Sunday, January 19, 2014



Here's a quick tool to encourage engagement with more of your students.

The largest obstacle to student engagement is YOU, the teacher, our fearless leader.  Accept the following as givens, in most cases: There will always be those who love to sit in the front row, answer all the questions, and vie to be teacher's pets. There will always be daydreamers and sleepers.  There will always be an athlete, a nerd,  a disrupter, a clown, the in-crowders and the outsiders.

Lots of different personalities, different energies, different developing world views and experiences, different children in similar bodies, every day. This is both the challenge and the terror of teaching middle school.

Wait a minute.

I forgot the even more invisible forces lurking in and out of your classroom.  I forgot to mention the general role a student plays in the social power structure within their grade level population that exists outside your classroom.  Those dynamics can also affect student behavior within your classroom.  Don't be surprised when, even if you've done due-diligence and set a trusting, open tone, a fight breaks out in the back of the room over something that happened during recess.  Hopefully, no one will be hurt seriously and it will result in a teachable moment.  And, if that happens in your classroom, think of it this way: You had told them you were the classroom manager and you were determined to set a tone of trust.  Developmentally, some students don't consider the consequences of their actions.  A fight to them is a physical expression of their anger and frustration with a person and situation.  They feel an injustice or they feel righteous or they feel scared.  But they also knew, deep down somewhere,  that if they got into a fight in your classroom, you would step in to handle it firmly and fairly.  And that's what you'll end up doing.  Unless the other students set the example and break it up themselves.  In either case, this could be a key insight if it should ever happen to you.

Additionally, students bring their own unique family dynamics into class.  What's it like to be an only child?  A child of divorced parents?  A foster child?  How about the middle child of 5?  The only girl or boy?  The one who's always picked on by their bully-sibling?  Throw in some hormones, pimples, puppy love, broken hearts, teen drama, sprinkled with the daily pressures affecting a student's sense of self, and you've got your arms full.  Heck, you've got your truck full.  25-40 of the little darlings seemingly multiplying right before your eyes.  Kaleidoscoping in your class all at one time.

That's exactly why people who want to teach middle school are either certifiably insane, gluttons for punishment and self-immolation, or saints from another planet.

Back to my main point.

That's why setting the tone beginning Day One, right away, is so imperative.  As a matter of fact, this following activity presupposes that you've completed Day One and Day Two activities.  You already know every student's name and you've begun to open up the channels of communication through the Mail Bag activity.  You've established yourself as the center of gravity, the classroom manager, the one who is going to tame the lions and soothe the lambs and champion everyone's learning.

The picture above, a typical classroom in the U.S., is a mosaic of energies.  It's your duty, your responsibility, to create a flexible template for a dynamic classroom.  If you're to maximize learning, it is my strong belief that rigid


The tone you set also takes into consideration a general perception of risk and what that entails for students personally.  Taking a risk involves a certain level of both self-confidence and fear.    Fear of speaking in public, fear of being wrong, fear of not pleasing the teacher, fear of being made fun of, fear of being bullied, fear of being seen as smart, fear of being seen as stupid.

Fears are ameliorated by a sense of trust.  Self-confidence is bolstered by a trusting open environment conducive to risking safely.  A trusting, supportive, advocate for learning (that's you) makes overcoming negative perceptions of risk easier and more likely.  Risk must be framed in the context of Reward.  Risking, in and of itself, must be seen as Rewarding because that's where participating in life and learning takes place.

If we never take a risk, we'll never know what we don't know.  So, we have to allow risk so we come to know what we didn't previously know and we can build on that experience so we can reinforce knowing what we know as well as fight ignorance and misinformation to discover more of what we need to know.



In doing that,  in calling on the first student, the message you send to the rest of the class is, "Don't bother to participate if you're not fast enough to get the answer right away.  You've got to be fast and right in this class."

Participating becomes a speed sport.  The problem is, of course, minimal engagement ensues and learning opportunities lag and are lost.  A teacher can become a slave to their scope and sequence.  The tempo becomes part of their classroom management style, too. Keep things fast, orderly, rigid and structured. Keep the homework, tests and quizzes coming.  This tempo can be a path of least resistance given the state and school demands for covering content.  When teachers feel overwhelmed by the myriad of responsibilities they have to fulfill in addition to teaching, many teachers comfortably fall into this groove.

Bad messages all around.  A student's superficial understanding of concepts and an engagement disconnect are the usual consequences.


Instead of calling on the first student because, really, we already know you know the answer, tell the class you'll call on someone once you see 10 hands raised.  And then wait.  This automatically exerts gentle pressure to participate.  It may take 20-30 seconds or so.  But they'll do it, trust me, they'll do it.  Deep down, they ALL want to participate, to risk, in a safe environment to do so.  You've created that safety, you're modeling what it is to be an advocate for learning, students are responding to your energy, to your advocacy, and now's the time to reinforce the idea that Learning, just like life, is a Contact Sport.  You've got to make connections, teacher-to-student to learning-process.


While you're waiting for ten hands to be raised, you might have already heard the response heard 'round the world, "Oh, that's EASY!" from one of the more enthusiastic students.  You'll also know them by their "OH-OH-OH!!' sounds, their flailing arms, waving hands, holding their breath until their heads explode, kneeling up high in their desks so you can see them better, just dying for you to call on them.

I know.  Some of you are thinking, "Jeez, just call on the kid so we can get on with this!"

Not so fast.  Patience is a virtue in the classroom.  I want students to appreciate that value as well.  So here's my response to the overenthusiastic response of "Oh, that's SO EASY!!"

Gently, I remind them to remember that "What's easy for some is more challenging for others."


Participation is encouraged over speed in getting the answer correct.  When you first engage students in this activity, they will be surprised when you don't acknowledge the right answer when it's first offered.  They'll think something's wrong or they were wrong or they wonder what the right answer could be.  If they think they've heard the right answer and yet you hold off your acknowledgement, you'll see them lower their hands and you might see a little self doubt or confusion on their faces.  These are all good brain calisthenics.

The twist in engagement is this, because you want to encourage the reward of risk taking not just being the first to answer the question.  So,  instead of simply accepting the first answer, whether it's correct or incorrect, call on all those who have an answer.   Students are expecting you to stop when the right answer is offered.  Only you don't.  That way, you reinforce the value of participation over getting the answer right the fastest.

It might flow like this:

Teacher: "Yes, John, what say you?"
John: "George Washington"
Teacher "Good answer.  Who's got another one?  Yes, Susan."
Susan: John Adams
Teacher "Another good answer.  Anyone else?  Yes, Rachel."
Rachel: "Thomas Jefferson"
Teacher: "Excellent.  Anyone else have an answer?  All right then, raise your hand only once.  How many say it's George Washington?  How about John Adams?  Thomas Jefferson?"
Teacher: "All right.  Who KNOWS the answer, for sure?  Last call.  Jennifer?"
Jennifer: "George Washington."
Teacher: "Excellent.  Everyone got that?  Follow-up Questions?"

When you judge the end of the question/answer engagement has reached its crescendo, ask the class to respond to each of the possible correct answers with a show of hands for the most correct.  Again, engagement and participation is valued and risk is encouraged as a reward unto itself.

With this activity, so easy to modify within the context of your teaching, you've gone from a simple question/answer format, to encouraging risk and reward through wider participation, to reinforcing a trusting environment, to brainstorming and problem-solving, to opining and discussing, to resourcing, and resolution.

Powerfully simple.  Simply powerful.  Use it whenever.  It's a beautiful thing.

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