Engaging Students Where They Are

Engaging Students Where They Are

When I started teaching, I thought there would be something intimidating about standing in front of my students, their hypercritical eyes watching my every move. It took one semester to learn that my fears were misplaced. My students took one look at me, criticized everything from my pencil skirt to the grammar packet I had just distributed, and decided that on any given day I probably wasn’t worth their time. While I had feared their scrutiny, it never occurred to me to fear their indifference, and it was their indifference that was a much bigger threat to both their success and mine.

I needed to be better, but what did better look like when most of my students had the entire world at their fingertips? I wasn’t as smart as Google. I wasn’t as flashy as Angry Birds. I wasn’t as interesting as whatever “BFF” was texting or tweeting from the classroom across the hall.

Generally speaking, I knew what my students needed from me. They needed to see relevant material; they needed to understand the application of that material to their current and future lives; they needed to understand key concepts of my content area; they needed to develop critical and anlytical thinking skills that would serve them not only academically, but also as citizens of a global community. The question was, how could I give them what they needed if they didn’t know they wanted it?

The answer developed slowly over the course of the next school year. Conventional wisdom in education says that a teacher needs to meet students where they are. Typically this means recognizing ability level or skill set, understanding their prior knowledge and experience, and building upon that base. An unconventional parsing of these words reveals a second implication. Students today spend time in cyberspace, on social media, and in ‘the cloud’ (both literally and figuratively). If a teacher is going to be successful under these circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to meet today’s students where they are on both accounts?

This idea revolutionized my approach to teaching in two ways. First, I resolved to use technology to disseminate as much of my curriculum, classroom material, and communication with students and parents as possible. I started a classroom website where I published weekly lesson plans and uploaded class notes, homework assignments, test review materials and supplemental resources. I started a Twitter feed to post interesting tidbits of English information and to acknowledge and congratulate students on their successes. I began using an online application that allows me to text homework and project reminders to my students’ phones. I became very lenient with my cell phone policy. If I couldn’t keep their eyes on me, then I put the information on the little screen that continuously drew their attention away.

Having engaged my students through their technology, my second change had to do with engaging them in the physical classroom. In my first semester, I had been good at “playing school.” I made flashy PowerPoint presentations, put stickers on perfect papers, and made a ridiculous number of photocopied grammar worksheets. Two revelations changed my perception of my role entirely. The first was that I wasn’t happy teaching that way. While it was in keeping with my teacher education training, it wasn’t me, and it was hard to stay passionate about it. The second was that if I wanted my students to engage in the material, then I needed to offer them something in class that they didn’t feel like they could get somewhere else.

I’ve often heard my students say of a YouTube video or funny internet meme, “You have to see this. It’s the best thing ever!” My task then, seemed simple. To engage kids, I needed to become the best thing ever for 90 minutes of their day. I’d like to believe that I achieve this 100% of the time, but I know that’s not true. There are a number of things I do consistently that are unique to my English classroom, engaging to my students, and the stuff of legend from one graduating class to another. I rap Shakespeare; I stand on my desk to teach; I memorize soliloquies from Hamlet, Julius Caeser, and Macbeth and peform them in full character; I write bad poetry; I ask my students to be foolish from time to time, and I am foolish with them; I rearrange their desks from rows, to groups, to circles, to pairs, numerous times some weeks, numerous times some days. In short, I keep them guessing. Not everyday is a singing and dancing three-ring circus . . . but some days are!

My new approach was scary to embrace at first. To be willing to take a risk and make a fool of yourself in front of high school students is outside most people’s comfort zone. However, it was much more in keeping with the energy and excitement I had for education, and it garnered a much more positive response from my students. That’s not to say that I never lecture. If half the time I’m bouncing off the walls trying to be innovative, the other half I’m facilitating a far more traditional classroom model. The key has been to strike a balance between the two. On days when I lecture, my students might not think I’m the best thing ever, but I present the material as if it is the best thing ever.

The best validation I’ve ever received came not long ago when, after taking notes on Shakespeare’s life and writing for about thirty minutes, a student leaving the classroom was heard to say, “Wow, Ms. Susa was really excited about that.” I was really excited about that! That’s why I studied English in the first place.

Checking my personal passions at the door in the name of facilitating a certain academic model seems like a misuse of energy and talent. If I’m not excited about and engaged with the subjects I’m teaching, how can I expect that from my students?

Kate Susa

Sidenote from Kate:

There were consequences to embracing the use of technology – lessons that I learned and that I made sure my students learned as well. I once gave detention using social media. I answered a student’s phone in class and had a lovely conversation with the caller about why the student was unavailable. I’ve returned text messages on behalf of students who had their phones taken away. Instead of fighting against the technology that my students so adore, I’ve met them where they are and engaged them on their playing field. A smart phone is a tremendous resource that does a student little good if it’s confiscated and sitting on my desk.

Kate Susa is a High School English Teacher. Read more by Kate on her blog, Heels or Sneakers.

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