heather's website is

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