The Pursuit of Lively Student Engagement

Perhaps it was a hint that I should've been more aware of in my youth, but I've always had a way with talking to younger people. When I first became a teacher my family pointed to my ability command the attention of other kids at various family and community functions. Apparently I've had a way about me that helps get honest conversations going.

In my teaching I've sought to keep that sort of tradition going. There is no greater force in a classroom than a group of students who can listen intently and respond genuinely. In an American cultural context, back in my days in Philadelphia, class discussion was always interesting. The student body often had quite the cadre of charismatic and vocal young men and ladies. Of course there will always be quiet ones--students hesitate as much as they think about the discussion material, and yes there is apathy. I will say this though, there never felt like there was total silence.

Total silence is what made my first few months in Taiwan a challenge for me. It was my first time where I encountered total reverent silence in response to my normal routine of enticing my students to join in on the fun of class discussion. It had been suggested by my colleagues that more often than not our students preferred to remain quiet, and to let the teacher do most of the talking. Why? My belief is the difference of cultural context. My students came into my classroom with a different lens and set of expectations than my own. So for the first few months, outside of infrequent clarifying questions, my classroom was relatively one-sided with regard to discussion.

A lot has changed since then.

I'm a big believer in teacher inquiry research. A simple understanding of it is this; combine what academia thinks, what other teachers think, and most importantly include what you think. No teacher, no matter how many years of teaching they have under their belt, is any less the educated and trained professional than their peers. Take that combination of academia, the thoughts of yourself and your peers; then envision you classroom as a lab of sorts. Use that lab to try out new ideas, reflect and adjust. Pursue new questions as you struggle to achieve success and growth. It's a paradigm shift from what we often think of when considering "expert" status and teacher development. Normally we wait for PD sessions and for a consecrated expert to hand to us answers from on high. While the experience of good a PD session cannot be understated, I'd suggest that perhaps teachers should begin by looking to each other and their school community first. For some great reading on this topic I'd suggest checking out the work of  Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle.

My pursuit of a more lively classroom began with a simple question, "How can I encourage greater participation that is student centered and primarily student-owned." The pursuit and a general rise in student participation first focused on building student understandings that the textbook and I were not the central fountain of knowledge in the classroom. At first we embraced a once-a-week seminar session, to give the students a schedule to cling to. My primary focus in this effort was to help establish the norm once-a-week that I was merely another person in our discussion circle. I later found greater success when I removed myself from the circle entirely (you can't focus on me and ignore your peers if I'm not sitting face-to-face with you). Students were tasked with the responsibility of sharing discussion facilitation. One student in particular was also assigned the task of writing up our discussion agenda complete with questions. I, of course, helped revise and finalize the student discussion agenda in the early weeks.

The format I used for the class was the Harkness Discussion method. I did a lot of reading and research prior to starting, here's a brief intro to the method's history, and here's a good teacher model. I used these resources as a starting point for understanding the method in a teaching and learning context. I also spoke with the ever-wonderful Mr. Choquette who had prior experience utilizing the method. I was able to pick up some good tips for mapping the discussion and providing student feedback. His early ideas on mapping the discussions helped me evolve and come up with my own system and style.

Here's what I mean by "mapping the discussion."

In the two years since beginning implementation of this method in my World History AP (WHAP) class and Honors Geography course I've seen a few simple results:

  1. A general increase in prior to class student prep, and in-class participation.
  2. The students are generally more at ease with one another and myself.
  3. A rise in student confidence during classes outside of seminar class periods.

Perhaps the best outcome of utilizing this method was student improvement upon my initial thoughts and plans. Here's the handout I give my students to clarify the seminar expectations:

The students, in their efforts to resolve questions before moving on and to give a clear sense of the material covered, developed a practice in between discussion topics. The method is called "chainsawing." In short, before the group permits itself to move forward from one discussion topic/question to the next, the student facilitator elects one of their peers to recap what was covered during the topic/question. The students then signal they are ready to move on by making chainsaw noises and moving their arms in a "sawing" motion. Why chainsaws? Two reasons: 
  1. A particularly charismatic and intelligent young-lady had made chainsaws in general a bit of class joke. 
  2. The students likened the act of recapping to "sawing up the topic/question into its basic parts to allow for easier understanding." 
It's an unorthodox title, but I love it. I've incorporated this device into all of my classes now, and all the students upon first learning about how to chainsaw always have a good laugh; it endears them to the process. I can dig it.  

Where are we with this today?

Last week my WHAP class kicked off our weekly seminars with a discussion World Civilizations Chapter 7: Abbasid Decline and the Spread of Islam to South and Southeast Asia. I modeled the facilitator's role, here's the agenda I created for my students.

This week my students take on their first solo seminar. They'll be discussing Chapter 8 and the topic of Islam's spread to Africa. I'm excited to see what they'll come up with.

No comments:

Post a Comment