How to Embrace the Student Engagement Challenge

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“100-percent engagement, 100 percent of the time.”

Is this too lofty a goal? Some might say yes, likening it to the noble yet idealistic goal of ending poverty. But for my colleagues and me, this is not only a goal, but a consistent reality—every day, in every class.

In fact, 100-percent engagement is so firmly rooted in the culture of our school that we boldly offer this promise to our parents, community members, fellow educators, and policymakers: Come in at any time, announced or unannounced, walk into any classroom, and you will see every student deeply engaged with the task at hand. When people have taken us up on this challenge—including a recent visit from our state’s lieutenant governor—we have been able to demonstrate confidently that this level of engagement is indeed a reality.

So how do we do it? First, we acknowledge it was not always this way. As a small, innovative public high school operating in its 10th year, we struggled early on to find a unique approach that would translate into a common standard of teaching and learning success across the school. Some teachers were willing to try new practices in their classrooms, while others were content with a very traditional, teacher-centered approach. Over time, however, by tapping into a supportive network of other innovative schools, using instructional and leadership coaching that pushed us out of our respective comfort zones, and building our professional capacity through targeted professional development and follow-up, we have been able to develop a school culture that truly embodies our cutting-edge mission and vision.

Our school has adopted nontraditional approaches to teaching and learning. Just a few recent examples include:

• Biology students investigated the implications of how society uses inherited traits to place cultural value on segments of our population, and then they used a social media campaign to help redefine this cultural perception.

• In a co-taught humanities project, students created their own pseudo countries, which required them to justify details such as government and legal structures, monetary policy, and foreign diplomacy.

• A group of physics students designed and built a full-scale trebuchet—a medieval type of catapult—to demonstrate their in-depth knowledge of kinematics (the geometry of motion).

This kind of student-centered, project-based instructional practice reflects our goal of matching academic rigor with real-world relevance. Students are now able to exercise more choice and personal responsibility, enabling teachers to better customize a growth path that meets each student’s needs and interests.

At a broader level, the school’s governance has moved from a top-down, hierarchical model to a teacher-powered environment of shared leadership. This new model of intense collaboration and feedback has enabled our teaching staff to research and embrace other best practices, such as mastery-based learning, routine teacher rounds, cross-curricular projects, and a school-wide focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

The result is a powerful atmosphere of high academic expectations and strong, individualized support. While we still struggle with some of the same problems and setbacks that frustrate many schools and educators, we can confidently say that our teacher-powered, collaborative approach is working.

How do we know this approach is working? Beyond the standard measures of student outcomes such as test scores, graduation rates, and college retention rates, we know our approach works because of that holy grail of measures: true student engagement. This means we routinely hear student conversations outside of class about the things they are doing in class and that teachers have to regularly say things like, “Stop working and go take a break.” Visitors walk away from our classrooms saying they have never seen anything like this in a high school.

Case in point: We just finished a school-wide "Law & Order" project where cross-grade teams of students worked together to research evidence, develop expert witness testimony, and refine detailed arguments in hopes of winning a nonscripted mock trial. The trial was conducted at our local courthouse in front of an authentic audience of community members, including a number of practicing attorneys. After the trial, the audience shared many compliments with us about how engaged the students were—not just the students conducting the trials, but also the ones in the audience, who were intently watching and evaluating their peers. In fact, two of the observing attorneys shared that they had not seen this level of student engagement in a mock trial since law school; this tells me that we must be doing something right.

And while we are far from perfect, my colleagues and I can confidently point to students at our school who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks and know that they are learning critical skills beyond the academic curriculum that will serve them well for a lifetime. This authentic engagement speaks volumes beyond the data we have gathered.

We are often asked how other schools can replicate this level of success and engagement. The short answer is that it is not easy. But we are a school that is fortunate to have strong support from our community and a tireless staff committed to student-focused excellence. We constantly challenge what we do to see if it can be done better. More than the examples of best practices and approaches mentioned above, it is this essential ingredient, passion for continuous improvement, that allows us to create a school where students engage and thrive.

So, step up to the challenge today for your students, your school, and your community. While it may be difficult to achieve, “100-percent engagement, 100 percent of the time” is not a lofty goal. With a school culture that strives for continuous improvement, it is something that can be replicated anywhere.

Photo provided by author.

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