Wednesday / May 22

Engagement is More Than a State of Mind—It’s a State of Doing

Sometimes it’s not until after we coach and teach that the “Aha” moment hits us. The other day, a wonderful teacher, Sue Smith, and I were sitting on the windowsill in her classroom, casually debriefing about how the lesson had gone. Sue said something in such a way that jolted my thinking—and her thinking—many miles forward:

“It seems that the students who are engaged are those who are the thinkers, writers, and good readers,” she mused.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Weren’t they engaged by the reading, writing and thinking?  Wasn’t the very act of reading, writing and thinking what made them be engaged?”

“Yeah, maybe, I think so, actually!” Sue tossed her hair back and laughed.

See, we do what Sue did all the time. We qualify what our students can do when we are uncertain about the beauty of our own teaching. It is like, in a way, we are putting ourselves down—and I believe we really need to stop doing that.

Owning the Role We Play in Engaging Students

The tasks we give our students in our classrooms are what engage them—and here I mean ‘task’ in the grander sense of the word. A task, in my mind, is when students are doing the work of the lesson, not you. Tasks don’t need to be dull and chore-like; they can be satisfying, exciting opportunities to do something really engaging.

In some roundabout way we sometimes get it wrong. By saying, “If students are engaged, they will be able to do the work,” we are in essence forgetting that it is the work—that specific task—that is engaging. The task is what makes students engaged. When we start that sentence with ‘if’, it is almost as if we are likening the concept of being engaged to a fixed mental trait. If we saw ‘engaged’ as a personality trait, we might also say, “If students are driven, they will be able to read, write and think.” This, we know, is completely not true. I have one daughter who is driven; it is part of who she is. I have another daughter who is more laid back. Both of my daughters, of course, have the potential to be readers, writers and thinkers.

Let’s own what our students can do because of how we set up the reading, writing and thinking work in our classrooms. Let’s stop thinking that “engagement” is this elusive state, and remember it’s a state brought on by our own actions—it’s an active involvement students have in something interesting that we’ve constructed. By making this mental shift, we teachers can see that we have a lot more control over bringing about student engagement.

Purposeful Tasks = Participation = Engagement

It is the way we set up lessons and student tasks that builds student engagement. Students don’t have to be engaged to participate; they need to participate to engage.

When you are sitting down to plan a lesson, and you begin to think about your objective for the lesson, I challenge you to think about what the student task is.  Whatever the student task is, it is the “juicy” part of the lesson. We need to involve our students in purposeful engagements, or tasks—for lack of a better word—that put into motion the kinds of academic moves that carry them away in their work. It is in this way that the work becomes truly theirs, not yours—not something they are merely getting done for the teacher.

Here’s one simple but profound way to get students engaged with the task at hand: switch up the old “I Do,” “We Do,” “You Do” sequence. It can be really boring and unproductive for our students to wait for long periods of time while we routinely go through the “I Do” portion of our lessons, only to move on to the “We Do” portion of the lesson where we painstakingly practice with students, and finally get to the “You Do” when they have been itching to do the doing all along.

Here are two new options for how to do this:

  • “I Do” (in a way that I am modeling so the students can see themselves doing the reading, writing and thinking), then straight to “You Do” (with me standing beside the student, coaching).
  • “We Do” (quickly, just until the students get it so the class can move onto trying it out for themselves), and then straight to “You Do.”

What Does Task Work Look Like at its Very Best?

When we focus on crafting an effective student task, we are really focused on equipping students with the wings that will lift them to independence. This is because, through doing these tasks, students are practicing the skills and strategies that will help them become strong, independent learners capable of reading, writing and thinking in a variety of ways and in all disciplines.

It is this striking work we do every day in literacy that builds our students’ interests and desires—moving them to absorb all that the book they are reading may have to offer, or to unleash all of their words on paper to share the brilliance of their thinking. This is task work at its very best.

So today, just before you launch into a literacy lesson, pause and ask yourself, “What’s the student task?” Or “What’s the ST?” as one young teacher quipped. Then, launch into the modeling, thinking aloud, and sharing that I know will guide students to own the work for themselves, in their own way.

Written by

Nancy Akhavan is the author of This Is Balanced Literacy, The Big Book of Literacy Tasks, and The Nonfiction Now Lesson Bank, as well as a speaker who works with teachers and leaders across the U.S. Nationally, Nancy provides professional development and consulting to organizations, schools and school districts. She coaches school leaders and leadership teams to develop effective instructional practices focused on student achievement, to create systems for organizational effectiveness in management and to create coherence within school districts and schools. She has also provided professional development to school and district leaders on leadership, literacy and equity and has helped hundreds of teachers in their classrooms.

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