In honor of the upcoming Hallmark holiday, I thought I would talk about everyone’s favorite topic of engagement. In the beginning of any relationship engagement is high. Everything is new. Both parties dote on one another sparing over who hangs up first, sending sweet nothings, and eyes are on the prize. Will this relationship be the one that lasts? Will this be your forever partnership?
I like to relate this same concept to learning. When I am excited and I buy into what I am learning, I am eager to learn. When I think back to the freedom high school offered of selecting classes, I remember being ecstatic that I finally had some say in my courses. Even better was college, when you were able to register for the courses you wanted/needed with that professor you absolutely loved. These courses were sure to be engaging and hold my interest, and you can bet if they didn’t that instructor was not on my list for a repeat performance.
However, at the middle school level students have no choice in the partnerships they are assigned to. They are scheduled classes and the teachers that instruct them. At the this level there is little, if any, choice offered in classes let alone instructors. Engagement is a tough battle and takes work from both the instructor and the student.
Much like a new relationship, one must work at getting to know their students, learning what their educational needs are, and figuring out exactly what is takes to spark a student’s interest. Cautionary tale: No two middle school students are exactly the same, hence what engages one will not engage the rest.
We need to be prepared to adjust, as our middle school students are rapidly changing so are their interests, attitudes, and perceptions. Engaging the minds of middle school learners is not a task for the faint of heart. The one tried and true method of engaging learners in this age range is by offering them choice. Allowing them to feel empowered by giving them decision making power is usually going to result in a win, unless they are not passionate about any of their choices.
My solution for those students who find no interest in any choice offered, if the coveted proposal. No, I am not saying to offer them a diamond ring as a bribe to do the work without complaint. I am not saying to ask them to accept one of the choices as the best fish in the sea and accept it for what it is either. After all, these choices will quickly result in bumpy relationships and potential dates with lawyers to sever the relationship in question.
I am instead asking you to trust your learners to offer you a proposal for an alternative project to demonstrate their learning. Allow them to propose how they want to demonstrate mastery over the content. You may be impressed, shocked, or amazed at the ideas students have for how to best show their understanding and growth. For some of our students it might be a video demonstrating the content they’ve mastered, for others an illustration or diagram. Students passionate about music may chose to choreograph and perform an interpretive dance, write a rap, or write and record a song. As long as their project achieves the goal of demonstrating their learning, what is wrong with giving them the gift of choice?
You may find that with increased choice, engagement is up, and love is in the air again for learning! In February I challenge you to offer at least one choice to your learners. Feel free to start small and offer a choice in partners to work with, or tools to use to complete a project. Or go with gusto and allow students to convince you, propose to you the best method for them to showcase their learning. Allowing our independence seeking, growing, changing learners some say in what they are doing will definitely make them happy and ensure their engagement. Don’t believe me. Ask them! (Seriously, use the survey below to ask your students about the lesson.) You may find it informative.
Seeking your students’ input on your lessons will also allow them to feel you value their opinions and give them a positive outlet for their voice. Don’t take this feedback personally. All good relationships need tweaking sometimes, even the student/teacher one.
When your partner in crime stops working hard to woo you; the posies stop popping up, surprise visits stall, or texts slip to the wayside you feel less engaged in the relationship. This too is very real for our students. We need to continue to evaluate our lessons and strive to better engage them in their learning, or they will slowly disengage. By seeking our students’ opinions and offering them choices we increase their buy in and engagement.