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Sustaining Student Engagement: Moving from Teacher-Centered to Student-Centered Classrooms

Nancy Meredith

Three teachers. Three stories. Many invitations.

In the heart of the San Luis Valley, Center School District teachers—Jan, Linda, and Kindra—discussed moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom in hopes of achieving a higher level of student engagement. Their stories captured my heart throughout the year as we explored the question:

  • “How is student engagement sustained more effectively by moving from a teacher- to student-centered classroom? What is the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that nudges teachers to make the change in order to engage students?”

Jan, a middle school social studies teacher, previously did much of the work for his students—videos, lectures, the typical multiple choice test amidst a sea of random activities. A life-long learner who embraced teaching, Jan moved his practice to a student-centered one in which his students were clearly doing the reading, writing, talking, and thinking over the course of a year.

“One of the biggest things was knowing that the stuff I was doing was good and decent, but I needed to dig deeper. I needed to become more intentional and answer ‘why am I doing what I’m doing,’” Jan shared. With a bit more probing, Jan stated the one thing that pushed him to change was “reflecting on the teachers he had as a student…and the impact they had on him.”

The one big thing that always surfaced was positive relationships, those teachers that connected him to learning. But Jan wanted more. He learned that becoming intentional about how he connected his lessons from start to finish, as well as from lesson to lesson, made a difference in how kids engaged. As he did this, he noticed that students did more and more work as he gave up the teacher-centered mindset—and as they did more work, students engaged at a level beyond compliance.

Linda, a middle school math teacher, also shared her story. She described herself as a teacher who has to be in control, all the time! In working with Linda, I learned that she wanted her students to have more opportunity and time to work collaboratively as well as more choice in learning. “Moving from a teacher-led classroom to a student-led classroom was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” stated Linda. Today, her students sit in ‘home’ groups that morph into ‘inquiry’ groups, which culminates in home groups for teaching and daily reflection.

“Students were becoming more responsible for learning a concept while I was able to walk around and have them explain what they were doing. But the most difficult part was releasing control to students. Through this process, students that never saw success were suddenly arguing with their groups about the correctness of an answer. This was such an amazing shift in students’ attitudes about the math classroom.”

Kindra, a high school language arts teacher, was a bit more skeptical and felt that thinking strategies were simply yet another initiative. Soon though, she changed her mind, sharing, “However, I quickly began to ‘get on board’ and realized how these strategies benefit all ages and all ability levels.” As Kindra delved further into the work, she said, “I kept answering questions with questions about thinking strategies. And guess what? After about the fifth difficult reading, they started annotating and making meaning on their own. Never again have I read to them. Imagine that, students doing the work and making understanding of difficult text!”

In their own words, each of these three teachers shares their invitations for taking the initial steps to change instruction in order to impact student engagement.

Kindra: Tell the ‘why’
“Student-centered is a shift in philosophy and you must tell why it’s important—to make them better readers and writers. Tell them.”

Jan: Reflect on your own experience
“What do you remember about teachers that impacted you, those teachers that got you engaged? I knew that if those things moved me to learn, then those ideas would help my students. Now, I have my students reflect on their learning as well.”

Linda: Try home/inquiry student groups
“In order to give my students more time to work, I developed home groups for review of past content then moved to ‘inquiry groups’ after a five-minute lesson. Students were given a large block of time to work on new yet differentiated content before returning to the home groups for the final ‘teaching’ to peers.”

Kindra: Attention to environment
“Rearrange desks so students can work together. Post the thinking strategies; use this thinking language with students, and model your own thinking.”

Jan: Intentionality—why am I doing what I’m doing?
“In planning, this question made me aware of how the beginning, middle and end of the lesson connected. I kept asking myself ‘who’s doing the work?’ I wanted them to be the ones working hard. Becoming aware of a ‘hook’ in the opening, a short mini-lesson providing more time for the students to learn, conferring with each student during class plus a reflection. Name the intentionality of the lesson.”

Linda: Let them struggle
“This is easier said than done. During the inquiry work segment, I’d walk around and watch. When they got stuck, I wanted to jump in, but I held myself back by asking questions. And sometimes, I had to stare at the ceiling to not intervene. Not an easy shift, but the struggle helped them cement the concept into their heads.”

Kindra: Workshop
“Be clear and be prepared. Be solid in how use of time will work, set expectations for yourself and students—and post them. When modeling, making sure thinking is clear so it appears ‘real and cohesive.’”

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