Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What does "engaged" mean?

Ms Frizzle last week asked how one identified a good teacher. I responded that “Students are engaged” without trying to define what that looked like or what it took to make it happen. I’ll try to rectify that here.

“Students are engaged” can put on many faces, not all of them easily identified (is that pup staring at the tree pondering the ramifications of a line of thought? Or counting the leaves?). Sometimes the only way to tell is to track what happens, what results are generated, over a period of time. Unfortunately, we’re looking for a snapshot here, not a feature film.

We can all differentiate between curiosity and “so-what,” between enthusiasm and boredom, between hunger and satiation as facial expressions. Curious, enthused, hungry – those are signs of engagement. So, sometimes, are happiness and anger, pride and despair.

A yard full of pups, all with their tails wagging? That’s engaged. The same pups all growling? That’s engaged. All of them locked on point? That’s engaged. All quartering the yard, noses to the ground? That’s engaged. All of them lost in thought? Most are probably engaged. Some are thinking about the bone they buried yesterday. It’s hard to tell just looking at the snapshot. Come back later and take another one.

Any teacher, even a bad one, can engage students, at least sometimes. The trick is to do it consistently and productively, and that requires a number of skills.

•Ya gotta know yer stuff. I can keep my classes of pound puppies engaged for weeks at a time with Shi-Tzu jokes (as long as I can find enough of them on the internet to keep them fresh), but how productive is that? They’re not learning to decipher human-talk, they’re not learning to keep track of their bones, they’re not learning where they came from, they’re not learning where to leave messages for whom. So you have to know what you’re trying to teach, be it language or math or history or whatever, and keep the focus there. Of course, Shi-Tzu jokes make useful ice-breakers or transitions, but they can’t be the focus.

•Ya gotta know yer pups. If you can’t tell the difference between a lazy pup and an exhausted pup, you don’t know enough yet. If you can’t tell the difference between a distracted pup (aren’t they all) and a bored pup, you don’t know enough yet. And if you’re serious about being good, you’ll learn the differences and acknowledge them.

•Ya gotta know yer pedagogy. You don’t necessarily have to keep up with the ever-changing acronyms or the Flavor-Of-The-Month stuff, but you have to be aware of and willing to use different tricks for different pups. We may well all have been created with equal opportunities to succeed, but that doesn’t mean we were all born with the same skill sets. Some dogs just naturally track better than others. Some rat better, some retrieve better, some swim better. But they all need many of the same skills, and we have to either match our methods to their strengths or teach them to compensate for their weaknesses. And guess what? It’s better for them if we teach them to compensate for their weaknesses than for us to match their strengths. So you have to have a pretty good idea of how to evaluate and teach those compensation skills.

•Ya gotta be patient. All those pups aren’t gonna get it the first time. Or the second. Or the third. And it won’t help to keep doing it the same way over and over again. So you must be willing to do it over again differently. And again differently, if that’s what it takes.

•Ya gotta plan. Sure, you can accomplish a ton with a serendipitous moment or two, and you’d be a fool not to take advantage of those “teachable moments,” but to be consistent, you absolutely have to plan. You have to know where you are and where you’re going, and have a pretty fair idea of what it’s going to take to get from “A” to “B.”

•Ya gotta track progress. If you’re not keeping track, who will? The pups will sometimes lose track of how much they brought with them and how much you’ve given them. The boss certainly isn’t concerned with what they brought with them, only with what they have at the end.

I can't help but feel as if I'm missing a couple things here. Feel free to remind me...

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Blogger Brian said...

If you're missing something its not part of the big picture. That is a great summation of what it takes to be a successful teacher.

Great post!

8:07 PM  
Blogger EdWonk said...

I would like to echo what Brian said. I think that you've earned a couple of extra kibbles. :)

6:39 PM  

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