Keeping Engagement

Engagement is always a hot top in education.  From upper level missions and goals, down to the minutes of each class, we all want the students to be engaged.  Sometimes our activities allow easy access to engagement while others do not.

Flash back three years ago when I taught two classes of grade 9 science.  One was a full class of the 30 kids, many of which were very bright, while the other had 17 students, several which had learning disabilities.  The small class was pretty good, the big class… not so much.  There were a few times during the year that I said to myself that if I had a few more classes like the 30 student science 9 class, I would quit teaching. Too many of the students had that terrible mix of immaturity and apathy in the topics.  Obviously I had my own short-comings which didn’t help the situation.

This year I have two classes of science 9, and I can already feel the problems seeping in.  While we did a couple of interesting hands-on activities in our first few days, the last class we had was a mighty struggle.  Many students made it clear that they really don’t value what happens in the classroom.  We didn’t have a lab to work on, so this class was going to start with a bit of reading about matter, compounds and elements.  About 7 kids didn’t even fake trying to read. Constant prodding would get them to look scared for a few minutes but that didn’t last long.  A few other students also made it clear that they didn’t really plan on doing any work unless it was for marks.  This last issue I’m confident that I can deal with.  However, overall I know that I have to change some of my approaches.

Here’s the deal.  These kids will not want to read something for the sake of learning - they have too many distractions and other 15 year old things to think about.  They like doing labs  and hands on stuff and luckily I’m okay with navigating that part of education. But there are also many things in science 9 that require reading.  Things like atomic theory, particles and atoms, chemical and physical properties all require some direct access to knowledge and information.

So what’s a guy to do?  Well, when I look at an Understanding by Design (Udb) unit plan, I become clear on what goals and objectives I want the students to teach.  And there are many ways to do this.  In general, the learning plan can be carried out in a 5e fashion:

Engage: revisit a known topic and perform lab(s) to observe interesting phenomenon

Explore: perhaps use a few smaller investigations to further explore topics

Explain: offer textbook pages to read, workbook activities to follow through

Elaborate: include some conceptual formative assessment tasks, or activities that get the students to synthesize what they’ve read (concept maps, cartoons, stories, small posters, etc)

Evaluate: quizzes and performance task

But how would this look on a day to day level?  The plan falls down when there is a shift from explore to explain.  This is where the kids tune out.  I could really use some new ideas on how to get the kids to invest their energy into something other than a lab, because there are too many topics that are difficult to explore or investigate hands-on.

My main plan for now is this. Students are given their learning objectives at the beginning of the unit, and we’ve done a couple of activities.  They are then given various options for further exploration and explanations: pages to read, chapter questions to attempt, workbook pages to do.  As well, I will bring in books from the library and kids can investigate their own questions.  Quiz dates will be set so that kids understand when they should be ready with their learning objectives.  Elaboration tasks can offer the students a goal to shoot for while going through their explanation materials.  Finally, a performance task will be the culmination of the topic.

Writing the above down seems like an okay path forward.  However, I think there would be a lot of off-task behaviour (read? not for marks?).  Would that be a failure on my part?  Or is it a consequence of an existing mindset of students?  The sad part in this is that the students really look like they’ve been trained to respond to “marks.”

As usual, just writing this post has already clarified a few things for me.  While writing I’ve come to see an elaboration task as being an integral part of students wanting/needing to read, in order to be successful in the task.

If you have read this post, and have some ideas and stories to share on junior science and learning objectives that require students to navigate resources for direct information (ie reading a textbook or website, class notes, or some other type resource), I’d love to hear from you.