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Dear IC

Dear IC…Authentic Student Engagement

Dear IC,
I feel like I’m in a pretty good place now. To start, Thanksgiving break was AWESOME. I forgot what it was like to sleep. Oh, and Winter Break is only three weeks away? Yeah, I’m in a good place… But also really with classes. Students are generally compliant and do what I ask. Our scores on exit tickets and assessments are pretty good and sometimes better than pretty good (brushing shoulders off); and I think I’ve built some fairly positive relationships with my students and a number of their parents. That being said, I still feel like there’s more to this than the day-to-day grind, and I want my students to be truly engaged in their learning and also in my class. Sometimes I just worry that they think my class is boring even though they are learning. Do you have suggestions for me and my kids?


Wanda Grow

Dear Wanda,

Why yes, yes I do. But let me start by first saying that I’m happy you’ve reached this point and that you’re still looking for ways to improve your practice. The best teachers are those who constantly assess the current state of their classroom and continuously diagnose and problem-solve ways to improve. So you’re among good company.

To understand the next steps, let’s start by taking a look at how you got to the point where your students are working and complying with most directives without too much hesitation or pushback. Whether it was inherently easy for you to foster a well-managed classroom or if it’s been a constant source of consternation that resulted in more sleepless nights than Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan spent pining for a transcontinental romance, the predominant modality through which we create this controlled environment is fundamentally limiting–limiting in that a controlled environment, by definition, requires a measure of suppression and restriction of student behaviors.

As newer teachers, we spend a large chunk of time reining-in student behavior and trying to force them into the box of what we’re told a “well-managed classroom” looks like to the point that, though maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, we feel sometimes more like a baby-sitter than we do a teacher. And once you get to the point you’re at as a teacher, and you’re humming along, it’s difficult to then say to yourself, “Hey this is good… now let me change it.” There is a natural reluctance to tinker with a functioning status quo. Especially when you’ve worked so hard to get to this point, and you’re feeling good about student achievement and classroom management. But who wants to make it to base camp? Since when was that the final goal?

The best way I can push you and your students to greater authentic engagement is to tell you to put the ownership back on them. Right now I’m imagining that you’re doing the majority of the heavy lifting in your classroom. You’re asking the questions, carrying the conversation, and answering the questions. I guess the best description is to say that you’re intimately involved with most steps of the lesson in its execution and with the spotlight on you, you’re doing fine. But it’s one thing to ask students the right questions and have some of them respond; it’s another to force them to ask the right questions and then have them answer them for themselves. Think about a psychiatrist: They’re never going to answer the questions for you. They’re just going to turn the question around and ask you what you think (and they get paid to do this). You need to turn the ownership back onto your students. Let them talk to each other more and then bring back the contributions to the whole group. Let them process and think and talk and wait.

Will this be easy? Absolutely not. A lot of this is going against what you’ve done to get to this point. And you know what? As you push for more engagement and more student involvement, it’s going to be messy some days. You’re previously beautiful classroom full of young scholars that sit and copy definitions won’t necessarily be the same quiet place it was before. You can live in a place where everything is controlled and safe, or you can step out of the cave and see what’s outside. And I promise you’ll never want to go back. So in this last month leading into your next happy place (holiday break), I encourage you to think about how you can turn the classroom over to your students by increasing the amount of time they spend thinking, speaking, and writing while simultaneously decreasing your dominion over the process. Best of luck!

-IC Logan Quinn



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