This week's blog post writer is Dawn Butler. Dawn is the Lead Course Specialist with Learners Edge. Prior to joining the Edge, Dawn was a high school English teacher for 11 years. In her free time, she can be found wrangling her 6 year old son, 3 year old daughter, 2 cats, and a dog. Her parents were teachers, her husband is a SPED teacher, and her parents-in-law are teachers, which really helps Dawn to continue to foster her passion for education as she works to offer the best possible courses at the Edge!
When it comes to student engagement, there are a multitude of strategies teachers try in order to get their students excited about learning. This week's blog post writer, Dawn Butler, outlines how she involved her students and increased student engagement in her class by turning the focus on them and forcing them to choose the ideas and topics that they wanted to learn about.
It was October. My Juniors had settled in. Truthfully, these 11th graders had “settled in” on the very first day of class. They were ready to move on to senior year or anywhere else. They came to English class, didn’t engage, waited out the clock, moved on to other, more interesting things. Boredboredboredboredbored. This group of students would be considered remedial; their gifts were in the areas of science and math, not English. In fact, some of the students admitted to never reading a book in school (including when I was teaching them in 9th grade!). They weren’t strong writers or readers, and when I pressed them on it, they explained that they just didn’t find the things in English class interesting. They even knew the standard language: “we can’t really relate to any of it.”
How was I going to get these students engaged in my class and interested in what we were learning? I decided to turn the tables on them, and asked what they wanted to do. At first I was met with some resistance – they had made up their minds not to engage in this course, and I wasn’t allowing that – but they eventually came around. If this course was going to be interesting, I told them, they were responsible for providing me with ideas and topics to engage them. After all, I am most certainly hip and cool, but I can’t read their minds, so they knew better than me what interested them.
My parameters: whatever we did had to have the following elements: student choice, research, presentation, reading, discussion, and reflection. The theme of the lesson plan was horror. My students had lots of ideas, including making their own horror film, but we had to narrow it (and the carnage) down. Once we decided on what we were going to do, I would create the necessary materials, including a calendar, and onward! Below is the two-part lesson plan that the students came up with following my parameters.
Component 1: Independent Reading
I provided a brief overview of the horror genre, including the history of it, and some possible titles to read. We took a trip to the library to see what our media center specialist had to offer. Within a week, they had selected their own horror books (according to reading level, topic, and interest), and we arranged time to have quiet reading, and discussions every week to weigh in on the stuff we were reading. I assigned reading logs that included progress checks and reflections, and had them use that to prepare for fishbowl discussions on their various books.
Component 2: Fright Fair
It’s pretty tough to find Halloween-themed things for students in high school to do, but this resource from Read Write Think grabbed my eye. My students agreed to put on a Fright Fair showcasing a topic that they would research, making them an “expert,” and they would need to share this information with folks who came to the Fright Fair. The goal was to educate others on the genre of horror and related subjects. Topics included paranormal research, costume design, classic horror movies, special effects, and the science behind fear: what your body experiences when you are afraid.
The students came in after school the night before and turned my classroom into what can only be described as a chaotic haunted house: strobe lights, black garbage bags over the windows, spooky music…the works. According to my rubric, they had to have a minimum number of credible sources in a Works Cited, an overview and outline, and a reflection on the process and the learning. We invited the 9th graders, other teachers, and the principal, and it was a wild success.
Surrendering control of the planning and development of curriculum can be a frightening thought, but truthfully, I found it to be extremely valuable. It was refreshing (and affirming) to turn over the reins to students, because I know they would be invested if our focus is one they enjoy. Almost all of them read an entire book, and in most cases (as is the case in the horror genre), they were longer and more detailed than anything I could have presented to them. They expanded their knowledge of this genre, and had to learn how to engage others in the topics they chose. They use research and presentation skills, and they were able to actively discuss successes and failures not only in the Fright Fair, but in the books they were reading.
They could speak intelligently on their learning. What more could I want? The increased level of student engagement by flipping the tables and allowing the students to design the unit was more than I could have expected. So if you find yourself stuck on trying to engage your class, consider throwing caution to the wind and allowing your students to plan the unit- within certain limitations of course. They might just surprise you and themselves.
Looking for more student engagement strategies? Enroll in Learners Edge Course 5683: Teach Like a Champ: Effective Strategies for an Engaged Classroom and realign your classroom focus to a flow of content and learning instead of housekeeping and maintaining order by utilizing techniques that speak to all aspects of instructional framework.