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Helping Students Find Their Voice

When I attended college, some of my favorite classes were those in which I felt empowered in how I pursued my studies. When my professors provided options, valued my opinion, and shifted the responsibilities for learning over to me, my level of engagement increased dramatically.

That college student is now a middle school math teacher with her own room full of students, and I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of fostering student voice in my classroom.

Student Voice describes how students provide input into what happens in their school and their classroom.

One of my goals as a math teacher is to help my students see themselves, their ideas, and their thoughts reflected in the required curriculum. Student voice does not mean student takeover. To the contrary, the idea of students having a voice in what they learn, when they learn it, and how they learn it leads to collaborative opportunities to increase engagement and facilitate deeper student learning.

Even though my classroom is primarily built upon structures that foster independence, it’s still a shift for me to scale back the responsibility for student learning from me as their teacher and place it with them as the learners. Over the years, I’ve made deliberate decisions about how to approach the content and ensure that it’s delivered through a student-centered lens. I’ve reflected about each decision and considered how the shift to a classroom culture that values and supports student voice has impacted the overall learning of my students.

While I don’t have any hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines that I follow to help ensure that student voice is at the forefront of my instructional decisions.

1. Create Classroom Norms Together

Norms and rules are not the same things. Rules help to establish the practices and procedures that allow tasks to be completed in classrooms. Norms provide teachers and students with shared agreements about how best to support one another and learn from and with one another, and they help create a culture of and for learning.Developing norms with my students has allowed them to have a voice in the structure of our classroom, which helps to contribute to a positive classroom culture.

As I began to infuse student ideas and suggestions into our classroom expectations, I began to see the value in co-creating these norms rather than creating them independent of my students.

Collaboratively creating norms helped me better understand what my students valued and what was important to them. During the creation of our class norms, it was apparent that students appreciated the chance to give their opinions and thrived on the opportunity to hear what their peers thought as well. These norms continue to provide the structure upon which our classroom culture was established. We review the norms periodically and add things when needed. Occasionally we adjust our norms in order to better meet the changing nature of our classroom.

To this end, our classroom culture depends on the students upholding the norms that we create together. When students interact with each other during collaborative problem solving, it’s an understood norm that each student will have a responsibility for contributing to the discussions during the group work. Further, my students understand that every voice in the group is important and will be valued.

I do get students who, from time to time, deviate from the norm. But because I’ve established with my students the expected behaviors, they are quick to reset the conversation and get back to the business at hand.

Norms don’t need to be elaborate. I’ve found that establishing a number of expectations regarding how students treat one another in class provides students with the opportunity to see and hear their voice reflected in our classroom practices. When I establish norms with my students, we focus on what language is and isn’t acceptable during classroom collaboration and discussion and the responsibility that each student has in contributing to their own learning and the learning of others. For example, my students understand that they are expected to be their own best advocates and ask questions accordingly. Their questions help me differentiate my instruction and enable me to reflect on my practices in order to better meet their needs. I expect my students to communicate with me and with one another, especially when things get challenging.

It’s also equally important that students learn to trust me and to trust their classmates. Our norms reflect my students’ deep desire to learn from one another and their willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Rules might govern student procedures in my classroom, but norms help to facilitate a classroom culture conducive to student responsibility and student learning.

2. Foster Feedback and Flexibility

Perhaps no other educator tool has the potential to elicit change and facilitate student responsibility more than feedback between teacher and student and between the students themselves. In our classroom, feedback is given carefully and always through the lens of improvement. We focus on what students are doing well and address specific steps students can take to continue to improve.

If there is a specific goal a student is working toward, students feel comfortable enough to ask for suggestions from their peers to help them reach that goal. Feedback becomes the structure through which students become more involved in their own learning and the learning of others.

In my classroom, it is not uncommon to hear students reflecting on the lesson and sharing their thoughts about the curriculum, objective, and math concepts learned. We talk about the culture in class that must be present for my students to grasp challenging concepts. Recently, when my students were working together to defend the strategies they used to solve a problem, several students thought it would be best if the groups were smaller than the 28 students in our classroom. Their theory was that the smaller groups would let each student ask questions about the strategies that were shared and not be rushed to hear everyone’s strategies. This was another example of the way in which my students began to take more ownership for their learning.

Hearing that my students valued the opportunity to learn from their peers reinforced the continued inclusion of student suggestions in my instruction.

We tried it, and the kids were right. The smaller groups did help to facilitate better discussion and more engaged student-to-student conversations. The feedback I shared with them about the difference that this small shift made for student learning allowed students to feel comfortable making suggestions at other times as well.

3. Embrace Student Voice to Drive Engagement

I knew that I was on the right path when students began showing up in my classroom during lunchtime. These students were looking for extra help or support. But their true motives were revealed to me when they began to talk about why they liked our math class, how they felt important and believed that I genuinely cared about them. I noticed the shift to “our math class around the same time I noticed an increase in lunchtime visitors. My students were deeply involved in their own learning. They knew their voice not only mattered but was truly valued. In turn, my connection with students has never been better.

Student voice and student engagement are not, however, synonymous. While the first can lead to the latter, it’s rarely a straight path. To fully embrace the idea of student voice, teachers must be willing to do the work to ensure its continued existence in their classroom.

Just because my students offer their thoughts doesn’t mean they are deeply engaged in learning.

As I learn more about how to inject student voice into my instructional practices, I continue to seek out additional resources and ideas, such as those found on sites such as SoundOut and Teaching Channel.

4. Improve the Classroom Experience with Their Voice

The small things that I did over the years to establish a culture of student voice continue to pay dividends for my students and for me. I’ve continued to refine my practices to include student- developed assessments, choice seating, and more personalized approaches to student learning. I truly hope that by working collaboratively with my students, I am helping to provide them with opportunities to own their learning not only in my classroom but elsewhere as well.

As a school-based team, my colleagues and I have talked about opportunities to include more student-selected choices in our instruction. We’ve reviewed upcoming lessons and created learning menus for students to work with. Students will have the chance to choose from a variety of options related to the math problems they will solve or the data they will use to construct their own questions. Collectively, our team continues to discuss additional ways to foster student independence and responsibility through the inclusion of student voice and student choice.

It’s my hope that the norms established in my math class are those that students can use to enhance their experiences in other settings as well.  Ultimately, I want my former students to look back at their time in our classroom and feel that they not only made progress academically but also socially and emotionally. To this end, the continued inclusion of student voice in my daily instruction will serve to reach this goal.

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Navigating Controversial Topics in Middle School Classrooms

Lately it seems as if every major issue in the country is dividing citizens. From the recent presidential election to debates about fake news, immigration, and health care, citizens are split on their positions. While having a divide isn’t unusual, the gulf between those who are pro and con seems wider than ever before.

This is not just a feeling. A Gallup poll from late 2016 proved it: Nearly 80 percent of Americans perceived the country as divided, topping the previous high of 69 percent in 2012. It seems the only thing Americans can agree on is that we don’t agree.

For middle school teachers hoping to introduce sensitive issues to students, this divisiveness can be daunting. And yet, the exercise has never been more important.

“We need to show kids how to talk about controversial things the right way,” says Larry Lhulier, the supervisor of curriculum, instruction, and technology at New Jersey’s Wildwood Crest Memorial School. Teaching students the skills to debate sensitive issues while still respecting others’ opinions is the best way to counteract the current corrosive debate, he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is prepare young people to participate in democracies,” says Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education.

Hess visited middle school classrooms and studied their debates to research her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion.

The benefit of having these discussions in middle school is that many children haven’t formed a solid opinion about most subjects, she adds. “I like teaching in classes where there’s a range of views and where people were not set [in their opinions]. It’s the puzzle of trying to figure something out.”

Teacher Tips

Rich Young says a teacher’s first move should be to communicate to parents, students, and the school’s administration any controversial materials chosen for the classroom, such as a movie or book. Explain why the resource is needed, how it will be used, and include class protocols for discussing current events. Young, currently the project director for Teaching American History at the Education Cooperative, was previously the social studies curriculum coordinator in Brookline, Mass.

“You can explore any topic, and if done right, you shouldn’t have any issues,” adds Lhulier. He and others advise teachers to keep their personal opinions out of each debate, but be ready to step in and play devil’s advocate if an entire classroom slants in one direction.

“I have strong views,” Lhulier adds. “I reserve them for home with my wife. The kids didn’t know where I stood on any of the issues we discussed.”

Young points out that classroom debates about the Second Amendment took on different tones when he taught in southern Indiana, where a majority of boys were active hunters, and when he was in Massachusetts, where most students were anti-gun. In both cases he would bring up counter arguments to make sure students had thought through all the issues in this complicated topic.

“Teachers who are really good do a good job of bringing in multiple perspectives,” Hess says. Her studies showed that more and more classrooms are breaking down along “red” and “blue” designations depending on where they are based. “We’re more politically polarized, and students are more likely to live in communities that agree with them.”

Push Past Stereotypes

It’s important to make conversations specific and evidence-based, Lhulier says. In this polarized political atmosphere, students can repeat negative stereotypes, unfairly labeling classmates and impeding classroom debates. Don’t let students equate someone’s conservative beliefs with racism, or someone’s liberal beliefs with not supporting the police, Lhulier adds.

“My experience is kids are really open,” Lhulier says. “A good teacher gets kids to think about their perspective in a nonjudgmental way.”

In Wildwood, the New Jersey shore community includes wealthy hotel owners and the families of people who work in the hotels, Lhulier says, offering a rich, socioeconomic diversity.

“Kids get excited about seeing something in a different way,” he says, adding that he considers it a success when a student ends up saying, “I get it. I see how that person would react in a certain way.”

Teachers have to be ready to rein in conversations, especially when students start to share personal details that shouldn’t be public, he says. “Kids are thinking out loud; they don’t have the filters that adults have.”

How you treat a student’s experiences depends on the student, Lhulier says. One golden rule is to “never make a student be an unwilling spokesperson for a topic. On the other hand, I never silence a child who wants to be a spokesperson for a topic.”

Encourage Simulations

At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, simulations avoid the problems Lhulier mentions. The Boston institute, which includes a near-exact replica of the Senate floor, tasks students with arguing over bills that have been passed in the U.S. Senate—but with a twist. The institute assigns students to portray various senators. So as students dig into the immigration bill, they may represent a conservative senator from a border state or a liberal senator from the northeast. Since the institute opened in 2015, more than 30,000 students from middle school to college have come through its doors.

“It sets students back from their gut reactions and sets the ground rules,” says Kennedy Institute president Jean MacCormack. The simulations include giving students expert testimony to help inform them to reach a consensus. For instance, in the case of the immigration bill, students are told about H-1B visas that allow workers with special skills to enter the country to work for U.S. companies.

“Coming to a compromise is not an easy thing,” she says. “They have to choose between their own opinions, their party’s opinions, and constituent opinions.” Students who don’t agree with their assigned role frequently ask what would happen if they bucked their party or constituents, MacCormack says. “You may not get reelected.”

While sitting in a U.S. Senate replica adds to the drama of debate, MacCormack says the institute has taken its debates on the road, bringing the simulations to Mississippi and Martha’s Vineyard. While Senator Kennedy was unabashedly Democratic, the institute works with staffers from both Republican and Democratic offices to make sure the simulations are nonpartisan.

“Students can learn a lot from simulations,” Hess adds. But she cautions that teachers should be sensitive to assignments when creating conversations. Giving an undocumented student the role of an anti-immigration senator is a bad idea, she says.

MacCormack says the debate, which frequently starts before students come to the institute, typically lasts for days after they return to school. And that, to her, is the entire point. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. You have to get involved.”

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9 Steps for Superintendents Guiding a Districtwide Digital Transition

Laying the foundation for a modern, digital learning environment can be thrilling — and terrifying.

School administrators may be excited by the prospect of students learning at their own pace on devices loaded with interactive, customized lesson plans; or envisioning teachers as facilitators in classrooms where students are empowered to lead their own learning. But the step-by-step process of transitioning to a digital curriculum can be daunting. It requires much more than simply providing devices to students. A digital transition is a multi-faceted, multi-year process that must be carefully considered, planned and communicated.

We are three superintendents with 16 years of superintendent experience and 20 years of K-12 teaching experience among us. As heads of school districts — one small, one medium and one large — we have steered the transition to digital learning. We know first-hand what works and what doesn’t. We’ve experienced setbacks and successes. Sometimes we moved too fast, other times we wished we had been bolder. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and we’ve brought our experiences together to provide helpful steps as others consider making the transition to digital.

Digital transition is the shift from physical textbooks and paper handouts to digital, interactive learning tools.

  1. START WITH THE ‘WHY?’

    In our experience, this crucial first step is the foundation for a successful digital transition. Consider how digital learning will align with standards, add value for teachers, and enhance the student learning experience. Then make sure you broadcast this message clearly and frequently. Begin by involving all stakeholders — principals, teachers, parents, students, the Board of Education, local businesses and community residents. Is the goal of digital learning to provide education for all levels of learners? Is it to prepare students for the workplaces they will encounter? Is it to engage and challenge students with inquiry-based lessons? Your answers will be tailored to your community and school.

    Why we took the digital leap:

    “We wanted to level the playing field and make sure all students have access to the technology that prepares them for the future.” — Susan Allen, superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.

    “We knew the future of our students was going to change, and we wanted to make sure we could provide our students with the best learning tools that were available.” — Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

    “In Las Vegas, teachers had a lot of learning levels in their classrooms. Technology allowed teachers to bring more differentiation into their instruction.” — Dwight Jones, former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.

  2. ASSESS YOUR DISTRICT’S READINESS FOR A DIGITAL TRANSITION

    Spend time building broad-based understanding and support through meetings with the board of education, principals, teachers, parent teacher associations, and other local stakeholders. Develop and communicate a roll-out plan that takes into account which schools in your district are most ready for digital transition as well as which schools are most in need of digital investment. Some school districts will start with a particular grade or subject, while others will begin with the teachers who are most eager to learn about and use digital learning tools.

  3. MAKE SURE YOUR DIGITAL RESOURCES ARE STANDARDS-ALIGNED

    Just like printed materials, digital materials must deliver on the standards that students are expected to know and be able to do. There are many great resources – both print and digital – that generate highly engaging classroom experiences, but have nothing to do with the curriculum. Invest in digital resources that enhance your teachers’ abilities to deliver the learning objectives they’re expected to teach.

  4. CLEARLY AND RELENTLESSLY COMMUNICATE YOUR VISION

    As you embark on a digital transition, use the communication tools you already have to provide a framework, and make answers to questions easily available to all stakeholders. There is no such thing as over-communication. Your district must be relentless in its effort to explain the importance of the digital transition you are planning. Do not expect anyone in the district, not even teachers or principals, to automatically know the value of digital tools.

    In addition to proactive communications describing the goals and benefits of the initiative, it is important to keep lines of communication open throughout the process. Be transparent about challenges, setbacks, and promises with all stakeholders. Listen to concerns, and address them as they arise. For example, a common concern about digital transition is that students will be distracted by devices in the learning environment. Anticipate this concern, acknowledge it, address it and then let stakeholders know exactly how it was addressed. An effective strategy for handling this type of concern would be to provide professional development around it for teachers, and a book study for parents, and then write a blog post about it to share what has transpired with your community.

  5. ENGAGE YOUR NAVIGATORS

    Purchasing digital content without someone who deeply understands the nuances of different providers truly is flying blind. Dedicate knowledgeable staff to guide the purchasing process, for both hardware and digital curriculum, and to help steer and encourage professional development opportunities. These navigators will become the champions to help your district move this project forward and to provide answers throughout the process. Before they begin their work, encourage them to reach out to colleagues in other school districts to learn about their experiences.

  6. TRANSITION SLOWLY — TARGET A GRADE LEVEL AND ITERATE

    Ask teachers who are enthusiastic about the transition to opt-in to the process, and allow them to pilot the transition. Those teachers can then serve as resources who can share their insights and experiences with other teachers preparing for digital learning. Honor this learning by celebrating teacher leaders who are risk-takers, leading every day by example.

  7. PROVIDE ONGOING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

    Professional development should be embedded and ongoing so that teachers and other system staff gain a real facility with utilizing technology and digital content to create self-directed student learners. Administrators must become versed in digital learning so they can observe and evaluate teachers. Much of the professional development should focus on nurturing digital learners. Provide professional development beginning the spring before roll out, and continue through the summer. Once the school year begins, bring a curriculum mentor into the classroom to work with students and teachers. Professional development can be offered in person, online and through webinars. Teachers can be pulled out of their classrooms for instruction, or instructor/mentors can provide digital learning guidance during the instructional day. Make sure teachers have access to resources throughout the school year so they always have a place to turn with questions or when seeking lesson ideas. Be prepared to provide professional development that meets teachers on all different levels. Some teachers are going to be skilled and eager digital instructors, while others will be wary of change to their established lesson plans. Full-scale professional learning should be based on the content that will be taught, not on grade levels or familiarity with the intricacies of the devices. Teachers want to know how to teach content effectively and with ease. Show them how.

  8. LEARNING > TECHNOLOGY

    Demonstrate to teachers how technology can be used to support a variety of teaching styles, including small-group collaboration, rotating through technology stations, student presentations and teacher-led instruction. The goal is to create classroom environments where students are directing their own learning and teachers are guides, not dispensers of information.

  9. EMBED LESSONS OF DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP

    Ensure students learn digital citizenship and sourcing skills. Devote classroom instruction time to teaching students how to be good digital citizens. That includes knowing how to interact online without bullying, how to advocate responsibly and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. Students also need to learn how to resist the siren call of a device. One student said a digital learning environment helped him learn how to resist distraction: “I had a choice to make. I could remain distracted and my grades could go down, or I could use this tool to get better grades.”

About the Authors:


Dr. Christine Johns —
 superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

Susan K. Allen —
 superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.
 
Dwight Jones — 
former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.

 

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7 Steps to Build Math Assessments Into Your Classroom

In the last decade, there has been a growing movement toward integrating assessment in instruction and learning. Research has shown that embedding assessment opportunities for teachers and students provides insights into student progress in the moments of learning, maximizes learning, and moves learning forward.

Here are just a few suggestions for integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning.

1. Embed Assessment

Teachers are constantly embedding assessment opportunities every day in their classrooms even when they may not realize it. They observe students in many different environments -playing games, working with their friends, completing assignments, and learning through digital resources. Teachers can learn how their students learn, how they think, how they participate in groups. These informal assessment opportunities provide nuggets of information that can be powerful in helping teachers make decisions about how to individualize, differentiate, and personalize instruction and organize mathematics and other classes.

2. Blend Informal and Formal Assessments

Both informal and formal assessments can provide key insights throughout learning. Teachers, as well as students, can observe and evaluate understanding during the learning process informally, such as through discussion, peer reviews and self-reflections, to ensure learning and instruction are on target. More formal assessments towards the end of the learning cycle can provide confirmation of what students have learned or what mathematics concepts and skills require remediation and even enrichment. Together, formal and informal assessments can provide educators a clearer, richer picture of a student’s progress toward their learning goals.

3. Use the Right Tools for the Task

Selecting the right tools to solve a problem is an indicator of more advanced understanding. Experts know how to use the right tools for the right problem in a strategic way. Use and mastery of digital, interactive tools such as graphing calculators and geometry software in assessment is good practice. Knowing what the tools are, when a tool is needed and how to choose the right tool is critical to preparing our students for college and beyond. Teachers can observe and assess if students are using the tools in the right way –or even an interesting way –to solve a real-world problem, and technology can help capture the data for teachers.

4. Take Play Seriously

Students can learn in all kinds of situations, including play. When play is situated purposefully in learning, students can learn applications more quickly and can transfer the skills more readily. They can more freely make mistakes, try again, and persevere to find solutions. There is value in each.

5. Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

Research has shown that when students self-assess, reflect, and engage in progress monitoring, they become more engaged in and responsible for their own learning and do better. Students of all ages should be involved in the goal-setting process and in seeing how they are doing against those goals. The visualization of this information is critical: they must be able to clearly see progress for themselves to become engaged in their own success. They learn from their mistakes and benefit from seeing where they are headed.

6. Let the Data tell the Story

Just as students can benefit from seeing their progress, teachers need ways to track student progress for each student. With the demands of teaching and with many teachers having multiple classes and large class sizes, teachers need tools to quickly see where they are in their understanding, and to answer questions such as:

  • How is my class doing overall?
  • Where is each of my students on the spectrum of the goals I have for them?
  • Do I see a pattern of misconceptions and mistakes?
  • What students need small group or peer-collaborations?
  • What motivates them and engages them in their own learning?
  • What do they need next?

The most effective instructional decisions are driven from answers to these questions. Research shows that teachers don’t have always have the time, tools, and training to answer these questions completely.

7. Support Teachers with Professional Development

Teachers need the skills and tools to employ successful informal and formal assessment techniques in their classroom. In addition, teachers need the skills and the autonomy to create assessment opportunities throughout learning, particularly with informal assessment, to really understand how to get to the bottom of what students know and don’t know in the moments of learning where it is most critical. Teachers also need to be comfortable with a balance of instructional approaches, including inquiry-based models. Just as we teach students, teaching teachers to develop the skills to ask questions effectively, gather data and take action will help them prepare students in a way that they will be ready for deeper learning, as well as various high-stakes assessments.

Administrators play a huge role in creating a culture that values informal assessment, a shift in paradigm for many schools. Many teachers may fall back on a quiz or drills, when there is rich, instructionally useful information that can be made simply through observation and engaging activities.

More closely integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning is one of one of the ways educators nationwide are working to improve mathematics achievement.

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Myth-Busting Middle School Student Engagement

Picture a student-centered classroom full of inquiry and engagement. Seventh-grade students are in groups—some students are around a computer conducting a virtual lab, others are working with their teacher reading an informational text about the phases of the moon, and others are on the floor exploring interactive glossary terms with an iPad.

The principal walks in and is amazed by what she sees. She comments on the powerful use of digital tools and level of student engagement. Only I knew what lurked below the surface of this classroom. What the principal viewed as effective instruction, I saw as a failure in my work as a coach.

I had worked with this middle school teacher in the planning and preparation of the lesson a few days before, and the planning process had been challenging for me as a coach. The teacher was excited about the possibilities of Discovery Education Techbook and wanted to dive into its interactive resources because she knew they would engage her students. While I shared her excitement, the instructional coach in me was concerned. I tried instead to guide her toward determining what she wanted her students to understand and be able to do at the completion of the lesson. She needed to let that essential information guide her toward choosing the right resources within Techbook.

Our coaching conversation took place in a 40-minute block, so the teacher was tasked with completing the lesson plan on her own. Unfortunately, the lesson had no clear learning targets or outcomes. Students were working in stations that were unrelated to one another. There was no unity or cohesion, and the work didn’t push students toward deep understanding of the scientific content. On the surface, however, it looked fantastic because middle school students were so engaged in the work.

What this example illustrates is the superficial engagement we see too often in schools. How do we as leaders support our teachers in creating routine learning opportunities that promote authentic student engagement?

Engagement Defined

We must first dig deeply into our existing definitions and perceptions of student engagement. Traditionally, we deemed students “engaged” when they were on task, participatory, and well behaved. While we’d love to see this occur in all of our classrooms, we must set our expectations for student engagement much higher.

In an Educational Leadership article[1], Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda cited four keys to student engagement:

  • Clarity—What am I asking students to do?
  • Context—Why is it important?
  • Culture—How do I show my support?
  • Challenge—How do I balance challenge and skill?

While these four elements are equally important, I see most teachers and school leaders struggling to grasp the balance between challenge and skill. Jackson and Zmuda go on to describe how teachers can ensure this balance exists for all students. Their descriptors for this key factor of student engagement connect to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset—focus on effort rather than ability, know that you can get smarter, use feedback to promote growth, and build academic stamina and resilience. 
We’ve read the research and we know these are important habits we want all middle school students to develop. However, putting this theory into action can be a daunting task for any school administrator faced with the complexities and demands of college and career readiness standards.

How Challenging Tasks Foster Student Engagement

There is no secret to student engagement in the Common Core era. The standards and the pedagogical shifts demanded of today’s students make it pretty clear for us. Building complex learning experiences, where students are routinely thinking at high levels, interacting with their peers, and receiving careful guidance and support from their teachers, is what grounds authentic engagement.

This type of cognitive engagement promotes productive struggle and helps teachers create an environment where students feel safe taking risks, because they know the nature of the work doesn’t allow them to earn an A on the first try. This is especially important to consider at the middle school level, where a desire to earn points has not only been ingrained, but expected.

Teachers can’t focus on their students’ efforts and help them understand they can improve if they’re using traditional approaches to learning. Assigning vocabulary or comprehension questions are both good examples of such traditional tasks that students work to compliantly complete. As school leaders, we must support teachers in building deeper tasks that challenge students and prompt them to want to acquire new knowledge and skills.

This type of cognitive engagement can be accomplished in classrooms if teachers have the support and guidance of their administrators. Here are four steps you can take to help:

  • Remind teachers to use the standards in their planning. Teachers cannot create complex learning experiences that aren’t aligned to the expectations of their grade-level standards. Help teachers gain a comprehensive understanding of what each standard is asking students to do, and support them in using the standards to create lesson plans, learning tasks, and assessments. The standards should guide every instructional move in the classroom.
  • Emphasize the value and importance of formative assessment. If we want middle school students to feel comfortable taking risks and failing, we need to provide consistent opportunities for them to do so while giving meaningful feedback along the way. This shifts the traditional learning cycle from “teach, test, reteach” to “learn, attempt, retry.” This isn’t an easy habit for most teachers to embrace, because it’s not aligned to what we’ve always done. Teachers will need support with managing both student and parent expectations related to this new way of learning.
  • Encourage teachers and students to embrace the silence. Most students are unaccustomed to being asked to consistently think at high levels. Answering one rich, text-dependent question or solving a complex math task in a 45-minute block is much different than responding to 10 questions at the end of a chapter, receiving points, and then moving on. This shift will feel awkward for middle school students and teachers, and there will be uncomfortable moments of silence. This isn’t a bad thing—help teachers understand that this silence affords students the time and space needed to think.
  • Ensure curriculum clarity. Articulate the importance of the depth of instruction with less emphasis on what needs to be “covered.” If we want teachers to promote cognitive engagement in their classrooms, they will undoubtedly need to slow down. Let them know this is not only accepted, but that it’s an encouraged approach to teaching and learning. If teachers are worried about coverage, they’ll be afraid to take the instructional risks necessary to help their middle school students become independent thinkers and problem solvers.

Engagement with Cognitive Impact

Engagement has become a buzzword that is grossly overused and misinterpreted in education. A traditional strategy—numbered heads, for example—certainly promotes active engagement in the classroom by keeping students on their toes, and digital learning tools like Kahoot! and Socrative engage students because they’re fun and interactive. However, it’s clear that these practices do not encourage the deep teaching and learning we want to see in our middle school classrooms.

It’s our responsibility to help teachers move beyond superficial engagement and support them in creating cognitively engaging environments for all students.

Jaime LaForgia is the director of professional development content at Discovery Education.

Sources
[1] Jackson, R., & Zmuda, A. (2014). Four (secret) keys to student engagement. Educational Leadership, 72(1) 18-24.

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