Retuning Engagement: Reflecting on K-12 Classrooms

Kindergarten classrooms are always a delight to visit. A few nights ago, my son showed me all the different learning centers in his. At first, it was overwhelming, but it soon came to life as he explained how he moves through the day. 

As a high school teacher, I have to admit that I can get a little bogged down in the content. That's why I love to see what the teachers are doing in the earlier years. It reminds me why kids come to school. It reminds me that the adolescents, however brilliant they can be, are still children with learning needs not dissimilar to what they experienced in kindergarten. 

It was the classroom routines that did it for me. My son was able to tell me the expectations and consequences for non-compliance in each area. That's great, but it was two thinking routines posted on the walls that grabbed my attention.

The first ...

1. Read the pictures.
2. Read the words. 
3. Retell the story.

And the second ...

1. Make connections with me.
2. Make connections with the text.
3. Make connections with the world.

Within the complexity of skills you may observe in my high school history classroom, these thinking routines are the fundamentals. Although I infuse them in every lesson, it's comforting to see them so distilled.

Spelling was done through song and movement. Ongoing work and communication to home were managed by the students through different color folders. There were clearly defined student jobs. And the word wall was alphabetical. The room was so well organized that I could see the kids completing their tasks.

"Their tasks." That's what makes their learning engaging. If it's something I want my students to do, engagement is at the whim of the individual. But when learning is designed to require ownership, engagement is infused in what it will take to be successful.

This leaves me with a reminder to empower my students. Make their learning their own. It reminds me that when I am doing most of the producing of original work, the scale is tipped in the wrong direction.

The takeaway from this visit to my son's classroom is to revisit Pernille Ripp's book on empowering students as well as Alan November's book on student ownership of the learning. Perhaps somewhere in my transition to a new school, in a new state, I got sidetracked and bogged down in the content. It's time to reinstitute the digital learning farm. 

My students deserve the best of me, and, more importantly, they deserve the best of themselves.