The Day the Lights Turn On

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

I had that moment this week.

You know the moment.

179114536This moment is different from the beginning of school, when everyone is excited to be back. This moment happens after my sixth grade students start to remember that:

➢ They really have to do homework and,
➢ There are going to be lessons that are difficult and,
➢ Dion likes Ann instead of Mayze or Mayze likes Dion instead of George.

And I:

➢ Actually have to listen to why Dion likes Ann instead of Mayze and explain (again) that they are in the sixth grade and are in my classroom to learn MATH.
➢ Remember that there is a time when the honeymoon is over.
➢ Sometimes, just sometimes, wonder why I was so excited to come back from summer vacation. So much so, in fact, there may have been days when I started to look forward to (and perhaps even count) the days until Christmas.
➢ See a light at the end of the tunnel and wonder if it is a train heading straight for me.

Just before that moment, I have produced progress reports and lesson plans and checked papers all weekend. I have assessed knowledge and disaggregated the data. I have had myriad conversations with colleagues and parents and students. I have revised lesson plans and searched for ways to re-teach and challenge students.

512753007Then it happens. It is like the compact florescent lamps (CFLs). You know, the energy efficient bulb that turns on and takes a minute to become its brightest self. The light coming toward me gets brighter… (As you read this, you may think one of two things is about to happen – I am going to be wonderfully surprised or run over by that train.) The light gets brighter and brighter and suddenly, guess what? The lights are bright all over the classroom! Even Mayze, Dion, Ann, and George are completely engaged and the air in the room shifts.

122412492I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not a train, but rather brains becoming adjusted to thinking and considering and probing and analyzing. The air becomes full of questions and hypotheses. Understanding and synthesizing information becomes the order of the day. New ideas, new connections. Oh my! Light bulbs start turning on all over the room. I breathe in this creative air and in my head I scream “Yes!”

Suddenly, I know why. Why what? Why I come back year after year. Why I keep pushing and cajoling and pressing and questioning even on the days it seems nothing is getting through to my students. Why I keep answering the same questions over and over again with different words in different ways. Why I fight to build the bridge that connects what is known to what is new.
I end up reminding myself:

  • If it has not happened yet, be patient.
  • Have confidence in myself and my students.
  • Keep building those bridges one nail and one board at a time.
  • Believe the lights WILL come on!

marciabondsMarcia Bonds is a 6th Grade Math and English Language Arts Teacher at Key School in the Oak Park School District.  She has been teaching for 17 years.  Marcia is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project and was a co-facilitator of the 2014 Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute. She has facilitated professional development on inquiry-based learning for the Oak Park School District.

Let’s Talk About Student Engagement

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

Last week, teacher blogger Marcia Bonds explored the idea of engaging her students through developing a learner identity, an identity that she too needs to have and models daily with her students. As I read Marcia’s blog, I couldn’t help recalling how many times over the past two months I’ve heard the topic of “engagement” raised.

493533923Engagement–what does it mean? How do we foster engagement in our classrooms? Like Marcia, I see learner identity as a key part of engaging learners. The idea of mindset playing a role in how a learner engages is well researched. But I’m also encountering more conversations about engagement via digital tools. The use of social media tools in the classroom, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instagram, or Vine, continues to be debated as a possible way to re-engage students. I can’t help but wonder: could there be a relationship between learner identity and digital tools in the classroom?

147662769Not long ago, I came across Staci Hurst’s blog post that addresses engagement. Hurst highlights work stemming from the Schlechty Center on Engagement. Not immediately familiar with Schlechty’s name, I did some further digging that led me to his 2010 keynote in which he defines engagement. He claims four types of students exist: academically inclined students, “nice” kids, nice but won’t do much, and finally, those who are going to drop out of school. The real kicker comes when he contends that all but the academically inclined students are doing nothing more than complying in the classroom. He shares four types of observable engagement:

Strategic compliance: student does the work for extrinsic goals (grades, class rank, college acceptance, parental approval)

Ritual compliance: work holds no meaning or connection to the student, leading to the student focusing on minimum exit requirement (what do I need to do to get this over with?)
Retreatism: student disengages for multiple reasons–task holds no relevancy, emotionally withdrawn, task seems too unobtainable
Rebellion: student actively engages in acting out and recruiting others to do the same

So how does Schlechty define engagement? Persistence. An engaged student perseveres in difficult tasks with a personal emphasis to reach “optimum performance.”

Researchers477569935 who have closely studied engagement have developed a multi-dimensional measure of student engagement by tying together both cognitive and emotional components: the theory of flow. More simply put, flow is that magic moment where the learner is so focused in a task that they continue to persevere as complexity increases, finding enjoyment in the struggle.

I’m seeing a common denominator here–task design. Put more specifically, task design that elicits student investment. What I’m not yet clear on is if digital tools are critical to helping bolster students to persevere–to live in the magical flow moment.

Take Aways

So what do I walk away with from this mini-inquiry? I think the most critical take away is the need for opening up conversation between colleagues about how each of us interprets the word “engagement” and what tells us students are engaged. And we need to talk about the context of high engagement. What was the topic? How were students engaging in the lesson? What was the task or tasks?

Possible Conversation Starters

1. Select a video of an instructional session and discuss with colleagues how you would describe task design and evidence of student engagement.

● This 5th grade Social Studies lesson could be a useful artifact to study even for those teaching secondary grade levels.
● This short clip from Minneapolis Roosevelt HS could inspire a useful conversation about task design that engages students.

2. View Phil Schlechty’s keynote and open up conversation inviting colleagues to weigh in: What do they agree with? What do they not? What new questions do they now have about engagement?

3. Have colleagues read the Framework for Post-Secondary Success and describe what ideas it confirms and how pushes their thinking. How does the framework impact ideas about engagement and task design?

There’s no denying the power and role engagement plays in the learning process. It’s a worthy topic to explore both individually and with colleagues. I invite you to extend and deepen the conversation about student engagement. Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available.  More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.

Engagement: Conducting a Symphony of Learning in the Classroom

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

A conductor stands in front of an orchestra. He raises his arms and there is silence in the concert hall. When he brings his arms down, music begins. Each instrument plays his or her own part in creating a larger musical production. The conductor hears the music and directs the players, but he does not play every instrument. How wonderful it would be if we were conductors in our classrooms!

Each year, I find myself in front of a new group of sixth grade students — fresh new faces, some with no idea how good they are at playing music.  Some of the music will be beautiful, some will create dissonance in their lives and in the community.  And, you know what?  It’s okay.  Together, eventually, we will create a whole new community — one that will encourage independent thinking so that each member can solve problems and have an open forum for discussion.

However, right now, we are not there yet.  As always, with the first couple of assignments, there’s always a Dion who asks “Is this right?”, “Should I ……?” (fill in the blank with whatever decision necessary).  When I ask, “tell me what YOU think…” they look at me as though I have suddenly grown three heads.  I turn, take a deep breath, and think, “Okay, here we go, it’s September!”

Sometimes, whether I intend to or not, I give the impression that I am, as the teacher, the purveyor of all information, of every note and instrument, and my way is THE way.  What I really want my students to do is to theorize and contemplate ideas they have and synthesize the information that they discover. However, when my students begin to play their part in the music, sometimes I try to “fix” it. It does not take much for students to become disengaged when they feel that their voices are not valued. Imagine the conductor ignoring an entire group of instruments…

I want to teach my students. I want them engaged! However, engagement requires that I actually teach them from my own places of vulnerability and openness. Do I mind being wrong or not having all of the information or do I feel that I must play each instrument to get it right? What if there is another way to solve a problem? Am I open to seeing and hearing their music?  To teach my students well, I must listen to their thoughts and ideas. I must work to break down the barriers between us that suggest that there is one “right” way.

Every year, the instruments in my “classroom orchestra” are played by different musicians, each talented in a different way than the ones before.  There are a variety of ways to encourage students’ “music.”  For example:

  • Practice not answering any question that students can answer for themselves.  This goes for most of the questions that students ask in the beginning of the year.  I model the manner in which I want them to question each other – “I wonder if …..”, “what do you think will happen if ……”, “do you think that will work?”  Then, I get ready for incorrect answers.
  • Allow the incorrect answers.  In the places where a discussion can take place, I ask students what they think about both correct and incorrect answers.   Students end up discussing their answers.  This is my opportunity for modeling and discussing different ways of  “talking to” without “talking at.”  Here, I can build trust and listen to student thinking.
  • Trust is imperative. Our students must trust us and we must trust our students enough to allow a level of autonomy in the classroom. This is not a haphazard learning environment where everyone “goes on their own.”  It is a highly structured environment where students are free to speak and think aloud and reason with others, openly discussing their ideas.
  • Allow students to discover their way through learning by hypothesizing and testing.  I have had to let go of the feeling that they will not “get it” or will not be able to discern the “right” way if I do not “help” them. Me releasing control of the “how” and “why” has been the key to opening the door to a greater level of engagement for my students.

Our students and their reasoning should be given respect–even if it is not the way we think. Dion can learn to think and reason aloud with the rest of his classmates if we respect him enough to hear him play.  That respect is the key.  For all that we hope to accomplish, we should know that we must be open and willing to “let go” and allow students agency–the ability to make choices to explore–in their learning. That way, we become conductors of a symphony where we do not play every instrument. We understand, we listen, and we conduct the music.

marciabondsMarcia Bonds is a 6th Grade Math and English Language Arts Teacher at Key School in the Oak Park School District.  She has been teaching for 17 years.  Marcia is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project and was a co-facilitator of the 2014 Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute. She has facilitated professional development on inquiry-based learning for the Oak Park School District.

Formative Assessment


In thinking about formative assessment, we have found the work of Margaret Heritage (2007) to be particularly helpful.  Heritage describes formative assessment as an organized and planned process used to “gather evidence about learning.”  In this process, the data gathered about student learning are analyzed in order to determine students’ skills and understandings so the teacher can then shape learning activities to better support the students as they move towards their learning goal.  Heritage writes that, “In formative assessment, students are active participants with their teachers, sharing learning goals and understanding how their learning is progressing, what next steps they need to take, and how to take them” (p. 141).

Heritage then describes three primary types of formative assessment:  “on-the-fly assessment, planned-for interaction, and curriculum-embedded assessment” (p. 141).  On-the-fly assessments take place in the moment of instruction, for example when a teacher notices a student misconception about an important concept and uses a Stop and Jot writing exercise to quickly gather information on the prevalence of this misunderstanding across the whole class. Planned-for-interactions are moments built into lesson plans where the teacher gathers information about student understanding in order to inform instructional moves going forward in the lesson.  This might involve, for example, planned small group discussions about a key question or process in the lesson followed by groups presenting a graphic organizer representing their thinking.  The teacher can then make informed choices about  re-teaching important ideas or moving forward in the lesson.  Curriculum-embedded formative assessments are, as suggested in their name, built into curricula or instructional sequences and are placed at important points in learning progressions to provide teachers and students with insight into the thinking and learning taking place.

Finally, Heritage identifies four “core elements” of formative assessment:

  • identifying the “gap,”
  • feedback, and
  • student involvement,
  • learning progressions (p. 141)

Formative assessment first needs to “identify the gap,” or evaluate a where a student currently is with respect to some pre-determined goal for learning activity.  Formative assessment also has to include feedback, and this feedback needs to be geared towards helping the student move closer to the learning goal.   As already implied, the student needs to be involved in this process, and very importantly, aware that this is the process taking place.  In other words, students need to know about the learning goal, they need to know where they stand, and they need feedback that is is designed to help them achieve the learning goal.  Underlying of all of these other core elements is the notion of learning progressions;  the final learning goal needs to have identified sub-goals so that the students can set short-terms learning goals they can achieve as they advance and learn.

Heritage, M.  (2007).  Formative Assessment:  What do teachers need to know and do?  Phi Delta Kappan 89(2):  140-145.