Contributed by Lois Brown Easton
Have you listened to a motivational speaker lately? I found myself watching a video of a well-known motivational speaker (who shall remain nameless!), and I was mesmerized. Afterwards, I realized that I already knew just about everything the speaker shared with her audience—nothing new—but the speaker’s engagement with her subject kept me leaning forward in my chair, watching her every move, and nodding my head in approval at what she designated through dramatic pauses (almost like drum rolls) as the key points of her advice.
So, did I do anything new with what I heard? Did I follow her fervent exhortations to rally my life? No, not really. Since I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know—and hadn’t done anything about, in the first place—I didn’t act upon her passion. But, I did pay attention to it; I was engaged in what she was saying.
This experience made me think of student engagement. I firmly believe that engagement is the first step towards learning and application of learning. And, I believe that adult engagement inspires (literally, “breathes life into”) student learning. However, adult engagement is only the first step. True student engagement requires much more than adult performance, even if it’s worthy of an Oscar.
Without an adult’s expressed engagement, however, students may not be invited into learning. Think of the over-the-top teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ben Stein could not have portrayed a more bored (and boring) economics teacher in that movie. No wonder the students slept, at least one drooling, rolled their eyes, or tuned out any way they could. “Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?” “Something d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics.” Sigh.
Re-imagine the scene with an engaged adult inviting students into learning. First, the teacher would have figured out what excited him or her about the Great Depression, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, the Laffer Curve, voodoo economics. As a former high school teacher, I can imagine a spellbinding (pun intended) unit based on the notion of “voodoo” politics, with students defining what that means (see Vice-President Bush, 1980, for starters), doing original research, writing a persuasive paper (Common Core anyone?) to make the case that a particular action represents voodoo politics, engaging in a debate with others, doing a newscast about their case, publishing their cases, voting on the best example, etc.
So, first, I’d have to get excited, interested, and engaged. Then, I’d need to communicate my excitement to students, maybe with a statement such as “Voodoo! When I was a kid, voodoo was pretty scary. I thought of voodoo as. . . .” I might show a film clip or read something dramatic about voodoo. I’d invite them to share their understandings of voodoo. Perhaps, I’d share the New York Times op ed of October 5, 2014, “Voodoo Economics: The Next Generation.” I’d pose a key question: “So what does voodoo have to do with politics? Should we be worried?”
I’d invite students to explore historical and current situations that might be considered voodoo politics and allow them to choose their focus as well as the ways they worked (pairs, groups, individually, using technology, going to primary resources) and how they presented their results. With me as their coach, they would plan their learning as well as their documentation of learning. Some of them might even get into the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act or the Laffer Curve! Some of them might get into Reaganonomics or the current stalemate in Congress.
But, student engagement starts with me, the adult learner. If I cannot get jazzed by something, how can I hope to get students jazzed by it? I need not only to have wonder, I need to share my wonder with students and invite them into the learning.
What has jazzed you in the past as a learner? How have you shared your excitement with students? As you think about the next few months of teaching and learning, what grabs you? What makes you want to learn? How can you share your enthusiasm with students and engage them, too?
In this series of blog posts about student engagement, I’ll explore other aspects of engagement, such as student voice and choice, relationships, accountability, and assessment.
In the meantime, make a list of topics related to what you teach and number them according to jazz factor for you: 1 = blues, 2 = syncopation, 3 =ragtime, and 4 = swing (or whatever represents your range from downbeat to upbeat). Then, think about how you could work your enthusiasms into what students learn.
Lois Easton works as a consultant, coach, and author. She is author of The Other Side of Curriculum: Lessons for Learners (2001, Heinemann), Engaging the Disengaged: How Schools Can Help Struggling Students Succeed (2008, Corwin), Protocols for Professional Learning (2009, ASCD), and Professional Learning Communities by Design: How Schools Can Help All Students Succeed (Corwin, 2011). She is editor of and contributor to 3 editions of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2004, 2008, 2015).