Playing the Devil’s Advocate: Challenging Students to Broaden their Perspective

English 101 was supposed to be an easy Freshmen class at my college, unless you had Professor Cunningham.  Then, it became one of the most difficult classes on your schedule.  Of course, as luck would have it, I had the pleasure of taking the easiest English class with the hardest professor on campus.  He demanded excellence at every turn.  Despite working on my first essay for his class for numerous hours, I received a C-.  Yes, that wasn’t a typo, C-.  I had never earned below a B- in any of my high school classes.  What was going on? I thought.  Prior to handing back that first essay to my class, he laid into us.  “Your high school teachers taught you nothing.  You are the worst writers I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with.  My grandson, who is in kindergarten writes better than any of you.  You have much work to do this semester if you want to be successful,” he screamed at us.  He yelled at my class at least once, every period.  He was intimidating and intense.  He was the person who broke me of saying “like, uh, ah,” and “um” all the time.  While I feared him and dreaded going to his class, he forced me to become a better, stronger writer and speaker.  After successfully completing his class, I was a far better writer than I’d ever hoped I would be.  He challenged me to become a better writer each day.  For that, I am eternally grateful; however, I do wish the nightmares would stop.

Over the years as a teacher, I’ve learned to harness the effective and appropriate parts of Professor Cunningham’s approach to teaching, so as to help challenge my students to be the best version of themselves possible.  I want my students to learn how to expand their perspective and see the world through multiple lenses.  I want my students to push themselves to complete quality work because they want to do so.  I want my students to hold themselves to high expectations.  I want my students to see the value in learning and growing.  To do this, I have high expectations for my students.  I expect that they send me properly formatted emails.  I expect that they proofread and edit their work prior to turning it into be graded.  I expect that my students help their peers to understand difficult concepts.  I expect that my students read at least four books during every trimester.  I expect that my students use proper keyboarding skills when typing on a computer.  I expect that my students raise their hand to ask a question during class.  I expect that my students are kind and compassionate community members.  I expect that my students practice mindfulness techniques to free their minds of distractions in order to be completely present in the moment.  I expect that my fifth grade students stay focused during lessons.  I expect my students to ask difficult questions.  I expect much of my students, because if I don’t, then they will do the same of me and themselves.  I want them to constantly strive to grow and develop as students and people.  While I don’t yell, scream, and belittle my students like Professor Cunningham did, I do challenge them to complete only their best work on a daily basis.

One way I help my students learn to broaden their perspective in Social Studies class is to play the Devil’s Advocate during current events discussions.  Each Friday afternoon, we spend about 30 minutes discussing a relevant and controversial current event from the world.  After introducing and briefly explaining the topic or event, I then open the floor to the students.  After each comment, I respond with a question to poke holes in their thinking.  I want them to be able to challenge themselves to think critically as they alter their perspective.  This past Friday, we discussed the Migrant Caravan issue taking place as we speak.  We watched a short news clip on the issue so that the students would have a basic understanding of the topic.  I then posed a question to the students, “What should America’s response to this issue be?”  The first student responded, “We should let them in, provided they have proper identification.”  My response was, “These poor people from Central America will likely not have any sort of identification on their person.  So then what?”  The student paused for a moment and said, “Well, we could then do a brain scan on them to determine any mental deficiencies or give them a lie detector test.  Those who pass one or both of the tests would then be allowed safe passage into our country.”  I then poked back with, “Do you know how much the machines for brain scans cost?  Who’s going to pay the bill for that?”  I let her process this information before moving onto the next student.  For every statement, I countered with the opposite side.  Another student said, “We should only let them into the country if they can prove that they are going to have a positive influence on our nation.”  I then reminded the class that sometimes people lie to gain access to a country in order to commit acts of terrorism.  “What if a person lies about their intentions and we let them in?  What if they then commit a horrible act of terrorism?”  After this back and forth, I explained to the students that my role is to challenge their thinking.  “I am playing the Devil’s Advocate to help you broaden your perspective and think more critically about issues.  In order to successfully debate serious issues like current events, you need to be able to examine an issue from all sides.  I’m not picking sides in this discussion by probing your thinking, I’m helping you to see the other side of your take on the issue.”  After my short dissertation, the conversation continued fruitfully for the remainder of the period.

My students love discussing current events because I challenge their thinking.  I create a back and forth debate with the class on serious issues impacting our world.  I choose controversial topics that spark conversation.  I want them to care about what is happening around the world so that they will want to make a difference in the world.  I want them to see the value in exercising their civic responsibility to vote.  I want my students to see problems in the world and then create viable solutions to them.  I challenge my students to be change makers in our world.  They are the future of our country, and so I must equip them with the skills they will need to be successful, think critically and creatively, and make the world a better place.  By pushing my students to think about their perspective and broaden it, I am helping them to become better versions of themselves.  I am helping them to gain empathy and compassion about people and topics they knew nothing about before beginning the year in my fifth grade class.  I challenge them so that they will hold themselves to high standards and expectations.  When the bar is set high, students find a way to leap over through perseverance and much struggle.  They work hard to be successful and mature so much because of the experience and journey.  When the bar is set low for students, they easily hop right over it.  Because they aren’t challenged to work hard and think critically, they aren’t able to learn as much as they could.  In my class, the bar is high because I care about my students and want them to do the same.

Preparing Students to Effectively and Maturely Converse with Others Through Real-World Practice

In this techno-verse in which we live, it seems as though people have forgotten how to make eye contact.  As we are all so glued to our tiny little devices, our necks seem to be stuck in a downward state.  We’re missing the amazing things that are happening all around us.  I can’t tell you how many people I see walking around, staring at their phones as if they possess some sort of magical key to the universe.  People get into car accidents, fall down holes, and die at an alarming rate due to these tiny little devices that seem to be controlling humanity.  Why?  Are we afraid of missing out?  What can be so important that we would risk our lives to see or hear it?  While the answer should be, nothing, sadly, it seems as though any ping, vibration, ding, or other irritating noise is more important than keeping our eyes on the road, looking up, or making eye contact with others.  This is a problem.  We are becoming a society of lazy individuals who are more concerned about capturing the perfect selfie than caring about others and making the world a better, more meaningful and thoughtfully communicative world.  While the media makes it seem as though plastic straws and global warming will be our downfall, I worry that Armageddon is already upon us in the form of apathy and selfishness.  Change needs to happen quickly.  We need to stop looking down and start looking up.  We need to revel in the beautiful hues of the sunset and those lingering looks into the eyes of our partner.  We need to put down our phones and talk to the other people that are all around us.  Yes, you are not alone.  There are other people here on Earth with you.

Enter educational institutions like the one at which I teach, the Beech Hill School.  In this crazy world in which we live, it’s nice to know that there are places where our children can go to learn how to slow down, look up, engage in meaningful conversations, care about others, and enjoy all that life has to offer.  Every Friday in my fifth grade class, we leave the confines of the school building and spend over an hour in the forest, exploring, learning about, and enjoying the natural beauty of the forest located right outside the doors of our school.  Yesterday, we spent an entire hour learning how to start a fire without matches or any other sort of instant fire making objects.  The students had only flint, steel, magnesium, and whatever naturally occurring objects they could easily gather in the forest.  They were hooked and engaged the entire time.  Some students whittled marshmallow roasting sticks, while others helped tend the fire.  It was amazing.  We were talking to each other, looking around, and learning much about ourselves and the magnificent world around us.  No one was looking down at their phone or other small tech gadget because what was going on around us was so much more interesting and wonderful.  Who doesn’t like to start a fire or learn how to identify edible flora?  Schools like mine help students learn that there is so much more to life than looking down and being sucked into a mass of metal, plastic, and forgotten hopes and dreams.

Recently, my students completed a project that provided them with the opportunity to look up and share their learning with others.  I believe that as teachers, we need to not only educate our students, but give them meaningful and relevant skills that will allow them to be successful in all facets of their lives.  Public speaking is a skill that many high school students around our nation seem to be lacking.  They don’t know how to or feel comfortable talking to adults or other people.  While not every job or future occupation these students may get into will involve the need to converse with others, everybody should know how to speak to other humans in a mature and appropriate way.  Even introverts will need to be able to talk to others at various points throughout their lives.  I feel that it is our responsibility as effective educators to provide our students with the necessary public speaking skills and opportunity to practice using them in a real-world context.  Rather than sprinkling class presentations into the curriculum, teachers need to give students the opportunity to practice the skills they are learning in purposeful, real ways.  Students need to learn how to answer questions other adults, aside from their parents and teachers, pose to them.  They need to know how to begin a conversation, greet people, and then close the talk with a salutation in ways that they will need to apply these skills outside of schools and later in their lives.  More than ever, it is crucial that our students learn how to look up, make eye contact, and convey their point to others in a mature way without uttering ah, like, or um.

In Social Studies, we’ve been learning about our community.  We went on three field experiences to learn all that we could about the history of the town in which our school is located.  We went on a walking tour of Main Street that was led by the director of our local historical society.  We then visited the workshop of a local spoon maker whose family has lived in the Hopkinton area for generations.  Our final trip was to the historical society to learn about the indigenous people who once lived on the land that we now call home.  The final project had the students choose a topic or fact that they learned about throughout our unit, create a visual representation of some sort, and then present their findings in an exposition of sorts at our local historical society.  This past Thursday, the students shared their learning with local community members as well as their families, inside the historic building that is home to the history of this beautiful area.  The students did a fantastic job speaking to our visitors.  They made eye contact while they spoke.  They held themselves in a very mature manner as they explained all about their topic and what they learned during our unit.  The students were able to field the many questions that were thrown at them.  They had neatly organized digital presentations, free of spelling and grammar mistakes, that showcased the big ideas they learned regarding the topic they had chosen.  They spoke with confidence and ease, as though they were proposing a new plan to a room full of business executives.  It was awesome.  My students are ready to take on the world.

While most people these days seem to be preoccupied by their digital devices and unaware of the wonderful things happening right in front of and all around them, students at my school, and many other wonderful schools around the world, are learning the value in being mindful, experiencing life in all it’s grandeur, and looking up.  They are happy and enjoy coming to our schools because they are actively involved in their education and learning.  They are doing, creating, making, researching, talking, failing, exploring, and meaningfully experiencing the world around them as they develop and grow into mature global citizens who are sure to have a big and positive impact on our world in the very near future.

The Value in Purposefully Teaching Academic Skills in the Classroom

When I was a wee, young lad, my father gave me a Rubik’s Cube as a gift.  I thought it was so cool.  All those colors and moves.  Amazing.  I spent several hours trying to figure out how it worked, how to solve it.  Now, keep in mind, I grew up in the 1980s, prior to the influx of all of this wonderful technology that allows kids to learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube in under 10 seconds.  I had no resources.  I tried different moves and configuration of moves, to no avail.  Nothing seemed to work.  So, I just gave up.  I was not working in any sort of purposeful or effective manner, as I had no help available to me back then.  I needed a lesson, book, guide, video, or tutor to help me learn the algorithms required to solve the Cube.

Fast forward many, many years to 2016.  After having read an interesting article about the value in teaching students how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, I took it upon myself to finally learn how to solve the mysterious Cube.  I spent many weeks during that summer trying to tame the beast in the Cube.  I made a plan of attack and started off on my journey.  I watched multiple videos on Youtube, many times each.  I printed out a solution guide from the Rubik’s Cube Website.  I practiced, tried, failed, and tried again.  I memorized the first few steps, but still needed to look at the solution guide for the final few moves.  After many weeks, I was able to accomplish the goal I set for myself many long years ago.  I solved the Rubik’s Cube.  It felt so great to do something that once seemed impossible to me.  The key to my success was purposeful preparation and execution of an appropriate plan.  I made use of my resources to ensure my success.

As a teacher, I employ this same practice with my students.  When I teach a particular skill or ask the students to complete a task, project, or activity, I make sure to model the skill or show the students how to utilize the skill in an effective and meaningful manner.  If I want my students to take notes from a text, I need to make sure that I teach them how to do so and not simply expect that they have learned how to do so in the past.  I need to teach the skill before having them practice applying it.  I need to be mindful of teaching with a purpose so that my students can taste effective success.

This past week, my students completed the final project for our introductory Science unit on the Scientific Method.  After weeks or learning the various steps of how to DO science, they were provided with the opportunity to highlight their learning.  The students chose a problem impacting our school community, brainstormed solutions to the problem, generated an investigation to test their solution, conducted their experiment, crafted a lab report to document their process, and then created a presentation board to showcase their learning.  It was a lengthy project that included multiple mini-lessons on the Scientific Method, lab report writing, and making an effective presentation board.  The outcome was phenomenal.  Because the students learned how to utilize the many skills I expected them to apply on the project prior to completing it, they all had well organized posters with detailed information on their scientific processes.  The students were rehearsed when they spoke to members of the school community about their project and findings.  They had props and samples from their investigations to show their learning.  I felt like I was observing a high school science fair on Friday morning as my students presented what they had learned regarding their self-selected topics.



Several teachers and school administrators shared with me how incredibly impressed they were with my students.  “They all did great work.  They talked about what they had learned with confidence and ease.  Their posters were well done and effectively organized.  They did amazing work that rivaled what some eighth graders had done in the past,” they said to me after visiting with each of the students.  Following the big event, I couldn’t stop praising my students for their great effort, hard work, dedication, and ability to effectively apply the skills learned.  They knocked it out of the park like Jackie Bradley Jr. did against the Houston Astros last Tuesday night.

I do wonder if I would have observed the same outcome from my students had I not spent class time showing the students how to create an effective poster, modelling how to conduct a scientific investigation, and practicing how to appropriately present what was learned to others.  Would their posters have been neatly organized had I not conducted a mini-lesson on effective poster making?  Would my students have sounded as mature and confident had I not discussed the importance of removing the words or sounds ‘um, like, ahh, and err’ from their vocabulary?  Having a foundation of knowledge and skills on which to build, practice, and apply is crucial to success in and out of the classroom.  Great athletes aren’t born doing great things, they have to work at it over and over again.  Doctors, scientists, and authors don’t just fall into their professions, they have to practice and be trained in purposeful and meaningful ways.  I didn’t learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube without a purposeful plan, much support, and correct practice.  As teachers, we need to help our students apply the academic and social skills learned in the classroom accurately so that they can grow and develop into wonderful young adults.

Lessons Learned in the Fifth Grade: How the Word ‘Good’ Became Chili-Peppers

Fifth grade was a difficult year for me as a student.  I struggled with social issues, academic difficulties, and much more.  I don’t remember having much fun when I was in the fifth grade because of all of the other stuff that I was dealing with at the time.  While I’m sure my teacher did her best to create a positive learning environment for me and my peers, I just can’t recall any specific memories from that year in school.  The brain, sadly, is really good at focusing on the negative and washing away the positive, as we are wired to survive in the wild and always be prepared for worst-case scenarios.  This does make remembering the wonderful things that happen to us much more difficult, but not impossible.  We simply need to be more mindful and cognizant of how our brain interprets the world so that we can celebrate the many amazing things that happen in our lives on a daily basis.

As a fifth grade teacher, I make it a daily goal to bring joy and happiness into my classroom.  I celebrate the big and little victories with my students.  I work to form strong bonds and relationships with my students so that they know they have an advocate and mentor who cares about them.  I laugh at myself and point out my mistakes on a regular basis in the classroom, to help the students see that no one is infallible.  I play fun music to begin each morning as the students enter the classroom.  I embrace the silly to remind my students that age is just a number.  I wear a teaching cape to help the students see that its not a me versus them situation in the classroom; we are a classroom community working together towards common goals of growth, failure, learning, compassion, kindness, and fun.  I strive to make my classroom a safe and positive place for my students, so that no matter what they may be dealing with outside of the confines of our classroom, they are able to experience happiness and fun while at school.

Throughout my journey teaching fifth grade this year, I’ve often wondered who is having more fun and learning more, me or my students?  I walk out of my classroom every day with a huge smile on my face and memories of wonderful experiences dancing in my head like clumsy ballerinas.  This week has been an especially educational and fun week for me, as I’m learning to be much more mindful and present in each and every moment.  You see, at the start of the school year, I made the mistake of creating a short list of outlaw words.  I thought that I was doing the students a favor by helping to point out the value in utilizing precise language.  Well, that would be all good and dandy, if I could do the same.  It turns out that the word ‘good’ is ingrained within my language centers like a horrible tattoo professing love to someone who is no longer in your life.  I say ‘good’ morning to people, I notice ‘good’ behavior, and I often answer questions about my health status as ‘good.’  Now, as I work hard to be a role model for my students, I’ve been trying to rid myself of this wretched word since September.  Do you know how hard it is to stop using such a common word?  It’s wicked hard.  However, with the help of my students, reminding me, in mostly silly and appropriate ways, when I say the g-word, I’m learning to eliminate broad and imprecise words from my vocabulary.  It’s no easy task, but I’m working on it, one day at a time.

Yesterday, was an especially difficult day for me and the g-word.  It seemed like I used it in almost every sentence as I wrapped up our day together.  “It’s good to work hard and be aware of expectations.  Good work today, girls and boys.”  I couldn’t seem to escape the atrocious g-word.  It haunted me like those MC Hammer pants I wore in middle school.  Were they ever really cool?  My students kept raising their hands or making gestures to point out when I used that outlawed word.  It was quite hilarious in fact.  It got to the point where I had to create a substitute word on the fly for the g-word.  Quick thinking lead me to choose the word ‘chili-peppers.’  What was I thinking about in the moment, you are probably asking yourself right now.  I wish I had an answer for you.  For some bizarre reason, chili-peppers popped into my head.  It’s strange really, I don’t like chili-peppers or spicy food in general, and I certainly can’t stand the music of  the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  I’m not exactly sure how I came up with that replacement word, but I did.  I introduced it to the students yesterday and explained how that would be my substitute for the g-word as I worked to purge it from my vocabulary.  This morning, as I was about to utter the g-word aloud, I remembered my new word.  “Chili-peppers morning to you all,” I said.  The students laughed, I think, because, for a moment, they had forgotten what I had mentioned yesterday.  So, for the rest of the day, whenever I said the g-word or was about to say it, I subbed in ‘chili-peppers.’  It made for a fun day of laughter in the fifth grade classroom.

This whole experience was just what I needed to be more mindful and focused on the words erupting from my mouth on a daily basis.  I explained this issue to my students this morning, “Because I get so excited while teaching, my brain is usually 2-3 sentences ahead of my voice.  Having you keep me focused on not saying a particular word is forcing me to slow my thought processes down and really think about every word I’m saying.”  I love that I have the opportunity to grow and learn on a daily basis.  It’s amazing.  However, my highlight of the day came during the final few minutes of our Closing Meeting.  A student raised his hand to share, and said, “Starting tomorrow, when one of the other students asks you how you are doing, just say ‘chili-peppers.'”  The class burst out in laughter.  It was perfect.  We are embracing the silliness as a way of growing, having fun, and making positive memories.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  So, on that note, I wish you all a chili-peppers day.

Modeling the Behavior I Promote in the Classroom

Sometimes I can be a bit stubborn and stuck in my ways.  Only a bit though.  I’m usually quite flexible in my thinking and acting.  However, for the past several years, I’ve refused to get a flu shot.  My reasoning?  Well, let’s just say that I like to question the world around us and have been known to concoct and buy into conspiracy theories.  I got it in my head that the government was using flu shots as a way of digitally tagging citizens.  I wondered if the flu shot contained tracking devices that would allow “Big Brother” to always know our location.  That freaked me out a little and so I boycotted flu shots.  Well, as I matured and became a father, my line of thinking began to change.  I started to realize that even if my cockamamie conspiracy theories were based in truth, staying healthy and keeping my family healthy is way more important than how much the government knows about me.  Plus, this past March, I got the flu because I hadn’t received my flu shot.  So, this flu season, I’m taking every precaution to protect myself, my family, and my students.  This morning, I got my flu shot.  I’m showing the world that I can do what is best for the whole rather than just worry about my self-interests.  I do now suddenly feel like I’m being watched.  Perhaps George Orwell was correct in his prediction of the future in his classic novel.  Or maybe I just need to practice mindfulness and be present in knowing that I am being a role model for others in taking care of myself.

As a child, I often felt like my parents and other adults in my life possessed a “do as I say and not as I do” mentality.  My mother would tell me not to do something and then I would see her do this same thing later on.  It all felt very hypocritical.  It was difficult for me to determine my moral compass, as it felt like everyone else’s was broken.  Now that I am an adult, I see the importance in practicing what I preach and being a role model for my son and my students.  If I want my students to learn the value in certain choices, I need to be a model and make those same choices.  Respect is not something that is given away all willy-nilly like, it has to be earned.  If I want my students to learn to respect their peers, then I need to show them that I can earn their respect.  I need to hold myself to the highest possible standards in and out of the classroom.  If I want my students to learn to turn their work in on time, then I need to return graded work to them in a timely manner.  I feel as though mutual reciprocity is crucial in fostering positive relationships in the classroom.  Being a role model plays an important part in my teaching and life, as I don’t want others to think of me as a hypocrite.  Do as I do and as I say, is my motto.

Meta cognition and reflection is a valuable tool I utilize in the classroom to help my students to grow and develop as people and students.  I have them set weekly goals and reflect on them frequently.  Through this process, the students are able to identify their areas in need of growth and continue to challenge themselves regarding their strengths.  While I spent much time explaining the purpose and rationale of why we do this and the benefits that come from it, I wonder how seriously some of my students take this weekly activity.  So, after a month of time together in the classroom, I felt it prudent to model this behavior.

This past Thursday, instead of having the students reflect on their goals and providing them feedback on their progress in the fifth grade, I had the students reflect on my progress as their teacher and provide me with feedback on what I am doing well and what I still need to work on.  As this kind of activity does open the door to vulnerability, it’s crucial to helping the students learn to do this for themselves.  I need to show them that no one is perfect, and that everyone can improve in some way.  To do this, I had the students send me an email regarding both the pluses and minuses of my teaching.  What do I do well as a teacher?  What can I work on to make their experience in the fifth grade even better?  After explaining this task to the students, several hands went up.  “What if we have no suggestions for improvement?  Can we just tell you that we are happy with everything?” the students asked.  I then posed a scenario to the class: “What if when you asked for feedback on your writing, I told you that everything was great?  Would you ever be able to improve as a writer?”  This seemed to help them wrap their brains around the value of reflection before providing feedback to others.

This weekend, I reviewed the feedback with which my students provided me.  While there was an overwhelming sense of happiness and excitement regarding my teaching and the fifth grade program I’ve created, I did receive a few solid nuggets of feedback that I will work on incorporating into my teaching this week.

  • “I feel like sometimes you stretch instructions to do whatever we’re supposed to be doing a little too long,” wrote one student.  This makes sense to me, as I do sometimes try to over simplify things.  Instead of explaining an activity or task in detail, I will work to only describe the nucleus of what I am asking of them.  This way, if my students are confused about the expectation, they will need to make use of their critical thinking skills to solve their problems.  While I will still make myself available to answer questions the students have while they work, I will make sure that they exhaust their problem solving tools before I field any questions about the directions for a task.  This way, more genuine learning can take place if they are solving problems, generating questions, and working through their struggles on their own.  This is great feedback.
  • “Just remember, if you tell us to not do something or do something, then you should follow your own directions,” wrote another student.  This one aligns nicely with my desire to be a role model.  This student was referring to, in particular, how I ask them not to use broad terms like “good” to describe something or answer a question.  I find that I sometimes slip up on this one and do use the G word to describe or explain something to the students.  I need to be more present and mindful when speaking with the students.  This is an area I will constantly need to work on.  However, when I do mess up in this realm, I am quick to correct my mistake and apologize for misspeaking.  Good suggestion.

Moving forward, these are two areas I will focus on in the classroom, as I want my students to see that I value their feedback and ideas.  We are one big, happy fifth grade community working together to grow and improve in every way possible.  I love it!

While I do so enjoy embracing the positive, I’ll close this entry with some delightful excerpts from the messages my students sent me on Thursday.

  • “You are extremely fun and awesome. We have the most fun class out of any of the other classes, I bet. I really appreciate the hamster and all the field trips.”
  • “I like your personality! Funny, but serious and how you love jokes! I think that this is the (ALMOST) perfect personality for teaching.”
  • “I like how you are always positive thinking and I like how you are always so funny.”
  • “I like how fun you are and all of your different kinds of suspenders.  I like how you don’t make us do homework on the weekend.”
  • “I think you are one of the best teachers in the world. I like your personality and the marble jar technique.”
  • “You are doing nothing wrong.  I like the maker space and how you let us vote.”
  • “I like the way you interact with us in your excited manner and very many other things.”

A Crucial Key to Student Engagement in the Classroom: Ownership

I remember that day as if it were yesterday…  Driving to work one cold autumn morning, I turned on the heat, and that’s when I noticed the problem.  I couldn’t have the heat on in the car and drive above 40 miles per hour.  If I did, the car shook something awful.  I felt like I was on an amusement park ride that was about to burst into flames or fly off the central rod.  So, after that nightmarish, slow ride to work, I realized that it was time for a change.  The next day, my wife and I purchased our first car as a married couple.  It was a tiny, gray Hyundai Accent.  It was amazing.  I could turn on the heat and drive 65 miles an hour.  Perhaps this special feeling that I have inside about the magical car stemmed from the fact that it was the first big thing my wife and I purchased together.  Or maybe it was because, on numerous occasions, it saved my life.  I hit a large deer, square on, one evening, coming home from work.  The antlers could have easily pierced the windshield and killed me.  This beast was massive and I probably should have been greatly injured, but I wasn’t.  My tiny car of steel saved my life.  Ahh, the memories.

Ownership is a big part of independence and responsibility.  I didn’t truly feel like a grown adult until I purchased my first car.  Up to that point, my parents had provided everything for me.  Even though I didn’t live with them for a year before getting married, they did a lot for me in that time.  Not until I bought that car did I feel like I was free and able to make my own decisions.  It was pretty awesome, signing my name on the dotted line, knowing that I would be paying for that car for the rest of my life.  Owning something and being able to make your own decisions is a really powerful feeling.  This sense of empowerment applies to the classroom as well.

Throughout my many years of speaking with teachers and attending conferences on education, I’ve heard the many problems teachers are faced with on a daily basis:

  • “I just can’t get my students to work and stay focused on the task at hand.  They just don’t seem engaged.”
  • “How do I get my students to do their work?”
  • My students are not motivated.  They don’t seem to want to do anything.  Is it because they can’t do the work or won’t do the work?

Student engagement or buy-in is not something that happens over night.  Many books have been written on the topic.  Some professionals say that novelty can help.  Try something new and students will jump on board.  But, will that engagement continue throughout the year, or will the teacher always have to try new things to motivate their students?  Is there a more reliable, sure-fire way of hooking students and getting them to care about their learning and education?  How can teachers engage their students in the learning process?

Think back to the first time you really felt independent and responsible, that first time you were able to make a decision on your own without anyone else telling you what to do or how to do it.  How did it feel?  Probably really empowering and amazing, like how I felt when my wife and I bought our first car.  So, let’s bring this same feeling of awesomeness into our classrooms.  Let’s help our students feel empowered, as if they are in control of their destiny and future.  Let’s help our students own their learning and education.

Engaging students doesn’t have to be some sort of magical feat or complex algorithm.  It’s all about ownership.  When students feel like they have a voice in the learning process, they will feel empowered.  This empowerment leads to engagement.  When students feel like they are in charge and in control of what is happening in the classroom, they put forth great effort to do quality work and showcase their epic learning.  Rather than just going through the boring motions of doing what they are told, when students are able to demonstrate their learning in creative, innovative, and original ways, they become invested.  They no longer just rush through a task that they chose to complete.  Oh no, they dig in and do it well.  It’s quite amazing to observe students in a student-centered classroom.  It’s as if you are watching engineers and scientists working in an office or factory.  The talk is focused on the work at hand and everyone is working towards a common goal.  They cooperate and help one another.  It’s almost unbelievable.

I was fortunate enough to bare witness to this magical happening in my classroom yesterday.  As I have worked to create a student-centered learning environment for my students, ownership is a huge piece of this.  Rather than assigning tasks, projects, or work, I have the students choose how they want to show me what they’ve learned.  They get to pick the vehicle with which they travel in to showcase their journey towards mastery.  It’s quite amazing to witness them work in such an engaged manner.

Yesterday, the students worked on revising their self-chosen chapter of the graphic novel the class brainstormed and devised themselves.  It is their assignment.  They own the topic, characters, and theme of the story.  This is all of their work.  On Wednesday, they provided each other with much specific and meaningful feedback on how to make their chapters and overall story stronger and better.  In class on Thursday, the students worked to utilize that feedback to improve upon their chapters.

  • As a few students completed revising and self-editing their chapters quite quickly, they then worked together to provide each other with even more feedback on their writing.  They asked each other probing questions like, “Does this ending work?  Does this sentence work?  Do I need to add more detail here?”  They worked as if their goal was to make each other’s writing even better.  It was like watching a group of dedicated writers working together.
  • One student said, “I’m going to really change my chapter so that it’s better.  It’s going to be awesome when I’m done.”  The students were completely invested and focused on the task at hand.  Every student was engaged in the revision process.
  • Two students chose to rewrite their chapter, as they were unhappy with how they had turned out.  They weren’t proud of what they had written.  They wanted their work to be better.  These two students worked diligently to craft new chapters of which they could be proud and that showcased what they have learned about the craft of prose writing in Language Arts class.  These two students who chose to redo their pieces are not the strongest writers in the class.  In fact, they both really struggle with writing and getting their ideas out onto the paper or screen.  Despite this hardship, they chose to scrap what they had and start over.  I was a bit shocked by their choice, but even more surprised by how engaged and focused they seemed yesterday during the revision work period.  I had never seen these two students work so hard and diligently before.  They were pecking away at their computer keys as if they were chickens grabbing for corn on the floor.  And throughout the entire time, they seemed excited.  They were happy with what they were producing.
  • Students also reached out to me for feedback.  They wanted me to give them advice or suggestions for how they could make their writing even better.  When I did offer them feedback, they took it willingly and with a bit of enthusiasm.  “Oh yeah, you’re right.  I’ll fix that.  Thanks.”  What, I thought to myself.  Who are these students?  They care about the work they are doing and want to make it even better.  The interesting thing is, aside from the first day we began this project a few weeks ago, I haven’t reminded them about how they will be graded or assessed.  They aren’t working for a grade.  They are working so hard because it’s their work.  This is their graphic novel story.  As a class, they created the characters and story.  If it fails, they all fail.  If it works, they are all successful.  They are working together for a common goal.  It’s quite amazing.  They want to grow as writers so that their story can be the best graphic novel ever.

It all comes down to ownership.  If I had assigned this project or task to the students, I wonder how focused and committed to it they would be.  Would they have worked as diligently as they had in class yesterday if they didn’t really care about the topic of the story?  Because the students suggested this idea for our first writing project of the year and were able to control every part of the task, they are 100% invested and engaged in this project.  They care about it because it is theirs.  They own it.  My students feel like I did when I bought my first car, free and in charge.  So, to teachers looking for ways to engage their students, I say, consider ownership.  Allow your students to choose how they demonstrate their learning, what they read about, and the topic for projects.  Pass the reigns of learning over to the students.  Let them drive the boat for a while, and you will find that your students will want to work, stay focused, and be engaged.  One of the keys to student engagement in the classroom is ownership.