Inquiry to Practice: How I Implemented my Findings in the Field

As a refresher, before going into my pre-internship I was looking at ways to get students interested and authentically engage with classroom content. I found out about five kinds of engagement in the classroom:

  • Authentic Engagement—students are immersed in work that has clear meaning and immediate value to them (reading a book on a topic of personal interest)
  • Ritual Compliance—the work has little or no immediate meaning to students, but there are extrinsic outcomes of value that keep them engaged (earning grades necessary for college acceptance)
  • Passive Compliance—students see little or no meaning in the assigned work but expend effort merely to avoid negative consequences (not having to stay in during recess to complete work)
  • Retreatism—students are disengaged from assigned work and make no attempt to comply, but are not disruptive to the learning of others
  • Rebellion—students refuse to do the assigned task, act disruptive, and attempt to substitute alternative activities

(Hurst, Stacy. “Seven Ways to Increase Student Engagement in the Classroom.” Reading Horizons, http://www.readinghorizons.com/blog/seven-ways-to-increase-student-engagement-in-the-classroom.)

 

I was happy to find that I did not have many students in the “Retreatism” or “Rebellion” levels. There were a few in the top tier, and then a mix of students in the “Passive Compliance” and “Ritual Compliance” levels. Since we were doing a fairytale unit, I was able to bring in content that the students found interesting. The first week, I played some fun activities for 3-5 minutes over a few days to get to know my students. I made keen observations to get to know their personalities and learning styles. This helped me plan my activities and content to suit their needs. I brought in feminist retellings of fairytales, as well as the original versions compared with modern ones, which got the students producing amazing pieces of writing responses. They were able to expand their thinking and look at fairytales critically. It was interesting to see them question their own prior understanding of some of these stories, and to challenge societal constructs. Even students who seemed like they were not engaged — perhaps due to my instructional strategies not suiting them, which is something I need to work on — had great, insightful written responses.


 

Some of the strategies to increase student engagement that history teacher, David Cutler, had listed were as follows:

  • Connect Content With Meaning
    • I did so by bringing in fairytales to look at from different perspectives and lenses. I allowed choice when it came to the representations students could choose to look for in our movie for a film critique assignment: gender, sexuality, race, violence, family, and appropriateness for children. This produced an array of opinions and personal connections.
  • Give Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments
    • I allowed for students to do a lot of “quick-writes”, which are exactly as they sound — quick writing assignments that are personal, focus on content rather than style or mechanics, and allow students to practice and build their general writing skills.
  • Don’t Penalize Errors Harshly
    • When submitting their literary critiques, I allowed students to hand in a rough draft beforehand for editing. I offered advice and highlighted areas of improvement to allow them to deliver a better end result.

Overall, I think because of the content of the unit I did, students were quite engaged for the most part. There is always room for improvement, though, and I hope to continue to use these techniques — as well as new ones — to increase student engagement. It’s hard to imagine most students at the “Authentic Engagement” level, but with hard work, using relationships to help plan, and varied content, it is definitely possible.

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“Making Learning Meaningful and Lasting”

This article that I found is written by a history teacher who was looking into ways to make his content more meaningful for his students. I thought I could look at his ideas and think about how I might apply them to the ELA classroom.


Connect Content With Meaning

My student found no reason to remember facts which meant little to her personally. Throughout the year, I had failed to encourage her to connect her own experiences and interests to the content. As McDaniel tells me, “Techniques that stimulate the learner to bring in a lot of prior knowledge and personal experience help make the learning more meaningful.” I now champion the art of historical inquiry over breadth of coverage, and I strive to connect what students care about in the news, such as police shootings and protests, to the Civil Rights Movement and the United States Constitution.

This is something that can be done easily in the ELA classroom. Upon figuring out interests of students, I could potentially base readings and assignments around those interests. What students care about in the news is definitely a major source of content inspiration these days. There is plenty to be found in young adult literature that can be brought into the classroom – for instance:

  • Books like Dear Martin by Nic Stone, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas talk about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Novels such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie deal with growing up as an Indigenous teenager
  • Books such as Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson deal with being an LGBT+ teenager and coming out
  • Books like Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven tackle issues regarding teen mental health
  • And even dystopias and science-fiction such as The Mazer Runner by James Dashner or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins deal with issues such as oppression and classism

Give Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments

As a rookie teacher, I failed to recognize that assessments should be used to gauge learning progress — not simply to test how much data a student can squeeze into his or her brain. Furthermore, since I formerly gave fewer assessments, each carried significantly more weight. Not surprisingly, my students cared more about seeing the final grade, and not reviewing their mistakes. McDaniel says that frequent low-stakes assessments signal to grade-worried students that, as he puts it, “we’re not testing, we’re helping you learn.” This strategy reinforces the learning and improves long-term memory, no matter how familiar or redundant students may regard certain quiz material.

In one of my ELNG classes, we have talked a lot about the art of “low-stakes writing”, which essentially just means getting students writing without worrying about grades to increase interest and skill. This can be something as simple as establishing journal-writing at the beginning of every class period with fun and engaging prompts. I love this idea and would definitely incorporate it in my future classrooms.


Don’t Penalize Errors Harshly

Along these lines, in most cases I give students opportunities for full or partial retakes, no matter what grade they receive on an assessment. As I often write, I’m not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept — just that it is in fact mastered. McDaniel reinforces my philosophy, saying, “I think the culture of the classroom and teaching has to change so that errors are viewed as an opportunity to improve and correct yourself.” This certainly creates more work for the teacher, but it’s well worth that effort if even one more student feels secure in making mistakes and recovering from failure.

This is another idea that can be applied in the ELA classroom to increase engagement. When it comes to large writing assignments such as essays and research papers, students should be given opportunities to see where they can improve. I might do this by allowing students to submit drafts, that I could then edit and comment on, and then they could use those comments to further their writing. This way, the final product I get in for marking is one that will be revised and polished as best as possible.


 

(Cutler, David. “Making Learning Meaningful and Lasting.” Edutopia, 14 Sept. 2015, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/making-learning-meaningful-and-lasting-david-cutler.)

Increasing Relevance

Here are a few tips for making learning engaging and personally relevant, according to Willis, Faeth, and Immordino-Yang:

1. Use suspense and keep it fresh.

“Drop hints about a new learning unit before you reveal what it might be, leave gaping pauses in your speech, etc; all this can activate emotional signals and keep student interest piqued.”

2. Make it student-directed.

Give students a choice of assignments on a particular topic, or ask them to design one of their own. “When students are involved in designing the lesson,” write Immordino-Yang and Faeth, “they better understand the goal of the lesson and become more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes.”

3. Connect it to their lives and what they already know.

Taking the time to brainstorm about what students already know and would like to learn about a topic helps them to create goals — and helps teachers see the best points of departure for new ideas. Making cross-curricular connections also helps solidify those neural loops.

“With no reference point and no intrigue”, say Willis, Immordino-Yang, and Faeth, “information is fairly likely to go in one ear and straight out the other.”

4. Provide utility value.

Utility value answers the question, “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?”

Utility value emphasises the importance that content has for the students’ future goals–both short-term and long-term. Utility value provides relevance first by piquing students telling them the content is important to their future goals; it then continues by showing or explaining how the content fits into their plans for the future.

This helps students realise the content is not just interesting but also worth knowing.

5. Build relatedness.

Relatedness, on the other hand, answers the question, “What this have to do with me?”

It is an inherent need students have to feel close to the significant people in their lives, including teachers.

The non-academic side of relatedness emphasises the relationship the instructor has with students: students need to feel close to their teachers and are more likely to listen to, learn from, and identify with the ones they like. This is why genuine enthusiasm expressed during instruction is important; it shows students how important the content is to the instructor.

Helping support this relationship is the academic side of relatedness that emphasises helping students see how current learning relates to their own knowledge and experience and their future learning. Students recognise how much effort it can take to provide relevance, and they see the effort expended on them as care. Students often respond to this perceived care by caring about the teacher and what he or she teaches.

 

(Briggs, Saga. “How To Make Learning Relevant To Your Students (And Why It’s Crucial To Their Success).” InformED, 4 Oct. 2014, http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/how-to-make-learning-relevant/.)

ECS 350 Inquiry Project

How can I differentiate according to student interest and using content that is relevant to their lives? How will I keep them engaged?

I decided to conduct my inquiry on ways to increase student engagement and interest in the English Language Arts classroom. Some of my guiding questions include:

  • What are some ways I can learn about students and their interests?
  • How can I connect class content to what is important to my students?
  • How can I get students to care about information that may not be important to them, but is relevant to their peers?

To increase engagement, I must first understand what I am looking for. I found a great article that highlights levels of engagement; as a teacher, being aware of these levels can help one to plan and realize how engaged the students really are. This can help try to figure out what to do to increase engagement and interest. Here are the five “levels” of engagement we might see our students exhibit:

  • Authentic Engagement—students are immersed in work that has clear meaning and immediate value to them (reading a book on a topic of personal interest)
  • Ritual Compliance—the work has little or no immediate meaning to students, but there are extrinsic outcomes of value that keep them engaged (earning grades necessary for college acceptance)
  • Passive Compliance—students see little or no meaning in the assigned work but expend effort merely to avoid negative consequences (not having to stay in during recess to complete work)
  • Retreatism—students are disengaged from assigned work and make no attempt to comply, but are not disruptive to the learning of others
  • Rebellion—students refuse to do the assigned task, act disruptive, and attempt to substitute alternative activities

(Hurst, Stacy. “Seven Ways to Increase Student Engagement in the Classroom.” Reading Horizons, http://www.readinghorizons.com/blog/seven-ways-to-increase-student-engagement-in-the-classroom.)

Ideally, we would want all students to be at the “Authentic Engagement” level, but we know that’s not always the case. I believe that to get students out of the “Rebellion” and “Retreatism” levels, we have to take it upon ourselves to figure out why they are acting that way. That comes back to the root of my inquiry – how to increase student interest – because a lot of the times, students that are in those levels are there because they cannot find it relatable or intriguing personally.

Hurst goes on to explain that although the above-mentioned levels are attributed to individual students, we can also try to measure the class engagement level as a whole. These are listed as follows:

  • The Engaged Classroom
    • In the engaged classroom you will observe that all students are authentically engaged at least some of the time or that most students are authentically engaged most of the time.  Passive compliance and retreatism is rarely observed and rebellion is non-existent.
  • The Compliant Classroom
    • The compliant classroom is the picture of traditional education. This type of classroom is orderly and most students will appear to be working so it would be easy to infer that learning is taking place. However, while there is little evidence of rebellion, retreatism is a very real danger as it is very common in the compliant classroom.
  • The Off-Task Classroom
    • Retreatism and rebellion are easily observed in the off-task classroom. This type of classroom is each-student-for-them-self so you will see some degree of authentic and ritual engagement, along with passive compliance as well. Teachers in the off-task classroom spend most of their time dealing with rebelling students rather than teaching lessons that engage.

(Hurst, Stacy. “Seven Ways to Increase Student Engagement in the Classroom.” Reading Horizons, http://www.readinghorizons.com/blog/seven-ways-to-increase-student-engagement-in-the-classroom.)

After reading this article, I think that the first step to increasing engagement and interest is by coming to terms with where the class and students are at in the first place.

Curriculum as Numeracy

Math has always played a huge role in my life. My grandfather was a math teacher and professor for 40+ years — he retired at 70 because he just did not want to stop teaching and was so passionate about the subject. When he finally did retire, he still did not stop passing on his love for math. Instead he’d get all the grandkids to sit around the kitchen table and teach us. Now this was back when I was living in Pakistan for a year, so I learned things the way they do there. I learned the tips and techniques relevant for the type of math that is taught in Pakistan (which is the same math, essentially, but done in different ways). For some stuff such as trigonometry, they start teaching it at earlier grade levels. When I came back to Canada, and applied those methods, I was told I was wrong. I was told to do things the Eurocentric way that is taught here, and to “forget” the way I was taught things. For me, it was more than just math, it was a connection to my grandfather, so being told that that was wrong was oppressive. Being told that I wasn’t doing things right even though I was getting the same results with my ways of knowing was oppressive. This type of teaching is discriminatory because there could be tons of other people who use different methods, but if the results are the same, is it really an issue? This is something which made me start to dislike math in high school because I had to rewire my way of doing things and was constantly told it was wrong. The same is probably true for students of other various cultural backgrounds, such as FNMI peoples, who may have learned things differently in childhood.


Ways in which Inuit math difers from Eurocentric math:

  • Inuit math uses a base system of twenty as opposed to the Eurocentric ten.
  • The body is used as a measuring tool by Inuit people.
  • Inuit people learn by observing Elders rather than pen-and-paper practicing.