Monday, February 2, 2009

Engaged? On Task? What Matters.

Two and a half years ago while sitting in a graduate level education course, I found myself looking at a tally sheet for keeping track of whether or not each student in a classroom setting is 'on task.' An interesting way of doing an observation. I was to sit in the classroom with a view of all students and 'sweep' the room. I could make as many 'sweeps' as I wanted but the more, the better. More data. The 'sweep' entailed focusing on each student for so many seconds and marking 'yes' or 'no' on the tally sheet. 'Yes' for 'on task.' 'No' for 'off task.' This was my clinical observation class at George Mason, one of the many administrative classes that I was required to take if I wanted to be endorsed as an education administrator. No wonder it was called 'clinical observation.' Something was bothering me about this 'on task' business. The human element wasn't there. Something was missing. What if all students were 'on task' one hundred percent of the time? Did this make for an effective learning experience?

Zoom forward to the present. After performing close to two hundred observations of teachers and their students over the past two years, I can safely say that to be 'on task' means absolutely nothing if the task that a student is asked to do is meaningless, rote, and/or irrelevant. It didn't take me long to figure out that what I really want to know when observing a teacher's classroom is whether or not her students are engaged. Ahhh ... 'engaged,' now there's a warm, fuzzy, 'human' word. Unfortunately, it's not always easy trying to determine the 'engaged' student in the classroom as opposed to the 'disengaged' student, or 'unengaged' student. I had to define 'engagement' for myself. And what that looks like in any classroom, whether it's Ms. Doe's U.S. history class where lecturing is the prime teaching mode or Mr. Brown's wood class where students never leave the saws. What does it mean to be 'engaged' and what does it look like?

I was observing a class recently where students were asked to complete a cross-word puzzle with their vocabulary words. This is a task asked of them every week on the same day. Instead of working on their puzzle, two students were discussing the reading that was for homework the night before. They had both done the reading and while discussing it found that they didn't understand the same part of the story. Together, they were trying to find meaning. Needless to say, I was not doing a 'sweep.' Instead, because I had read the story and taught it a few years back, I got involved in the students' conversation. Later, when I met with the teacher to discuss the observation and to offer feedback, she became apologetic about the two students who were obviously 'off task' when I "caught them."

It was easy for me to tell the teacher that her engaged students were the two discussing the homework from the previous night, but it wasn't easy for her to agree. She argued that all the other students were diligently working quietly on what it was that she wanted them to do. They were 'on task.' But I insisted, "Even if the use of the puzzle is for review, does it work? Does it get them thinking about what you want them to learn?" I reminded her that far too often I've heard too many students say, "I love cross-word puzzles! I don't have to think!"

Students are engaged when they are making meaning in a relevant context, one that is as close to a real-world experience as possible. The task, the skill, and the content required must be meaningful. And students must be able to understand how these things have meaning beyond themselves. They should know the greater purpose, and they should be able to connect to it. They should be able to tell you what the greater purpose is.

We have to be careful what we ask our students to do, especially when we ask them to do the same thing over and over again. Don't get me wrong. I think there's a place for cross-word puzzles, but students who work diligently on a cross-word puzzle every week are most likely involved in what has become a meaningless activity. What's the purpose?

As the teacher and I came to the close of the post-observation meeting, we finally agreed on some essentials. We came up with a list of meaningful ways to teach vocabulary and ways to review that didn't become monotonous. We discussed how to tap into what students are thinking about when they walk into the classroom without losing much time. And we discussed how important it is to listen to students. To actively get involved and move about the room listening for meaningful conversations like the one I heard. This is what we're looking for as educators.

If there's nothing else I've learned as an observer, it's to be an active one. Forget sitting in a corner of a classroom passively watching whatever unfolds before my eyes and tallying marks on a tally sheet. In order for me to know whether or not students are engaged, I get down on my knees next to their desks or tables and I ask. I get involved. I make them explain to me what they are working on and why. I ask them how what they are learning is tied to the bigger picture. If they can't tell me, I take note and bring it up with the teacher later. Teacher by teacher. Student by student. I love my job.

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