The Power in Taking Risks and Trying New Activities to More Effectively Engage Our Students

Let’s take a walk down memory lane to begin today’s entry…  You are in your fourth grade classroom, working to finish a vocabulary test.  If only you had studied your words a bit longer.  What does feasible mean, you wonder.  As soon as you hand in your piece of yellow, lined paper, the teacher utters those magic words, and excitement erupts from you and your classmates as though it is the end of the school day.  “Okay girls and boys, everyone put your head down on your desk because it’s time to play Heads Up, Seven Up,” she says with a smile.  You then quickly fold your arms and slam them down onto your desk in the form of a nest.  You then place your head into your arm nest and wait for the teacher to tap the heads of seven students.  Please be me, you desperately hope.  Then your heart is gripped by the dark hands of sadness as you realize that you weren’t chosen.  Oh well, you think, at least you have a chance to be chosen by one of the “it” students.  You quickly put your thumb up, as your hand rests on the edge of your desk.  While you try hard to be good and obey the rules of the game, you can’t help but peek a bit.  You stealthily move your head off the edge of your desk, just a bit so that you can glance at the shoes of the “it” students.  Then, you feel that feeling you’ve been waiting all game to feel.  Someone taps your thumb.  A giddiness washes over you like that time you chose the blue finger puppet monster at the dentist’s office.  You wait for the teacher to give the next cue.  “Heads up, seven up.”  You then stand up, scanning the seven people standing at the front of the room.  Which one tapped me, you wonder.  Then you remember that you had seen white sneakers near your desk right before you were tapped.  You stare at the line of shoes.  But everyone’s wearing white sneakers, you soon realize.  Oh well.  It’s your turn to guess.  Steven, you say.  Wrong.  It was Nick.  Does it really matter though.  You just got to play a really sweet game instead of having to complete more worksheets. Everyone’s a winner, you think to yourself as the lunch bell rings.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of elementary school and “Heads Up, Seven Up.”  Who didn’t like that game.  It was so fun.  It’s one of the most treasured memories from my years at the Hanover Street School.  I don’t remember what I learned in those five years, but I do remember the experiences.  I recall the field trips and the fun games we played.  As a teacher, I am constantly trying to devise new, innovative ways to engage my students in the learning process.  How can I find a fun way to help them learn new information?  How can I make learning interesting and exciting for my students?  On Tuesday afternoon, as I made my way home, I thought long and hard about those two questions.  How could I help my students remember the three components of digital citizenship that we covered in class over the past two weeks?  Could we play a game?  Jeopardy?  Perhaps, but my students love to move around and be active.  What game would combine jeopardy with a sport like baseball.  Then it hit me like a ton of Acme bricks.  And that is how Holt Ball was born.  Like “Heads Up, Seven Up,” it’s a simple game.  Two teams of students work to answer review questions correctly.  If the team that is up to bat answers 75% of their questions correctly, they move onto a round of live Holt Ball.  Baseball rules apply to live Holt Ball rounds. During the question rounds, an out is awarded to the team if the student does not answer his or her question correctly on their own, without help.  They may take an out and seek help from their team members. Points are awarded for correct answers without help as well as runs scored during Holt Ball rounds.

We played Holt Ball in class on Wednesday.  After explaining the rules, choosing teams, and having the students choose their team names, the fun began.  The students had a blast.  It allowed them to have fun, be active, and review the concepts of digital citizenship that they were assessed on in class today.  It allowed me to clarify any confusion that existed.  I helped those students who struggled to answer their question correctly by explaining the concept in a way they hadn’t thought about before.  This interactive and exciting game got my students moving, talking, playing, and reviewing concepts for today’s big assessment.

Going into Wednesday’s game of Holt Ball, I was a bit worried that the rules would be too confusing or that they just wouldn’t want to be up and active.  I was nervous to try this activity.  What if it failed?  What if the students didn’t like it?  What if they did like it?  What if it worked?  Like I tell my students, “If you say you can, then you will succeed, and if you say can’t, then you won’t be successful.”  I took my own advice and decided to give it a try.  Failure is part of the learning process, and so, if it did fail, much learning could come from the experience.

Fast forward to today’s assessment.  Every student exceeded the three objectives being assessed.  They didn’t just know the information, they were able to apply it with gusto.  Even those students who struggle with assessments demonstrated a strong understanding of the concepts covered.  I was blown away.  What happened today?  Was it playing Holt Ball yesterday?  Did that game pack more power than I thought?  Was it more than just an enjoyable game?  Was Holt Ball what helped my students master the content covered?  Or was it something else?  Did they enjoy this unit on digital citizenship, and so, therefore the material was stickier than other concepts from units that weren’t as engaging?  Or was it something else entirely?  I’m going with Holt Ball.  Yeah, it had to be the review game that pushed them all over the edge of understanding.

Taking risks and trying new activities or lessons in the classroom allows me to find new and exciting ways to engage my students in the process of learning.  If I hadn’t tried playing Holt Ball in my class yesterday, would my students have performed as well as they had on today’s assessment?  I’ll never know, but the scientist in me thinks that perhaps they may not have done as well on today’s test if we hadn’t had fun playing an amazing game named after its creator.  As teachers, we need to continuously be thinking, reflecting, and learning so that we can find new and innovative ways to build excitement in the classroom.  By playing Holt Ball with my students yesterday, I provided them with an experience that they will most likely carry with them for years to come, as I did with Heads Up, Seven Up.

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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.

Reflecting on my March Break

As the sun sets over the hills, I’m feeling very reflective.  You see, today marks the end of my lengthy March vacation. During the first week, I lived on my couch as I recovered from the flu.  Being sick is horrible. I felt so helpless. Thankfully, I am blessed to have an amazing wife who took care of me and nursed me back to health.  During the second and third weeks of break, I did much school work. It was a ton of fun. I love planning new units, learning about new teaching practices, and finding out what other teachers do to help their students find success in and out of the classroom.  In between all of this work and healing, I spent tons of time with my family. We watched basketball and had fun together. That was my favorite part of the entire vacation. I felt alive again. I wasn’t just going through the motions like a robot, instead, I was experiencing life.  It felt amazing!

While on vacation, I did much research, reading, and thinking about teaching, and more specifically, learning about my research topic.  You see, this year I’ve focused my energy on gathering intel and data on how best to introduce and present new activities and projects to students.  Are rubrics the most effective way to do this? What makes an effective grading rubric? Do rubrics prevent students from being creative and solving problems?  So, I’ve devoted the past 10 months to trying to uncover the answers to the many questions I have about rubrics and project introductions. And what I’ve discovered isn’t too surprising, but has allowed me to think more closely about how I craft units and projects.

Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried out numerous rubrics and project introductions to determine what works best.  I’ve even engaged my students in a discussion on the topic, explaining my research project to them. My conclusion is this, grading rubrics and project introductions only do so much.  Those students who strive for academic success, will triumphantly complete any task thrown their way with or without a grading rubric or project overview sheet. They will do well no matter what, because they want to do well.  Those students who struggle academically don’t often reference the rubrics while working because they haven’t found their passion yet, in most cases. So, spending the time to craft a relevant and useful rubric is futile as most of the students don’t even give rubrics a second glance while working on a project or task.  So really, rubrics and project introductions make no difference in how the students perform on various projects and activities.

This then got me thinking…  So, how can I help engage all of my students in a way that allows them to see the relevance in what we’re doing in the classroom?  How can I create projects and assignments that get my students excited about the prospect of learning and doing? How can I help all of my students see the value in learning and growing in school?  Simple, it comes down to the project or task itself. Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it relevant to my students? Will it be fun for the students? Will it challenge students while also providing support for those who need it?  

So, during the month of February, my students worked on a research project regarding Africa.  I constructed it in a manner that provided the students with much choice and flexibility. Here’s what that project looked like for the students…

What’s This New Project All About?

Hey, do you remember how at the start of the year we talked about the purpose of PEAKS class?  How it’s the most important class you will take while at Cardigan? How it will help you learn and understand the basic, foundational skills you will need to be a successful student at Cardigan and beyond?  Well, here is a prime example of how PEAKS class can and will support you as a student…

Now that you understand the importance of using an open mind when learning about new people and places to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes, it’s time for you to venture out into the world of the unknown regarding Africa.  What do you wonder about the continent of Africa? What do you want to know more about? Sure, you know about the basic geography of Africa, but what about the specifics of the Nile River or how the Atlas Mountains impact northern Africa?  What about the people of Africa and the forms of government used in the numerous countries within the great continent? So, go forth, challenge yourself, and learn more about the amazing and mysterious continent of Africa.

What Now?

  1. This is a solo project, which means you will be embarking upon this adventure on your own.
  2. Start by creating a New Document in the Humanities Folder of your Google Drive.  Title it Africa Project and share it with Mr. Holt. You will use this Google Doc to record your research process.
  3. Choose a lense through which you want to study Africa: People, Government, or Geography.  Record in Google Doc.
  4. Choose a specific topic, about Africa, that you want to learn more about regarding the lense you chose.  Examples: Nile River’s Impact on Eastern Africa, How the Government of Sudan Led to War in the Country, Compare and Contrast Governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Tribes of the Sahara, etc.  Record in Google Doc.
  5. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen a challenging and appropriate topic.
  6. Find at least three reputable sources regarding your topic.  Your sources could be print sources, online sources, or interviews.  Record in Google Doc.
  7. For each source, explain how you know it will provide you with the information you are looking for.  Record in Google Doc.
  8. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to choose reputable resources.
  9. Create an MLA-style Sources Used page in your Google Doc for your three sources.
  10. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to utilize the MLA format when documenting sources used.
  11. Now you’re ready to start digging for knowledge nuggets.
  12. Choose a note taking form to record your findings: Bullet-Style or Two-Column Style.
  13. Take notes from each of your sources.  Be sure to include lots of fun, interesting, and important information regarding your topic.
  14. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to extract information from a source.
  15. Here comes the really fun part of the project.
  16. How do you want to present what you’ve learned about your topic?  Poster, Trading Cards, Speech, Historical Fiction Story, Play, Report, Diorama, etc.
  17. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen an appropriate vehicle to present your research findings.
  18. Create your visual aide.
  19. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to think critically and be creative.
  20. Now, here comes the hard part.  Get ready for the challenge of your life.
  21. Participate in the first-ever Learning Exposition, in which you will present your visual aide and what you’ve learned about your topic and research process to visitors.  Be prepared to answer difficult questions, wow the visitors, and teach others about your unique and engaging topic.
  22. Reflect on your learning process.

On What Am I Being Graded?

PEAKS Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to choose reputable resources regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the MLA format for citations when documenting sources for a research project.
  • Students will be able to extract important facts and information, in written form, from various resources.
  • Students will be able to convey information orally to an audience regarding a specific topic.

Humanities Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to think critically about a topic in order to compile relevant and appropriate notes.
  • Students will be able to utilize creativity when making a relevant yet unique visual aide regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to design an engaging presentation for an audience regarding a specific topic.

When is Everything Due?

  • You must choose your lense and topic by the start of class on Saturday, February 10.
  • You must choose your three reputable sources by the start of class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must complete your MLA Sources Used page by the end of Humanities class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must have your notes completed by the start of class on Friday, February 23.
  • You must have your visual aide finished by the start of class on Friday, March 2.
  • Learning Exposition will take place on Saturday, March 3.

That’s it.  Nothing more specific than that.  No formal grading rubric, just an overview of the project.  That’s all I equipped the students with. I introduced the project in a way that highlighted the freedom and choice with which they were provided.  While I didn’t go into detail about each aspect of the project, I did answer all of the questions the students had about the expectations of the project.  Throughout the project, I made sure to do that. I didn’t give information unless they asked for it, and even then, I generally answered their question with a question.  I want my students to learn how to solve their own problems by using creativity and perseverance.

The result?  The boys loved it.  They had so much fun with this project.  Almost every student when above and beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.  Although they only had to create one visual aid, many of them had numerous pieces to share with the audience members during the exposition in the class.  The advanced students in my class challenged themselves to learn as much as possible while creating an engaging and relevant presentation, and the students who sometimes struggle in class, challenged themselves to learn much and step outside of their comfort zone.  They all worked so diligently on this project in and out of the classroom. They asked for feedback and used much of their free time to exceed any expectation they felt I had set for them. It was amazing. I created an engaging and relevant project that allowed all of my students to meet and exceed the objectives.  Even without a specific and detailed grade rubric, my students rocked this project like it was a concert.

This experience helped me to prove and solidify what I had hypothesized after collecting much data earlier in the year.  It’s not about what you tell the students in terms of the expectations for a project or task, it’s about the task or activity itself.  Is it engaging and fun? If it is, the students will learn much, utilize their problem-solving and creative skills, ask questions when confused, and meet or exceed the graded objectives.  As teachers, it’s not about how clear and specific we are with the graded expectations of an assignment. It’s about getting the students excited without telling them too much. Let them wonder and make noticings on their own.

As I came to this grand realization, I found myself thinking about how I can transform my curriculum for the remainder of the year to make it more engaging and fun for the students.  How can I get them DOING the learning? Over the course of my school’s March Break, I spent much time creating a brand new Humanities unit that will have my students talking with and to each other, discussing big ideas, writing poetry and plays, playing with words, acting out a play, creating new words, discussing the power of words, and learning the ins and outs of the English language.  After I mapped out the unit in a day by day format, I looked at what I want and need the students to learn regarding figurative language. I thought about each lesson, activity and project in terms of engagement. Will these tasks and lessons engage my students? Will they be learning relevant skills and content that they will be able to apply to their future English and history courses? Will they enjoy the activities and have fun learning about words and the power they hold?  This exercise and experience wasn’t about creating strict and detailed expectations on how the students will be graded and assessed, oh no. It was all about making sure that my students will be engaged in the learning process. If they are interested in what they are learning about, their brains will do the rest.

For me, this year has been transformative.  I’ve realized that rubric or not, it’s about the lesson and learning task itself.  I need to create units and lessons that will intrigue and challenge my students in new and unique ways.  I need to get them excited about what we are learning. If I can do that, then the rest will easily fall into place.  After a productive and restful March Break, I feel more alive about teaching and education than I have in a long time.  I’m ready to engage my students in the learning process in relevant and meaningful ways. I’m ready to challenge them to think critically, ask difficult questions, take risks, be creative, try new things, fail, and have fun as we embark upon the final nine weeks of the academic year.  No more feeling like a robot. It’s time for me to think like my students and find ways to ensure that I am reaching and engaging all of my students so that they can reach their full potential in the sixth grade.

The Flexibility of a Work Period

I love having a chunk of unscheduled time during my day.  While it rarely happens, when I do have 30-45 minutes to myself with nothing to do, I enjoy being able to look ahead, start planning my next unit, listen to some music, do some writing or reading, or get caught up on television shows.  The freedom to do what I want during a block of time is quite amazing; I’m in charge and it feels good to run the show.

My students are the same way.  They love having long chunks of time to just work independently, which is why we created a student-centered classroom.  We make use of very little direct instruction and individualize our curriculum to best support and challenge our students.  We use the workshop method of literacy instruction to provide the students blocks of time to read and write without distraction or interruption.  My STEM curriculum is very individualized so that the students can work on their own to complete the work, do the learning, and solve the problems.  We provide the students with lots of time in class to just jump into and swim around the ocean of knowledge and learning.

Today in STEM class, my students participated in their last work period for our Astronomy Unit.  They had a chance to finish any last math assignments, complete the Application Phase, and prepare for tomorrow’s math exam.  I was able to meet with each student to review their grades, missing work, and their past self-assessment reflections to help guide them to success in class today.  It was awesome.  The students were focused and worked diligently to complete the numerous tasks at hand.  While half of the students still had work to finish, the other half were completing work to exceed the learning objectives.  They were making models of their solutions to solving Earth’s space junk dilemma, helping their peers understand assignments, and making movies showcasing their understanding of astronomy concepts.  I was able to float around the room, observe, and be in awe of how independent my boys have become.  I was amazed.  They do so enjoy having these flexible work periods during which they can work on whatever portion of the unit they happen to need to or want to work on.  Choice in the classroom allows for engagement.  Providing the students with choices as to what they work on fosters a happy and focused classroom.

How Do You Teach Students to Focus?

As a student, I had difficulty staying focused in class.  Although I didn’t get in trouble for not focusing because I could fake it real well, I wonder how much learning I actually did in high school.  While the teachers were talking, I was generally drawing, doodling, doing homework, or anything else but paying attention.  In my four years of high school, I got really could at looking up and writing or drawing at the same time.  It’s quite an amazing talent.  Perhaps I should take my show on the road.  See, even writing this blog I have trouble staying on track.  Okay, where was I?  Oh yes, so yeah, I was a very unfocused student.  While I tried, at times, to pay attention, I found it difficult to maintain that focus.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t interested in the topic or maybe it was because I didn’t see the relevance in what the teacher was saying.  Looking back, I wish my teachers had taught me how to stay focused.  How might that have looked?  Would it have been like Pavlov’s great dog experiments?  Would I receive a shock every time I stopped looking at the teacher or a treat everytime I looked at the teacher for 10 second intervals?  That might actually have worked, but I wonder how human rights activists would have reacted.  Maybe there’s another way.

Today during STEM class, our school’s librarian talked to our boys about a very cool research tool that we have access to on our network.  She showed the boys how to use it and access it.  She even had them create accounts so that they could save their research.  Very cool stuff.  I prefaced her talk by explaining the purpose of it.  “You will need to research Brook Trout and ecosystems for class but you will also need to research many other topics in all of your other classes.  This tool will be very useful to you.”  I also reminded the students that we will be monitoring their effort and focus during the lesson as they will be graded on how focused they are during the lesson.   Going into the librarian’s talk, the students knew the expectations and purpose.  The relevance was clear and tangible for them.  While the content of the talk might not have been as engaging as a video game, it was important to their success as a student.  However, throughout her lesson, many students were disengaged, unfocused, and distracting.  Why is that?  If they knew what was expected of them, why did they do the opposite?  Did they not care?  Were they thinking about something else?  Had the librarian set the behavior expectations at the start of her lesson, would things have been different?  Rarely do we have such focus issues in the classroom.  What happened today?  Why were the students so unfocused?

Following the lesson, I spoke to the students about their behavior and how I was disappointed by their actions.  The remainder of the period was much better as the students diligently worked on their Brook Trout Project.  So, if the students know how to focus in some situations, why not others?  How can we teach our students to be focused and on-task all the time?  Well, not all the time, of course.  Why is it that when one of the sixth grade teachers is teaching, the students are focused and engaged and when someone else is running the show, chaos ensues?  How can we teach our students to be engaged and focused in every academic situation no matter who the teacher is?  Is it about the topic or engagement with it?  Is it about the teacher?  Is it about building a routine or setting expectations?  Is it about follow-through?  What if we talk to the students about it and see what they say?  Might they have some ideas or thoughts on the topic?  Maybe there is an underlying reason for the lack of focus?  Short of penalizing them when they are unfocused, I wonder if there are other ways to teach students to focus in all academic situations.