Engaging Secondary Students through Community
New school year, new student mindset
School wasn’t Carlos’ thing but he promised himself that this year he’d do better: he’d really listen, get his work done on time, stop ditching. As he walked into first period of his 9th grade year, he looked for a seat near the back of the room, thinking about his promise to himself, wondering if he should sit a bit closer to the front. Just as the bell rang, the teacher marched in and went directly to the podium.
“My name is Mr. Miller, and here’s what you need to know about this class: it’s hard and I cut no slack so if you don’t think you can hack it, visit a counselor. Today!” Carlos’s hopes for the year began to diminish.
Like too many other secondary students, Carlos soon found that he was disengaged in most of his classes. According to the 2016 Gallup Poll, Carlos’ attitude was not uncommon: the longer students are in school, the more disengaged they become. And the consequences of this disengagement are severe: lower grades, increased absenteeism, higher dropout rates.
Invest time to build relationships
This reality seemed to be lost on Mr. Miller. He knew he had a rigorous curriculum to deliver and didn’t have a second to waste on “fluff” – those “get to know you” activities. Sadly this decision meant that he missed the opportunity to shape the classroom community and develop norms that mattered for student engagement.
Engagement rests not only on work that is stimulating and appropriately challenging but also is heightened by a classroom community that is safe and supportive. As Hattie’s research shows, relationships matter. Students need to know each other, and the teacher needs to know each student well. Mr. Miller ignored the importance of forging productive relationships with his students while at the same time providing them the chance of developing relationships by engaging collaboratively in rich discourse, all of which influence student engagement.
Week one plan to develop productive relationships
To matter for students like Carlos, Mr. Miller might have planned that first week with these questions in mind:
- By the end of the week, how will the students and teacher know the names of and something about each person in class?
- During the week, how will students interact with everyone in the class in order to build community?
- How are students using the disciplinary literacy skills unique to that class, i.e., problem solving in math, reading and writing in English, examining different perspectives in history?
- Are the activities low on threat and high for success?
- How will these activities lead to the development of classroom norms?
Week one activities that engage students
Let’s get specific. Since Mr. Miller is a high school English teacher, here’s what his first week might have looked like:
- Students pair up to interview each other about the story of their names. From this interview, they create a poster that includes the story and a photo of the student they interviewed. (They can use their phone to take the photo.) Post on the wall for a class gallery walk.
- Write and share a rambling autobiography. (The teacher needs to write one as a model.)
- Form random groups of four. Distribute small placards with the covers of intriguing young adult novels. Based only on the cover, students pick one that best reflects themselves and explains to the group. (Of course, this task also introduces students to books they might select for independent reading.)
- Silent Chalk talk: On the white board post two questions: What makes for a great class? What makes for a horrible class? Students SILENTLY respond to those questions by creating a class web. At the end of the time, students do a quick write.
At the end of class each day, students write two exit slips: What worked today? and What didn’t work?
Engagement Breeds Community
At the end of the week, Mr. Miller could have shared with students the patterns in their exit slips and had them reread their quick writes at the end of the silent chalk talk. This thinking would lead to the collaborative design of class norms.
If this had been Carlos’s experience, he might have been able to keep his promise to himself. Within a few days, he would know who was in his class, an essential element for a classroom community. Plus he would have written for publication, been introduced to books he might read, and experienced what it felt like when his voice mattered. It’s in a classroom like this that student engagement flourishes.