Engaging with Engagement: Building the Need to Know

two girls

© Dmitry Vereshchagin – Fotolia.com

A few months ago I had a chance to hear Mike Schmoker, author of the popular ASCD book Focus, speak at a summer institute. In his keynote, he shared ideas from his book, which was subtitled Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, and some of these I wholeheartedly agreed with. He came down hard, for instance, on worksheets, which he described in his keynote as busywork and in Focus as “the archenemy of abundant purposeful reading, discussion and writing.” And as I’ve written about myself, he warned against reading instruction that sends students off on “treasure hunts” rather than actually reading. But when it came to engagement I paused.

Cold CallingMany of the practices he suggested were similar to those advised by Doug Lemov, the author of the widely read Teach Like a ChampionThese include training students to keep their eyes on the teacher, cold calling on students whose hands aren’t raised to keep everyone on their toes, and launching lessons with some kind of teacher teaser intended to spark interest. For several of us listening, this sounded more like compliance and fear tactics than authentic engagement, and in this we weren’t alone. Charlotte Danielson, for instance, whose Framework for Teaching rubrics are being used, along with test scores, to evaluate teachers in New York City, describes engagement this way:

“Student engagement is not the same as ‘time on task’ . . . . Mere activity is inadequate for engagement. Nor is simple participation sufficient. The activity should represent new learning. What is required  for student engagement is intellectual involvement with the content or active construction of understanding.

This ‘intellectual involvement’, she goes on to say, requires designing activities and assignments that “emphasize problem-based learning,” “encourage depth rather than breadth” and “require student thinking”—none of which is necessarily happens when we stand in front of a class to share an interesting fact or anecdote that we hope will whet the students’ appetites.

I’m also not convinced anymore that ‘intellectual involvement’ is really kick-started by practices such as Anticipation Guides, which I used to use myself. Here, for instance, is one I designed for some 7th and 8th grade special students as the kick-off to a unit on relationship, in which they read several short stories by Gary Soto, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Sharon Flake and watched West Side Story:

Anticipation Guide on Relationships

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

And here’s another one a group of science teachers and I created for a unit on genetics that would eventually involve the students exploring some of the complex ethical questions raised by advances in that field:

Anticipation Guide on Genetics

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

In both cases the students participated. They actively read the statements, circling A if they agreed or D if they disagreed in the Before Reading column, before they turned and talked with a partner. But in addition to the fact that only a few actually wrote any comments, the thinking they were doing involved little more than recalling what they already thought, not constructing some new understanding.

Better, I’ve found, are visual images, especially in the content areas. Here, for instance, is a set of images of Venice that a third grade class I worked with studied carefully, one at a time, before embarking on a social studies unit on Italy:


Venice Flooded

Venice Map

In the first image, students were intrigued by the place, in particular what many of them thought was a castle until one child noticed the cross on the dome and thought it might be a church. They also closely studied the tray of the family in the foreground, noticing the silver cups and spoons and the slices of lemon in glasses, all of which made them think that the place was not only beautiful but fancy. In the second, they were actually aghast at the transformation of the beautiful place they’d seen in the previous picture. And calculating the height of the water from the half-submerged tables and chairs, they worried about what might have been damaged in the castle-like church. And finally, the third image helped them develop hunches about what might have happened to create such as disaster—especially after some of the students began to think that the blue lines that criss-crossed the city weren’t roads as they first had thought, but water ways that might flood.

NeedtoKnow-450x254Compared to the students who were circling A or D in the Anticipation Guides above, these students were involved in much higher order thinking as they used what they’d noticed to infer and developed hypotheses that might explain what caused the difference in the two pictures. They were constructing new understanding, at least a provisional one. And feeling a burning need to know, especially about the fate of the buildings, they eagerly dove into an article about the problems Venice faced with the kind of intellectual involvement that Charlotte Danielson speaks about.

Those students’ engagement began with curiosity, which many scientists, such as John Medina, the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning and Research and the author of the best-selling book Brain Rules, think is intrinsically connected to our capacity to learn. And that initial curiosity led those students to think and to discover, which in turn fueled their engagement. That all happened because I think that thinking is actually exhilarating and discovery, as Medina writes, “brings joy,” which can become downright addictive—especially when the thinking and discoveries arise from our own noticings.

Unfortunately, though, curiosity and joy seems undervalued and underutilized in many schools settings, particularly in the upper grades where, as Medina also says, “Fascination can become secondary to ‘What do I need to know to get the grade?'” And this emphasis on grades instead of fascination—and performance instead of exploration—leaves too many students disengaged and at risk for checking out, as can be seen in a recent Gallup poll that showed that the percentage of disengaged students climb steadily as kids move up the grades, with eight-in-ten students engaged in lower school and only four-in-ten in high school.

RosesI’m aware, of course, that it may seem much easier to tap into students’ curiosity with a compelling image than with a complex text (which Chris Lehman’s latest Close Reading Blog-a-Thon post painfully illustrates). But I’ll tell you when those 7th and 8th grade special ed students really got engaged: not when they filled out the Anticipation Guide but when they read the first short story, “Dozens of Roses,” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which I looked at last month. I invited them then to simply wonder, which I said could consist of something that confused them or something they were curious about. And with that and time to talk, they were filled with questions: Who sent Lucy the roses? Why didn’t she want them? Why doesn’t she have any pep now? And those questions built the need to know that naturally led them to read closely with their full mental engagement.

So what are you doing to build your students’ intellectually involving engagement—which, as Chris, also rightly points out “isn’t a thing, it’s the only thing” that counts?

Building Better Teachers

By R. Kikuo Johnson for The New York TImes. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.rkikuojohnson.com

16 thoughts on “Engaging with Engagement: Building the Need to Know

  1. What a wonderful post. As I read the anticipation guides, I thought – those are lovely and seem very engaging. But as I read your descriptions of students engaging with the photographs, I understood what you mean by true engagement. Letting kids be truly engaged means letting go – of the questions we think they should ask, of the conclusions we think they should draw.

    • I confess that I loved writing those Anticipation Guides, Anna, but I was the one doing most of the thinking, not the kids, which I think often happens. Of course, there’s lots of teacher thinking involved in designing opportunities for kids to think, like the pictures of Venice did. But I think your conclusion is spot on. We need to let go and let them think, because it’s the act of thinking that’s really, really engaging.

  2. No disagreement here. Just a side note. I tend to use anticipation guides as formative assessment–mine focus less on opinion and focus more on intellectual/academic background. Those surveys of knowledge can be used by the teacher for differentiation and after learning by teacher and student to value the work of learning. The knowledge gained becomes the basis for rich discussion, the evidences supporting the beliefs individuals hold.

  3. Hi, Vicki-
    Great post which, to me, really emphasizes the importance of reading within an authentic context.
    Your post led me to the Lehman post, one part of which I took issue with. Chris wrote:
    “The listening we do as educators, we argue, is not in a “are they getting the right answer?” kind of a way. Instead, you are listening for how their thinking is developing, if your instruction was clear, and–yes, my twitter friends–if they are engaged.”
    In any discussion based on provocative literature and questions, I think there are more important reasons for a teacher to listen: Because the children might have novel ideas, ideas that suggest new ways of thinking that are a gift to the world, ideas that break the mold of what might have been expected, ideas that will expand each others’ way of thinking about the text and about the world…
    That way of listening is the teacher being engaged in a way that will support student engagement – which, as Chris wrote and you echoed, “is the only thing.”
    Do you think that’s too much? Overstating it? Is this part of what’s missing from current discourse around teaching and learning and Common Core?
    Thanks again for your excellent blog!

    • Matt,
      I loved your words. Teachers listen “(b)ecause the children might have novel ideas, ideas that suggest new ways of thinking that are a gift to the world, ideas that break the mold of what might have been expected, ideas that will expand each others’ way of thinking about the text and about the world…” Beautiful. Thanks.

    • I absolutely agree that that kind of listening is what’s missing from the much of the conversations around the Common Core. Yet it’s the very thing that I think keeps me and many of the teachers I know going: those moments when students say things that make the world seem more beautiful and hopeful. It requires, though, that the teacher has the same kind of open and receptive mindset that a reader needs to bring to a text. Too often instead, though, we urge students to clamp down on an idea, whether it be a prediction or a claim, while we listen in for something we’ve already predetermined we’re hoping to hear. And as Anna in a previous comment said, true engagement only happens when we let go “of the questions we think they should ask, of the conclusions we think they should draw.”

  4. Vicki,
    As always, your post makes me pause and think. When I read this —“This emphasis on grades instead of fascination—and performance instead of exploration—leaves too many students disengaged and at risk for checking out…” —I wondered if you were referring to the students. Or to the teachers. I decided it is both.
    I am working to help shift that focus, by valuing the exploration more and more in my own practice. I think the goal is to nudge teachers and students to be aware of where they put their attention. Where one puts his attention, I have learned, becomes what matters.

    • Hello Grace! I confess that when I wrote that I was thinking about students. But reading your comment made me think that it’s true for teachers as well. Too many are burning out–and even leaving the profession–because of the emphasis on grades and performance, which seems almost a crime. And you made me pause and think as well. I spent much of the month in a middle school in Brooklyn where we decided that teachers and students should both be involved in attending to what they’re noticing and what they’re making of what they noticed. And that, combined with your comment, makes me wonder: Is it about where you put your attention or about making something of whatever you’ve attended to? My gut says it’s the latter, but it might be fun to keep batting this back & forth in Boston.

  5. Just yesterday, I attended a Literacy Project meeting and I immediately ordered your book. Today, I responded to my calling just a little bit differently and sure enough, the students went deeper, felt equipped and able, and shared out some stunning insights. In so many instances, with a strong desire to do right by the students, we listen to guidance that may be well intentioned, but doesn’t really work.
    I like this:
    That all happened because I think that thinking is actually exhilarating and discovery, as Medina writes, “brings joy,” which can become downright addictive—especially when the thinking and discoveries arise from our own noticings.

    EXACTLY. Thank you.

    • Oh, how I love those words “stunning insights”! It’s those ‘aha’ moments that make students want to think–and that make us do what’s often: letting go of our control enough to make space for those moments to happen. Yeah!

  6. Two thoughts: One, I’m struck by how images are such powerful tools. Just watched a video (sound muted) of Little House on the Prairie to help students understand the US Westward Expansion. Engagement was high. We had to look closely and infer to understand. The “need to know,” to figure out naturally engaged us. Such a beautiful way to teach thinking with close observation. The bridge to close reading doesn’t seem that far removed from this work.

    And two, Matt’s hit on something extremely important, and not just for common core. Teachers who listen closely to students are engaged in student’s learning. The teacher/student relationship should be one of mutual engagement. As Matt said, “That way of listening is the teacher being engaged in a way that will support student engagement.” Perhaps we need to look closely at our students, using the “lens” of student engagement as a filter for our lessons.

    As always thank you for your words.

    • So much inferring can go on with visuals that I do believe it’s a powerful bridge–or scaffold–for close reading, especially the kind that empowers students to notice and then make something (e.g., an inference) from what they noticed, rather than bombarding them with questions. And your second point reminded me of similar epiphany I had in Reggio-Emilia last fall (where I met two of Matt’s colleagues): that there can be a kind of harmony between the way students and teachers both learn, with each involved in a kind of inquiry. In reading for the students that can be what’s the author really trying to show me. And for the teachers, the burning question can be what are the students showing me through the words they speak. Both require and support engagement, which all these comments are making me realize is as important for teachers as for students.

  7. Vicki, once again you’ve stretched my thinking. I’ve used anticipation guides in the past to build interest. I’ve also used visuals for a variety of purposes, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them in such a purposeful way as you describe here. Thanks so much for sharing your brilliant ideas.

    • And thanks, Catherine, for joining the conversation! This particular post and the comments people left have pushed my thinking as well. And yours reminds me of how important it is for us always to think about the purpose behind what we’re asking of students. Is it enough to just to entice them with something we’ve created or can we accomplish more than that by getting them thinking as well?

  8. Vicki,
    I believe “engagement” is thrown around about as casually as “close reading” these days so your focus is greatly appreciated. As I read your blog, I was thinking of Emily Calhoun’s Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM) and in fact I went back and reread about the three different levels. (http://www.vpaf.uni.edu/events/brc/documents/handout11/The%203%20levels%20of%20PWIM.pdf) Many primary teachers loved the level one posters for beginning language, vocabulary and writing skills. I saw the promise of PWIM for upper elementary and middle schoolers in level two and three which were only a part of our training for a short while so I am not sure if I have a clear picture of their potential.

    I believe your blog’s explanation of using the pictures with third grade students could qualify as a PWIM use. I could also envision this work being done with an infamous #wrrdchat “Know/ Wonder” chart as well. If we are clear about our “learning targets,” we can meet both our instructional targets and our thinking targets with PWIM. A sequence of pictures could serve to heighten interest and to create a sense of urgency about a topic that is not normally a high priority for students. Everyone would have equal access despite their background knowledge. True research involving reading and writing to answer student-generated questions would sustain the interest and engagement of students; no extrinsic motivators, silly rewards, and possibly even archaic grades would be necessary! (I see possibilities for evidence of learning of a variety of CCR Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, and Language Anchor Standards!)

    Thanks for reminding us of the value of curiosity when considering student engagement!

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