Adapted from Engaging Children by Ellin Oliver Keene
Engagement, in part, depends on what you feel and sense when you enter a classroom. It's the culture—unseen and unheard, but omnipresent, and it's a little tougher to pin down. You sense a spirit of we're-all-in-this-together; the respect, affection, and civility between teachers and students and among students is palpable; you know this is a place where children take intellectual and emotional risks to explore ideas in the social and natural world.
To try and make these somewhat elusive ideas more concrete, let's delve into three key components that synthesize the invisible and inaudible conditions and are essential to a culture of engagement:
Students' Sense of Well-Being
While promoting children's well-being may be a larger, community-wide initiative, the more important work involves our simple, everyday efforts to infuse our classrooms with safety, joy, respect, acceptance of challenges, collaboration, and confidence.
No matter their circumstances, all children deserve to learn in a place that actively promote their well-being. We have a much better chance of creating this kind of climate if we can recognize and describe what well-being means in a classroom and what it means to us. Identifying what well-being is for ourselves allows us to model this sense of comfort and security for children.
Well-being is one of this invisible but essential conditions for engagement, We want children to feel that their classrooms are sanctuaries, apart from the sometimes troubled world outside, and absolutely safe—physically, emotionally, and intentionally. I've written about this perception in an earlier book by describing a sense of intimacy that pervades the classroom. This is our space and each of us brings intellectual and emotional energies that are vital to all. We are connected by common effort and we respect each other's individual lines of interest and inquiry.
Though it isn't easy to define a sense of well-being, it is something you can co-create with your students. Find it in your own life and talk to you students about it. What can you do, together, to create a space where everyone has a deep sense of intimacy and well-being?
Students' Feelings of Independence and Agency
Many teachers are so prone to popping in to solve problems that children would learn from if left to solve by themselves. Is it because we want a sense of smoother, orderly flow in our classrooms and intervene to prevent conflict? Conflict, in the context of a child's sense of well-being described above, may feel uncomfortable to us, but it essential for children to build a sense of agency and independence for solving problems.
Children will develop a sense of agency and independence—and engage in learning—if given time and proper scaffolding. We need to model the problem-solving behaviors we hope they will use. But we should be consistent. We can't ask, "how will you solve that problem?" one time and say, "Here, let me help" the next. If we've provided enough modeling, children should be asked to work hard to figure things out on their own. The truth is we want for children to see their way through and then articulate their thinking about the tricky parts, but we should step back, bite our tongues, and give them all the time they need.
Independent children with a sense that challenges are well within their grasp tend to be more engaged children. These sensibilities develop over our lifetimes and each educator has a responsibility to contribute to each child's sense of independence and agency. Do we find ourselves slipping into the occasional rushed moment where we think it might just be easier to do it for them? Together, we can rethink out tendencies to jump in a rescue children. Every quick decision we makes that steers a children toward independence is also a step toward engagement.
Students' Access to Regular, Thought-Provoking Conversation
many adults are conflict averse, particularly in professional setting. we want to get along with our colleagues, so we avoid asking provocative questions, even if the outcome may leave to more productive teaching and learning. Yet there is little doubt that organizations grow when people engage in ongoing discussion about challenging topics; one person asking a question that crosses into a previously undiscussed territory may well be in the best interest of all who work and learn together.
The same ethic should be present in classrooms. We need to ask the tough questions and seek controversial topics. Students, from their earliest years, are busy sculpting a belief system that will last a lifetime. We hope that they are doing so in the families and communities outside of school, but we cannot rely solely on that hope. They also need to build beliefs in the safe classroom environment described above, led by a trusted adult and among peers who have learned to respond with great respect. But how often, really, do we lob a controversial question of topic into the mix and let kids jump in a explore it?
We humans are drawn to conflict. Conflict is central to the human experience and learning to solve or at least mitigate conflict is central to growing up. We are also natural problem solvers: we spend hours discussing ways to improve children's learning; and we revel in thinking through carious actions we can take to mitigate conflict in out communities. We do so to explore issues that affect our children and ourselves and when we do, we're engaged.
No adult or child can spend all or even most of the time completely engaged in learning. But we teachers can create certain conditions, seen and unseen, that makes more engagement more likely. To do so may mean we need to cast an objective eye on the physical setup and sense of intimacy in our classrooms, and to assess the degree to which our students have a sense of well-being, a feeling of independence and agency, and conversations that embrace conflict.
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning. She serves as senior advisor at Heinemann, overseeing the Heinemann Fellows initiative and is the editor of the Heinemann Professional Development Catalog-Journal. Follow her on Twitter @EllinKeene