Heroic Quality of the Day: Engagement
There is no fun allowed in my classroom. Even the word is banned.
Engagement is allowed. Engagement is encouraged, in fact. Never fun.
So how can I keep students interested in curriculum without a costume or over the top props? Simple, I plan and execute lessons using Cognitive Tools. How can I tell that they are engaged in my lessons? The same way you can. The kids are sitting up, leaning forwards, the looks that flash across their faces when a connection clicks, the volume of on-task excitement – loud or quiet. But, can they tell when they are engaged in something?
I teach my Place Value unit – Really Big Numbers, to my grade 6/7’s every year. I will be working on the white-board and, without fail, one by one the kids move their chairs closer and closer to me. Until a gang of 11-13 year olds are sitting at my feet so they can participate in reading the outrageous numbers on the board. It’s noisy. Kids are calling out, hands straight up in the air, behinds barely touching their seats. Kids are cheering on their friends reading a number that starts with Decillion.
Using Imaginative Education and Cognitive Tools does not mean you have to do back flips in front of the class to keep their attention. You do not need a magical school bus – sorry Ms. Frizzle. It means you engage the kids on purpose and not by fluke. I know why they were engaged in Place Value. It was the extremes of the enormous numbers I was asking them to read. It wasn’t a fluke. The same thing happens every year. When I asked them later what they thought of the lesson a lot of them respond with, “That was fun!”
I respond with, “Fun?! Fun?! No, no, no, no. There is no F.U.N. in my classroom. Have fun outside, have fun at home. This morning you were engaged.” We go on to discuss what was happening to them during the lesson. How they felt and why it was fun. We talk about the Cognitive Tools we used: extremes, puzzle, mystery, a little narrative was also thrown in there. As the year goes on the students are able to recognize their own engagement. Things are no longer fun, they are engaging. When I ask how they are doing at the end of October, the response is, ‘Ms. Smith, I am engaged.” For real, I am not making that up. I swear it. If the ‘f’ word ever pops up the other students go a little nuts and correct their classmates. “You were engaged Johnny. You weren’t having fun.”
Engagement isn’t always noisey, engagement doesn’t always mean kids are in groups, engagement doesn’t always mean there is an elaborate plan. But, in my classroom, it always means the deliberate use of Cognitive Tools was in place. This week student engagement was on fire. We were creating huge timelines for our unit on Geological Time.
The tools of Literate Eye and Extremes were front and centre. We have been studying Geological Time for a couple of weeks but until this cut and paste activity the kids didn’t really have a firm grasp on the colossal amount of time the earth has been doing it’s thing and the microscopic amount of time humans have been on this planet. Given the make-up of characters in my room the actual act of cutting and pasting could have been an invitation for loads of shenanigans (it doesn’t take much some years). Even my most cynical and hard to please kids were right into it. Their timelines were close to three metres long. Events on little tabs,to be added later ,were being sorted with gusto. Those same kids were down on the floor sincerely asking for support from friends to check if they got everything in the correct place. I am sure you’re thinking, that doesn’t seem all that exciting but let me tell you, it was a dream. First of all, those challenging students cared about their work, they wanted to get it right instead of finishing an assignment as fast as they could. Secondly, I could leave my most challenging behaviour students to manage their own work while I was able to check in with the quieter kids who don’t often get my undivided attention. We did this all day people, ALL DAY!
Students engaged in their learning at school likely will mean you will be dealing with classroom management issue less often. Students engaged in their learning will surprise themselves and you with what they can accomplish. Cognitive Tools are the key to this.
Engaging the kids and using the Cognitive Tools takes practice. You need to practice. Why not practice on yourself? I do this from time to time too. You know the feeling of being engaged in something. The black hole of discovery you find yourself in from time to time is a great example. Does time fly? Do you feel like you can’t stop searching for more information, more articles, more books, more posts? How does your body feel? Does everything else in the room sort of fade away? I totally endorse this as Pro D. Try to sort out how your body and mind feel. What can you tune out and ignore when you are engaged? I’ll give you a topic….. Mushrooms…. I challenge you to dive into the world of Mushrooms using the Cognitive Tools. Start with a tool that excites you. Extremes maybe? Biggest mushroom? Most dangerous mushroom. I beg you not to look up the grossest mushroom! You looked at it didn’t you. See! Already engaged 🙂
Need to catch up? Take a look at some of the other posts from my Heroic Classroom series:
Other posts by Christa Smith-Rawlings:
Check out this post in which I describe why I use cognitive tools in my teaching: