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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Build ‘Authentic Engagement’ & Not ‘Strategic Compliance’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 19, 2015 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What can we do to get all students in class participating more all the time?

In Part One of this series, William & Pérsida Himmele, Jennifer Gonzalez and Karen Lirenman shared their ideas. I also had a ten-minute conversation with William, Pérsida and Jennifer on this topic during my BAM! Radio show.

Today, educators Vicki Davis, Rusul Alrubail, Laura Cabrera and Dana Dusbiber contribute their suggestions. I also include comments from readers.

In addition, you might be interested in the resources I’ve compiled at The Best Posts & Articles On Student Engagement.

Response From Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full time classroom teacher in Camilla, Georgia and the uthor of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, Reinventing Writing and Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds. You can hear her bi-weekly show “Every Classroom Matters” on the Bam Radio Network:

We have an assortment of students in our rooms: different levels of introversion/ extroversion, learning styles, interests, cultures, and more. Teachers have an assortment of ways to encourage participation: here are three of my favorites.

1. Try Managed Classroom Conversations Instead of Open Conversation

I’ve found that “open conversation” -- where students speak when they want to be heard -- favors the most outspoken extroverts. If I want to hear from everyone, I let the students know that we are having a “classroom conversation.” Students raise their hand and I call on them. This way, I can encourage everyone to participate in the conversation.

Some elementary classes use a talking stick where each student holds a stick and adds their thoughts.

If I want things to be more open, but still want everyone to participate, use chat chips. Using this method, I give each student a certain number of “chat chips.” Each time a student contributes to the conversation, they toss their chip in the center bucket. Everyone must have all of their chips “spent” by the end of the discussion for a daily participation grade. In this approach, students consider what they want to add and introverted students work to contribute more quickly.

2. Add a Backchannel to Your Live Conversations

A backchannel is a chat conversation that accompanies a live presentation or discussion.Some classrooms will have an “inner circle” which is having the verbal conversation and the others who choose to communicate in the backchannel.

I prefer having everyone together on equal footing with a backchannel moderator acting as a bridge between the conversations. I will turn to the moderator and ask “what is the backchannel saying about this.” I’ve often found that introverted students will prefer to float ideas in a more nonthreatening text chat and if those ideas are noticed, will be happy to talk in the verbal conversation when brought in.

3. Gamify or add some fun

I have a classroom “reward card.” Students can redeem these cards for class or individual rewards. Getting a “punch” on the card is a big deal in my classroom. I can direct the type of participation that I’m encouraging through this system.

I might say:

“Today I’d like us to work on asking great questions of each other. I think that today great questions will be very ‘punch-worthy.’” or
“Today, we’re going to work on brainstorming and including everyone in the conversation. When I see groups who are working hard to make sure everyone contributes ideas, that is what I’m going to be rewarding today.”

Students want more than grades. They want fun, meaning and purpose. When we encourage the right behaviors students will become more engaged learners and the grades will follow. I’ve found that many students not motivated by grades are powerfully motivated this way.

Everyone In, Everyone Wins

A class with high levels of participation becomes a powerful learning machine. We can encourage participation in many more ways than just these three. Please share your ideas for encouraging more participation in the classroom.

Response From Rusul Alrubail

Rusul Alrubail is an Educator-in-Residence at Design Cofounders, where she helps with the development and facilitation of Education pathways in Design, Education & Entrepreneurship communities in Toronto. She also teaches composition, literature, and ELL to college students:

Student participation is a very important aspect in classroom learning for teachers and students. There are several strategies that teachers can implement and practice in their classroom to support student participation. These strategies are long term pedagogical goals for teachers. It is the hope that if they are practiced at all times in the classroom, especially in the beginning of the semester/year, then students will be willing to participate all the time.

Classroom Culture: Creating a safe, friendly and open classroom culture is key to helping students feel comfortable to participate. Teachers can foster such an environment in the beginning of the year through activities that allow students to get to know each other. My favourite ice breaker activity is called Ingredients of Me, where students write percentages of what makes them who they are, here’s a sample of some of my students’ responses:

Classroom culture can be created by:

- communicating expectations clearly at the beginning of the year.

- learning students’ names (you can use name tents until you’re familiar with all students’ names).

- Engaging in fun discussions about readings, current events, school initiatives.

- Encourage students to communicate and work with each other. This will help in their future participation.

Student voice: Empowering student voice in the classroom also helps with encouraging students to participate all the time.

  • Give students a choice: this can mean a choice in assignments or a choice in readings.
  • Speak to them as your equals: this is so important because it empowers students to form their own thoughts and ideas to share with the class.
  • Allow them to make classroom decisions: deadlines, projects, presentations, school & community involvement.

Through fostering and building a classroom culture that is inclusive, safe, and supportive of student voice, students will be encouraged to participate actively and be engaged in their own learning. Student autonomy/voice is important to support in the classroom, and when students are invested in not only what they’re learning but also “how” and “why” they’re learning they are motivated to be involved.

Last semester I decided to try out digital storytelling with my classroom. This was to try to engage learners using different channels of participation, but also to strengthen communication skills. One of my students who is an English Language Learner found this to be a great way to express himself and introduce us to his culture. Here is his digital storytelling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA0XyjtIIuQ

A few things about classroom participation:

  • students’ personalities and various learning abilities is important to consider.
  • students can participate through many mediums based on their learning needs: blogging, reflecting, group discussions, classroom discussions, talent (art), writing, back channeling, twitter, debates, plays, and many others.
  • communication: even after practicing all the above things, and some students are still not participating, having an open dialogue about your expectations will help. Perhaps there’s a serious underlying issue that needs to be resolved, or perhaps there is a learning need that has not been met.

Response From Laura Cabrera

Laura Colosi (now Cabrera), an author and internationally recognized expert in parenting and education, holds a PhD from Cornell University where she taught for many years, and is co-Founder and senior faculty at Cabrera Research Lab in Ithaca, New York. She has more than fifteen years of research and teaching experience and is the co-author of Thinking at Every Desk: Four Simple Skills to Transform Your Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2012). Visit her at cabreraresearch.org:

The simple answer to the challenge of increasing student participation is found in changing our understanding student engagement. As educators, we must seek out authentic engagement, and recognize that many of the students we think are engaged (e.g. our “A” students) are really just strategically compliant. In other words, they have mastered the art of school but not the art of learning. So, the question is then, how do we foster authentic engagement in all students to increase their participation?

Authentic engagement is the result of challenging students to think. After all, we all see younger children who are naturally curious, inclined to think, solve problems, and seek understanding of anything and everything. Evidence suggests that we actually test our kids out of that natural state of engagement and curiosity beginning in third grade. So then, how do we increase participation AND engagement among all students, from PreK to PhD? We need to capture students’ senses, cause them to wonder, engage their thinking, and challenge their minds.

Thinking is the root of engagement. When we consider how best to engage students and get them to participate in class more, it’s the same as asking ourselves, “How do we get our students thinking?” First, we must teach our students not only course content, but also the very processes they use to understand that content. In other words, we must move beyond teaching them what to know to also teaching them how they know.

How do we use technology to increase student participation? We must seek out tools and technologies that increase students’ awareness of their own thinking, which is what leads to higher engagement and class participation. In particular, technologies that help students visualize or physicalize their thinking are particularly useful. Such tools are powerful for this purpose because our cognition is intimately tied to our visual (eyes) and tactile (hands/experiential) perception, our senses of sight and touch.

Two tech tools that engage these powerful senses and that I’ve found particularly effective for increasing class participation are (1) ThinkBlocks and (2) Visual Mapping resources like MetaMaps:

  • ThinkBlocks are simple, transparent, dry-erasable, nest-able blocks. They are visual and tactile organization tools designed to help kids become more aware of their thought processes. In other words, by interacting with ThinkBlocks, students can see their own thinking and physically manipulate the ideas that are represented by the blocks.

  • Visual Mapping methods, such as MetaMap, can be drawn with pencil and paper or created using online software. They are a visual map of both the content a student is trying to learn and the thought process the student uses to gain understanding of that content. These maps, referred to as “meta-maps,” are specifically designed to increase students meta-cognition, or awareness of their thinking processes. It is meta-cognition that allows students to become empowered, lifelong learners, because awareness of their own thinking process enables them to understand anything they encounter, regardless of grade or topic. As such, MetaMaps help kids SEE their thinking process through the power of visual mapping.

Both of these tools and technologies are being used successfully to transform classroom instruction as well as increase engagement with online courses and flipped classrooms across the country. And, more importantly, any activity or technology that increases student thinking will increase engagement.

Response From Dana Dusbiber

Dana Dusbiber is an English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California:

Because most of my students come to the learning environment with a multitude of challenges related to poverty, I find that the best way for us to learn and grow both individually and together--and the way that also maximizes the opportunity for all to participate and engage--is to offer lots of choice in the classroom. At our school we begin each English class period with student-choice reading. Students and I begin our time together with each member of class feeling like he/her has a “say” in what happens--we pick the book we wish to read, enjoy our reading process, and respond in real-life ways. We are more eager to read and examine academic texts together when we feel we have choices in the book that we read.

We use Writer’s Notebooks for a variety of purposes throughout the year. The notebooks are a place where students can exercise choice by selecting from creative writing topic lists and by responding to Writing Workshop mini-lesson activities in individual ways. I like that the notebooks offer me another way to dignify the learning processes that occur in the classroom. I cannot always control the ways in which my students need to learn, but I can provide them with a safe place in which to figure out their own learning path. If they can sometimes choose what they want to write, I can more easily guide them through a scaffolded writing process that results in an essay important to their academic process.

Responses From Readers

Jill Berkowicz:

Allow the focus to be learning not teaching. Create an environment in which they create understanding by questioning, investigating, researching, sharing, reaching out beyond the classroom, and making sense of the concepts and skills along the way. It works.

Dina DiBenedetto Linkenhoker:

Allow them to work cooperatively and talk to each other!

Thanks to Vicki, Rusul, Laura, and Dana, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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