Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Quicky: Engaging Students - What Does That Have To Do With Literacy?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend of mine who related 
a simple story to me which bears repeating.

As a storyteller, my friend often visits schools with no more than her voice and her body, charged with the task of entertaining and engaging students with stories for 30 minutes.  She is superb at what she does and, after her presentation, she overheard this conversation.

"I just don't get it," said one teacher to another.


"We have all kinds of bells and whistles, quick response exercises, hand and sound signals, technology and yet our kids are always all over the place.  This lady comes in with her voice and a story and suddenly then are mesmerized.  What's with that?"

What is Engagement?

Now certainly familiarity may be a part of this equation but I believe the question is worth pondering.  I also see it, not so much as a judgement of tools, but as a question - how do I engage my students?  Certainly with our tech savvy children of today, our various technology tools are important.  But there is something deeper behind whether those tools work in classrooms or not.  The real questions are

"What authentic teaching can I do that will capture their interest?": 

"Am I so much on the "delivery" channel that I've forgotten the power of teaching?"

The topic is certainly a bit broader than literacy but I see literacy as the doorway to engaging students. What about you?

Michigan State University's National Center for Research on Teacher Learning attacks the issue with some important information:  "Faced with the concerns for classroom time and "effective" use of it, can put difficult demands on teachers.  What it often comes down to is how good are we at helping students construct meaning, including having time to discuss and explore?

Take that back to literacy.  

Are we so into "drill and skill" - repeat the rule back fast - that we forget that education includes thinking?  I've met children who are compliant word callers and decoders but they don't have a clue of how to use reading as a tool to get information they need, to analyze and synthesize what is presented in the text.  Here are a few literacy-related questions to think about in your own teaching:

1.  Do you use read-alouds daily to engage and foster thinking about text?  Engaged Interactive Read Aloud techniques, covered in my new book Before They Read, are a most efficient means of exposing to student what great readers do when they read).

2.  Do you let the size of the class keep you on the "controlling" channel instead of the learning, exploring channel with students?  Professor Deborah Ball shows us how to avoid this pitfall. 

3. What is your goal for any literacy lesson you teach?  The goal MUST always be to nurture and foster the growth of an independent, thinking reader.  It can never simply be what I call "reguritation of facts" even when we are teaching facts.  What do those facts mean?  What is their significance?  Those are much more improtant questions..

4.  What does your writing instruction look like?  Writer's Workshop is a terrific approach to that authentic, engaging, interaction that needs to happen when students are creating text.

Introspection Improves Teaching

Dr. Deborah Stipek of Stanford University says,

 Teachers can motivate students only if they themselves are motivated.  They can make students feel valued and secure only if they feel valued and secure; they can foster enthusiasm for learning in students only if they are enthusiastic about teaching. The school culture can make or break a teacher in the same way that the classroom culture can support or undermine students' efforts to learn.

This thought-provoking paragraph is from her book Motivation To Learn:  Integrating Theory and Practice.

Why not use these questions as a basis for a staff or grade-level meeting?  They really boil down to whether we as teachers are sending learners to the next level or out into the world or whether we are so focused on them passing the "eternal test" that we end up providing only short-term memory/learning.  These questions also tie to the reality of the most common subjects of those meetings: 

how do we get more students to "benchmark" or pass the assessments?

Are you motivated?  If not, how do you change that?

Engagement for both students and teachers is key.

How do you motivate yourself for the challenge of the daily classroom?  How have you equipped yourself with a mastery of the subject matter so you have the freedom to engage your students and teach?  Share your secrets.

Your comments as the authentic voice in the classroom every day is essential on this topic.  I look forward to reading your posts.

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