Learner Engagement Part 2 (of 5)

Last week I had the honor of speaking with dedicated and passionate educators at the Nebraska State Reading Association. In my first session, From Frustration to Freedom: Intervention for Adolescent Striving Readers, I had what some would consider a rocky start. It was scheduled right away at 8:00 a.m. As I began to introduce myself, so did the presenter who was on microphone next door. We were in a divided ballroom. As we waited for my colleague to find help, I found myself telling a story of how I am a recovered Type A secondary English teacher. Trying not to get distracted by the other presenter’s voice pouring in over the speakers, I shared with the audience how I used to pride myself on not wasting a single minute of class time. I had a neat classroom, desks in rows. Turn-in trays for each hour of class. Strict rules for conduct in class. Every lesson was prepared meticulously. I learned, though, through my doctoral research that the science didn’t necessarily back my practice. Apparently, my Type A practices might actually be impeding student engagement and achievement. While we definitely don’t want chaotic classrooms and we know that organizational structures and cleanliness can ease student anxiety, the reality was my need for control was actually increasing stress and reducing motivation and engagement.

Soon a hero arrived and fixed the audio so our participants didn’t have to try to decipher two presentations. He received applause from the group. I went on to share more of my journey to release control to my learners and open up choice in my own classrooms. By doing that, I actually had many more engaged students, far fewer discipline issues, and greater academic success. Two of the most critical lessons I learned were that choice doesn’t equate free reign and releasing control isn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

Choice doesn’t mean free for all

When I was teaching at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, MN, I was part of several professional learning communities. One was with my grade alike, subject alike colleagues. Others were organically formed based on a collective inquiry topic. I helped facilitate a group of teachers especially interested in reading John T. Guthrie’s book Engaging Adolescents in Reading. Our group especially loved the tools Guthrie included in the book. He has a self assessment we could take as we reflected on own practice. He has surveys we can give students to gain perspective on their perception of how engaging our classes are. We decided to not just read the book, but to utilize the tools, set a goal, and try on the instructional practices Guthrie suggested. We would give students the survey again at the end of the year to see how we did meeting our goals. My self-assessment told me I needed to let go of my control. I was sure that is what they would say too because I am fondly referred to by my family members as micromomager. When I got my students’ results, they said I needed to give them more choice. Hmmm. . .humbled. So I set forth on my journey to both give more choice and release control to my students. My colleagues chose other focus areas based on the data they collected.

Guthrie states, “Students must want to read, write, and learn for themselves” (p. 34). While I knew this, I really didn’t realize that by assigning the same novel, the same type of paper, and the exact same structure for the informative speech to each and every learner I was not only decreasing their motivation, I was actually increasing the likelihood of mediocrity. So I moved toward “managed choice”. Instead of all of us reading Night by Elie Wiesel, we explored his statement that “Hate is not the opposite of Love, Indifference is” through multiple choice texts. Because I was teaming with a U.S. History teacher, we chose to stay in the era of the Holocaust and interrogate whether or not we agreed with Mr. Wiesel. We still studied Night by starting each day with a read/think aloud. We skipped some parts. And I could let go of my need to control every thought about the book. In the past we took a traditional approach. We read. We quizzed. We wrote. We tested. Students were always trying to figure out what was in my head. I didn’t realize it until I tried the unit this way. When I allowed them to choose, read, write, talk, debate, discuss, write some more, talk some more, read some more, I saw and heard insights I hadn’t even considered. For those of you reading this thinking, “No duh!” You are blessed to have known how to do this. I grew up being a star traditional English student so I led my classroom in that same traditional way. I needed my group of colleagues to push me. I needed the expert other of Guthrie to give me new ideas and to challenge my thinking. And I definitely needed the resilience and flexibility of my students to allow me to learn alongside them.

Releasing control leads to a more engaged classroom
“Excessive teacher-centeredness is more disengaging than we imagine. At the same time, excessive student-centeredness may be unproductive. Our goal is to move from teacher overcontrol to student empowerment” (p. 35). Yes Dr. Guthrie, this is indeed the goal and the incredible challenge.

Two concrete changes I made included:

1. Students created the class “rules”. We called them our community norms instead. Once we agreed, I printed them, everyone signed them (including me), and I posted them as a reminder that we agreed to be prepared, show kindness and respect, do our absolute best, not be afraid to make mistakes or fail, maximize our learning time together, and show maturity. Any time a norm was not adhered to we respectfully revisited our agreements.

2. Students co-constructed the rubrics with me. When we set forth on a new “publication”, we began by deconstructing examples, noticing effective and ineffective characteristics. We then moved toward how we will know when we have effectively shown x, y, z in our final publication. Not only did this provide ownership and release control to students, it also led to MUCH BETTER final products.Total win for the investment placed in the co-construction process.

So back to my workshop session at the Nebraska State Reading Conference. I left my time in the heartland energized. I could tell by the discussion there was a room filled with teachers who loved their learners and were inspired to continue to use the instructional practices the science and research said worked for engagement, abandon those that don’t, and try on some new ones. I quickly checked my email between sessions and saw this from one of the conference attendees in my inbox. I was excited. Someone already wanted to reach out and share in my excitement. Then I read,

“Thank you for sharing your experiences of creating an intervention class that truly made an impact.
I am really glad I came back to this session. I saw an error in your first slide when i walked in and so I left. I realized that I may miss a great presentation because I was being judgmental over a simple spelling error.
But just so you do not have others that may notice I want to let you know that adolescent is misspelled on your opening slide. Have a safe trip back to Minnesota.”

The old me, the Type A me, would have been mortified. I did look back at my slide and did notice that I had missed a letter in the word adolescent–a true typo– as I write that word daily in my work. The old me would have written back with a kind note letting her know that she might want to be sure her “I” is capitalized when using it as a pronoun. Instead, I chuckled, considered the irony, and responded with, “Thanks so much for pointing that out to me.” It is truly freeing to let go of control!

Tune in next month when we explore why Reading is Social!