A secret ingredient in improving student engagement and building a community of learners
Those of us in middle level education know the basics of adolescent psychology. Teens are naturally rebellious. Their state of mind isn’t in a “state” at all; they are out-of-sync, their bodies out of control. They are asserting independence one minute, clinging for dear life to childhood the next. They can be moody, argumentative, and downright annoying.
Over the years, many colleagues, especially younger teachers, after having observed my class as they walked by would ask me how I seemed to have such “control,” such “order.” They would comment about how engaged the students always seemed in my classroom. The secret, really, is that I learned early on that I would rather open the airways and purposefully hear the voices of my students than hear them talking or socializing in spite of my presence in front of the room.
I also noted that many of the teachers who had students acting out were dogmatic, gavel-pounding types who insisted on their particular brand of “sameness.” Because students did not have much of a voice in those classrooms, they found their own ways, often inappropriately, of being heard. So, I realized finding avenues for student voice would have to become part of my classroom practice.
Finding life lessons in the drama.
In middle school very often you have one of two choices when students charge into the classroom brimming over with the gory details of the latest drama or arguing some real-life moral dilemma that has just reared its head. You can try to squelch it and proceed with your lesson. Good luck with that. Or you can allow your students to vent, which I heartily recommend. As you become adept at reeling in the conversation, with time you may even capitalize on the life lesson at the center of every good middle school controversy. The diehards among us say, “But the lesson is sacred.” No lesson is being taught when the voices of students are louder than the moving lips in front of the classroom. The only one listening then is you— if you can hear yourself!
Venting sessions, an impromptu way of letting students be heard, can be structured in many ways. Whenever I planned a lesson, an activity, or a project, the bulleted checklist in my head always had a bullet for student voice. Student voice does not refer to answering teachers’ questions. It means all the possibilities for student input that were natural extensions of what I was doing. If an assignment was due, instead of immediately collecting the papers, I would ask students to share them first. They might read their creative pieces aloud, summarize their research findings, or voice their opinions on the class novel they had just read. And, in later years I thanked the writing gods for the invention of the document camera, which enables instant publishing that allows students to see each other’s products.
Student voice in assessment.
I came to solicit student input in assessment as a matter of course. When designing projects, I usually created a rubric to assess student work. Helping me define the various levels of the rubrics and the wording that accompanied each descriptor gave students a sense of ownership in the process while they internalized the grading criteria. Students would practice using the rubrics by grading some of my former students’ projects, which I had saved with their permission. When I created essay and constructed response questions to assess learning, I used critical thinking questions suggested by students along with questions of my own. Seeing them published along with teacher-made questions gave them a real sense of validation. When major projects and assignments were due, I would solicit student input on what they considered fair penalties for late work. This definitely raised awareness, and it always amazed me how much tougher their penalties could be compared to those I was considering!
Student voice in group work.
Group work is another wonderful avenue for students to be heard. The collaborative approach naturally gives rise to student voice because they are engaged in discussion while completing a task. Obviously, I would want the class to hear what each group had learned, but it took me a while to refine the reporting out so that the class could distinguish how the various groups differed in reaching their outcomes. The longer I taught, the more I focused on having students examine their own learning, whatever the topic. I would ask students to report out on such things as
- the substance of their discussion
- what led them to draw their conclusions
- what new ideas were gleaned from working with one another
- what questions were still unanswered
As educators, we tend to zero in on “the right answer,” and miss so many opportunities to hear from kids about the dynamics of discovery which is central, I think, to all that happens in the middle school classroom.
Students as teachers.
I also used students as teachers whenever possible. For example, listening and note-taking are important skills in eighth grade, and often I would have students show the class their notes and explain in “student terms” what their note-taking strategies involved. After giving an assignment, I would ask students who felt comfortable with the directions to take the lead in explaining them to the class. If we were involved in a long-range project such as research, at different calendar points I would have students show what they accomplished, share the organizational approach that brought them to that point, and explain some of the difficulties they had and how they overcame them.
What those teachers who passed my room saw as “student engagement” was really a snapshot view of my classroom vision. As I evolved in the profession, I came to believe that a middle school classroom meeting the needs of adolescents should be a community of learners. On many days I had to be the focal point of instruction, but wherever, whenever possible, students were asked not only to be accountable for doing work and meeting deadlines, but also to be contributing voices. Often when an administrator or colleague walked into my class, they would have to find me among the sea of faces, because invariably students were at the helm. The secret, though, is that I was always the facilitator, creating opportunities for these “student teaching” experiences and guiding the students in these roles.
Excerpted from Secrets from the Middle: Making Who You Are Work For You by Elyse S. Scott.
Elyse S. Scott is a retired English teacher who began her career teaching at the community college level but found her true passion: teaching middle school.