Published Online: June 5, 2012

Student Engagement Strategy: Make Learning Public

I really struggled during my first year teaching 10th grade global history in the Bronx. My students were not engaged, and many were downright resistant. About halfway through the year, I had the idea to hold a history fair, modeled on the National History Day competition. I imagined something similar to the middle school science fairs I experienced as a student, with the library or cafeteria filled with students showing off weeks of work.

With support from my principal, I dropped everything I had planned for my course to concentrate on the fair. During the following weeks, my previously disengaged students worked harder than they ever had before. The Saturday before our school fair, nearly half my students came in to work on their projects. The night before, I had to kick a dozen students out of my classroom at 8 p.m.

At this first fair, more than 90 percent of my students presented successful research papers, documentaries, and exhibits to an audience of older students, community members, and parents. Before that, I never had more than 50 percent of my students complete a project on time.

The momentum from that first fair carried through the rest of the year. The success students felt after taking on this major project fundamentally changed how they viewed themselves as learners.

I've led an annual social studies fair for six years now. These events bring out my students' best efforts and showcase their authentic intellectual work. Here are my suggestions for ensuring that students get the most out of these public displays of learning.

• Give students maximum choice of topics.

Whenever possible, I let my students choose their own research topics—within limits. When I taught government this year, for example, students chose a public policy issue they wanted to learn about. And when I've coordinated with National History Day, students chose any topic connected to its annual theme, as long as we had previously studied the topic in class.

I always tell my students that selecting a topic is the most important decision they make for a major project. Students who find topics they are genuinely interested in have transformative experiences; others wind up doing just another class project. We spend a full day in class brainstorming subjects and exploring possibilities. Once students decide on a topic, they must prove to me in writing that they care about it.

• Allow students some choice in how they demonstrate learning.

National History Day gives students the option to present their work in one of five forms: research paper, exhibit, documentary, website, or dramatic performance. I provide students with those same options. While the overwhelming majority choose to create exhibits, giving choices for content as well as product allows students to play to their strengths and become further invested in their work.

With that said, too much choice here can be a bad thing. If I told my students to "choose a way to demonstrate their learning," most would be stumped, or would fall back on an essay. By giving a limited number of options, each with guidelines and models, students can pick a medium that works best for them.

• Model the skills students need to be successful.

It's important for teachers to remember just how many skills are involved in conducting research—especially when the assignment is most students' first major research project, as is often the case in my classes.

Students need to generate questions, find and evaluate print and online sources, use index and search functions to quickly find information, identify useful and relevant information, take notes, document sources, synthesize information, analyze information, and create an argument.

For each step, I explicitly model the skill using a research project of my own before letting students practice. One exercise that works well is having students evaluate Wikipedia pages on subjects they know a lot about, asking them to investigate claims, sources, and hyperlinks.

• Provide students with time and space to work.

As students practice new skills, it's essential that most of the work happens in the classroom. At these moments, my role shifts from a traditional teacher to a coach. I observe, ask questions, and point out what students are doing well. When students are on computers, I am constantly walking around, looking over their shoulders, and questioning them about why they are using particular websites.

Classroom work time also ensures that students practice skills at a steady pace rather than saving assignments until the last minute.

• Encourage students to revise and practice.

This is a simple step. Though not all my students end up with time to revise, the best projects are always the ones that have gone through multiple revisions.

Also important for the success of the culminating event is an in-class practice run. This is a step I overlooked in earlier years. Now, I do a run-through of the big event: Half the class presents their work and the other half serves as the audience. This step has strengthened the quality of students' oral presentations.

• Set an authentically high-stakes deadline.

I have taught in schools at which a significant number of students struggle to meet deadlines, if they complete work at all. Even in my best years, only 70 to 80 percent of my students complete their major work on time. Yet for every one of my social studies fairs, at least 90 percent of my students have successfully completed their work on time.

This is because there is no chance to make up the project. Students know I have invited guests to see their work, so they rise to the occasion.

• Invite an audience.

Finally, and most important, students need a real audience. Each year, I invite community members, local officials, alumni, families, press, and other teachers to come see my students' work. Knowing their work will be on display to the public, students put their best efforts forward.

The public audience is what makes the project authentic and meaningful for students. They are no longer working for a grade, but to educate and influence the public.

Elementary and middle school educators quite commonly host events that showcase and celebrate students' academic work. I have never understood why these practices rarely extend to high schools. It's time for more high school units to end with public displays of learning.

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