The Highly Engaged Classroom

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Student engagement happens as a result of a teacher's careful planning and execution of specific strategies. This self-study text provides in-depth understanding of how to generate high levels of student attention and engagement. Using the suggestions in this book, every teacher can create a classroom environment where engagement is the norm, not the exception.

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Introduction

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The Highly Engaged Classroom is part of the series of books collectively referred to as The Classroom Strategies Series. The purpose of this series is to provide teachers as well as building and district administrators with an in-depth treatment of research-based instructional strategies that can be used in the classroom to enhance student achievement. Many of the strategies addressed in this series have been covered in other works such as The Art and Science of Teaching (Marzano, 2007), Classroom Management That Works (Marzano, 2003), and Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Although those works devoted a chapter or part of a chapter to particular strategies, The Classroom Strategies Series devotes an entire book to an instructional strategy or set of related strategies.

Engagement is obviously a central aspect of effective teaching. If students are not engaged, there is little, if any, chance that they will learn what is being addressed in class. A basic premise of this book is that student engagement happens as a result of a teacher’s careful planning and execution of specific strategies. In other words, student engagement is not serendipitous. Of course, no teacher will have all students engaged at high levels all of the time; however, using the suggestions presented in this book, every teacher can create a classroom environment in which engagement is the norm instead of the exception.

 

Chapter 1 Research and Theory

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Student engagement has long been recognized as the core of effective schooling. In the book Engaging Schools, the National Research Council’s Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn (2004) explains that “research on motivation and engagement is essential to understanding some of the most fundamental and vexing challenges of school reform” (p. 14).

Despite its obvious importance to teaching and learning, engagement is not an easily defined construct. As Ellen Skinner, Thomas Kindermann, James Connell, and James Wellborn (2009) stated, “There is, of course, no single correct definition of engagement” (p. 224). They noted that a variety of constructs seem to overlap in meaning and use—specifically motivation, engagement, attention, interest, effort, enthusiasm, participation, and involvement. Because our audience is the classroom teacher as opposed to researchers and theorists, we do not attempt to reconcile differences among researchers and theorists regarding Skinner and her colleagues’ constructs. Rather, our attempt is to articulate an internally consistent perspective on engagement that K–12 classroom teachers can use to plan and execute specific strategies that enhance student engagement. We first examine the four topics that constitute our model of attention and engagement and are typical aspects of any engagement discussion: (1) emotions, (2) interest, (3) perceived importance, and (4) perceptions of efficacy.

 

Chapter 2 How do I Feel?

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As we saw in chapter 1, a student’s answer to the emblematic question “How do I feel?” is a composite function of at least three factors: the student’s level of energy, the demeanor of the teacher, and the student’s perception of acceptance by the teacher and peers. If a student has little energy, he or she most likely will not attend to what is occurring in class. If a teacher’s general demeanor establishes a negative or overly serious affective tone, the student most likely will not attend to what is occurring in class. Finally, if a student does not feel accepted by the teacher or by peers, he or she will most likely not pay attention in class.

How students feel at any moment in time is a function of many factors, most of which are outside of a teacher’s sphere of influence. For example, a student’s home environment may not be emotionally supportive, or the student may not receive proper nutrition or proper rest. Similarly, a student could have rather severe psychological problems that lead to a clinical diagnosis. Unfortunately, teachers have little chance to address these issues in any systematic way. However, every teacher’s classroom can become a place that all students experience as lively, positive, and accepting. In this chapter, we consider five strategies teachers can use to increase the chance that students will have a positive response to the question “How do I feel?”: (1) using effective pacing, (2) incorporating physical movement, (3) demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm, (4) using humor, and (5) building positive teacher-student and peer relationships.

 

Chapter 3 Am I Interested?

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As described in chapter 1, the extent to which students pay attention in class is a function not only of how they feel but also of their level of interest. In other words, students will attend to activities in the classroom if they can affirmatively answer the question “Am I interested?” In this chapter, we consider four categories of strategies that stimulate student interest: (1) using games and inconsequential competition, (2) initiating friendly controversy, (3) presenting unusual information, and (4) questioning to increase response rates.

Games and inconsequential competition help trigger and maintain situational interest. Games should always have an academic focus. One way to maintain such a focus is to organize games around relevant vocabulary terms. After each game, the teacher leads students in a brief review of the terms that students found most challenging. Inconsequential competition can accompany games. As its name implies, this type of competition is just for fun. Students are organized into ad hoc groups or groups that last for a single lesson or unit. Throughout the year, students are continually regrouped so that all students experience winning and losing. Points are tallied to identify winning teams, but points are not used to increase or decrease students’ scores or grades. Here we consider two general categories of games and inconsequential competition: (1) vocabulary games and (2) turning questions into games.

 

Chapter 4 Is This Important?

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Chapters 2 and 3 addressed attention—teaching strategies that encourage students to occupy their working memories with what is occurring in class. This chapter and the next deal with engagement. Engagement is a much deeper and more long-term phenomenon than attention. Where attention applies to a specific event in class, engagement goes well beyond a single activity and even beyond a single class period. When students are engaged, they tend to think about the topic frequently and in-depth. Although the strategies addressed in this chapter and the next all have the goal of stimulating engagement, they do so in varying degrees and in different ways. To produce high engagement, teachers should use many of the strategies in this chapter and the next in concert.

This chapter focuses on fostering engagement using strategies that help students affirmatively answer the question “Is this important?” Obviously, if students do not perceive classroom tasks as important, engagement will be muted or nonexistent. As we have seen in chapter 1, something is considered important when it relates to the self-system—to that hierarchy of goals that can be considered the architect of motivation. To one extent or another, students are always behaving in such a way as to accomplish one or more goals. For example, at a very basic level, students (as well as everyone else) are always working to ensure that basic subsistence goals are being met regarding safety, food, and shelter. Perhaps a level up from subsistence goals are those regarding acceptance by peers and adults. Above those goals are a wide array of goals that address increased knowledge or skill in specific areas. For example, an individual might have the goal of increasing her knowledge of famous artists—not because she wishes to become an artist herself, but simply because increased understanding of the topic provides her with satisfaction. Another individual might have the goal of becoming a better golfer—one who can play eighteen holes of golf with a score under one hundred. Again, this is not because the individual wishes to make a living playing golf or wishes to become a champion at golf. Increased skill at the sport simply provides satisfaction.

 

Chapter 5 Can I do This?

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How students answer the emblematic question “Can I do this?” very much defines their sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is quite possibly the most important factor affecting engagement. Even if students feel good (“How do I feel?”), are interested in what is occurring (“Am I interested?”), and believe it to be important (“Is this important?”), they will probably not engage fully if they believe the task is impossible. In other words, if a student’s answer to the question “Can I do this?” is no, most, if not all, engagement is lost. In this chapter we address four strategies to enhance students’ sense of self-efficacy: (1) tracking and studying progress, (2) using effective verbal feedback, (3) providing examples of self-efficacy, and (4) teaching self-efficacy.

To develop a sense of self-efficacy, students can track their progress and then examine the relationship between their behavior and their academic achievement. A comprehensive approach to developing self-efficacy through tracking and studying progress would include tracking academic progress over time, setting personal academic goals, and examining effort and preparation.

 

Chapter 6 Planning for High Engagement

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In chapter 1, we provided a model that made a distinction between attention and engagement. Attention was described as a function of how a student answers the first two emblematic questions:

•How do I feel?

•Am I interested?

Engagement was defined as a function of how a student answers the last two emblematic questions:

•Is this important?

•Can I do this?

In chapters 2–5, we presented a variety of strategies organized within the framework of these questions. Although the four emblematic questions are useful in terms of organizing classroom strategies in a manner that is consistent with the research and theory, they are not the best framework for planning on a day-to-day basis.

Creating a classroom in which students are highly engaged doesn’t happen automatically. On a daily basis, teachers should consider specific engagement strategies to use prior to every unit of instruction. To this end, in this chapter we have organized the strategies presented in chapters 2–5 into three categories: (1) daily strategies, (2) opportunistic strategies, and (3) extended strategies, which go beyond the traditional structure of the classroom. A form with these planning questions is provided in appendix D (page 201).

 

Epilogue

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This book has been about classroom practices that can positively affect students’ attention and engagement. Our basic premise has been that both of these psychological phenomena are directly under the control of the classroom teacher. Consequently, there is no reason any student should be systematically bored, inattentive, or disengaged in any class at any grade level. Using the strategies presented in this book, teachers can plan for specific activities that positively affect students’ answers to the four emblematic questions: (1) “How do I feel?,” (2) “Am I interested?,” (3) “Is this important?,” and (4) “Can I do this?” In short, this book provides K–12 classroom teachers with the tools necessary to make their classrooms places of learning, high energy, positive feelings, and even fun.

At a deeper level, this book is about fairly radical change in the perspective of teaching. Specifically, the third and fourth emblematic questions (“Is this important?” and “Can I do this?”) open new vistas to classroom teachers, schools, and districts. Rather than focusing solely on academic content, K–12 curriculum can also address students’ self-awareness regarding what they consider important and how their personal theories of competence positively or negatively influence their lives. Ultimately, such awareness may be some of the more important and influential learnings students take from their K–12 experiences.

 

Appendix A: Answers to Exercises

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Answers to Exercise 2.1

Using Effective Pacing

1.What is the relationship between pacing, working memory, and attention?

Whatever a student is paying attention to occupies his or her working memory. For information to stay in working memory, students must consciously focus on it. Additionally, there is always a battle between working and permanent memory—that is, what is occurring in class and what has occurred in the outside world. If pacing is slow in class, students can easily tire of the content being addressed. In such cases, they will turn their attention (fill working memory) to content from permanent memory that might have nothing to do with what is occurring in class.

2.What are some limitations of pacing strategies in terms of keeping students’ attention?

Effective pacing cannot hold students’ attention in and of itself. At best, it simply decreases the chances a student will become distracted. Effective pacing might be considered a necessary but insufficient condition to trigger and maintain students’ attention.

 

Appendix B: What is an Effect Size?

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Reports on educational research use terms such as meta-analysis and effect size (ES). While these terms are without doubt useful to researchers, they may confuse or even frustrate the practitioner. So what does meta-analysis mean exactly? What is an ES? A meta-analysis is a summary, or synthesis, of relevant research findings. It looks at all of the individual studies done on a particular topic and summarizes them. This is helpful to educators in that a meta-analysis provides more and stronger support than does a single analysis (a meta-analysis is literally an analysis of analyses).

An average ES tells us about the results across all of the individual studies examined. For example, let us say the purpose of the meta-analysis is to examine multiple studies regarding the effect of attention and engagement strategies on student achievement (that is, the effect of X on Y). An average ES reports the results of all the included studies to tell us whether or not these strategies improve student achievement and, if so, by how much.

 

Appendix C: Sample Unusual Information

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Language Arts

Elementary School

1.The phrases only choice, freezer burn, and act naturally are all oxymorons.

2.The question “Do geese see God?” is a palindrome.

3.Pinocchio means pine eye in Italian.

4.Dav Pilkey created Captain Underpants when he was in second grade (Hatty, 2003).

5.In antiquity, people in Asia and Europe threw old shoes at newly married couples instead of rice or confetti (Panati, 1987).

Middle School

1.Even famous writers had humble beginnings: Amy Tan wrote horoscopes, Henry David Thoreau made pencils, Charles Bukowski was a mail carrier, and L. Frank Baum bred chickens (Barrett & Mingo, 2003; Platt, 2006).

2.Ernest Hemingway’s mother dressed him up as a girl when he was young and tried to pass him off as his older sister’s twin. She even called him Ernestine in public (Platt, 2006).

3.Ian Fleming was once in espionage training, but he failed when he lost his nerve and could not bring himself to shoot anyone. Ironic considering he later created the famous character James Bond (Platt, 2006).

 

Appendix D: Planning Questions

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Planning Questions

How will I demonstrate my enthusiasm?

• Personal stories

• Verbal and nonverbal signals

• Reviving the zest for teaching

What can I do today to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all students?

• Ensure students are not teased or bullied

• Establish expectations for fair and equitable treatment

Are there ways of showing interest in and affection for students that I will use in class today?

• Simple courtesies

• Using physical contact and physical gestures

• Attending to students’ needs and concerns

How can I gather positive information to use in building relationships?

• Structured opportunities to highlight students’ interests and accomplishments

• Parents and guardians

• Fellow teachers

During what activities today could I provide praise and feedback to students?

What are some phrases I should avoid when providing praise and feedback?

 



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