In effort to explore the beauty of student engagement, I talked to Dinah Shepherd, founder of First Teacher and former teacher for 13 years. Of those 13 years, 11 were spent at a middle school where she taught literature. Luckily for Shepherd, she found her colleagues and students of the middle school level to be both fun and engaging.
True engagement vs. superficial engagement
Shepherd’s curriculum was packed with books that had a strong themes of social justice and explored the idea of what’s fair. When opening with seemingly dense texts, Shepherd would start with relatable questions to involve students right off the bat. For instance, when it came time for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Shepherd opened the class with the question, “How many of you have ever been stabbed in the back by someone you thought was your best friend?”
While these types of questions get students excited, talking, and relating important themes to their lives, Shepherd says getting students talking is only the first step. “Real student engagement comes when kids get access to something they thought that they couldn’t,” she says. “True engagement is dreading something they think is too hard then triumphing over it.” As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
According to Shepherd, engaging students is simple: listen more than you talk. “The teachers who are most able to engage with kids are people who talk to them like adults rather than kids,” she says. The idea is to not condescend and value that students are intuitive and astute. In her first years of teaching, Shepherd says she spent about 90% of the time talking. Now, 13 years later, she only spends 10% of her class time talking. “When you are 22 years old, you think you’re a rock star, a performer, a missionary,” says Shepherd. “If you stay in teaching, you become more of a guide, a mentor. There is no longer assumption that kids are an empty vessel waiting to be filled.”
“Connecting with students is the same way it works for connecting people in real life,” she advises. Like most people, students like authentic people. “If you’re trying too hard, they’ll sniff it out,” Shepherd says. “I taught with a [geeky, rule-abiding] guy who taught math, and the kids loved him because he never tried to be anything else. With so much ‘fronting’ going on in middle school, students respond to consistency and authenticity. If the adult in front of you is [pretending to be something they’re not], it feels unsafe.”
If all else fails, “just keep coming back,” Shepherd says. “Persistence speaks volumes.”
As you can probably guess, student engagement starts before students get to school, which is why Shepherd founded First Teacher. Through a parent-led community, First Teacher is an organization that works to help parents embrace their role “in their children’s cognitive development.”
The goal of Shepherd’s neighborhood-based initiative is for parents to build a network with other parents that arms them with the information, knowledge, and strategies that will help them light up their children’s brains. These strategies include tips for listening, setting boundaries, and providing consistency for a child. “The key,” says Shepherd, “is engaging with your kids every day; talk with them, ask them questions.”
The solution is based on the premise of working with what you have, which can be as simple as taking a walk and counting steps or naming colors you see. This type of interaction helps build a sense of security. By building positive pathways in a developing child’s brain, parents set their children up for success in problem solving, socializing with others, and reading.
When asked why student engagement is important to learning and mastery, Ms. Shepherd had a simple answer: “Students are your client. If they aren’t buying what you’re selling, you don’t have a sale. If they’re not taking information and applying it, you haven’t done your job.”
Looking for better ways to engage with your students? Start with more timely, personalized feedback with Gradeable. Find out more at www.gradeable.com.