Students who are caught up in what they are doing don’t need to be managed, and students who succeed become self-propelling. If you can find a way to make your students’ work personal and meaningful, they will offer extraordinary efforts in the classroom. They willingly pursue challenges that personally matter to them.
I once had a student, Average Joe, who put in no more effort than was necessary for him to ensure that he was eligible to play sports. He was a nice kid, but he didn’t find art exciting. Then I decided to see if I could get my students more engaged by letting them make all of the decisions about their projects. I still identified the concept that they needed to demonstrate, but I let the students design the work that they wanted to do in order to show that they understood the skills and concepts.
The result was that most of the students did better quality work than they had ever done. Average Joe’s engagement was the most startling because he had to publicly defend his change of attitude to his peers. Some of his classmates were perplexed by his sudden dedication to art, but he told them plainly that what he was doing was “his” and because it was his, he wanted it to be “right.” That day, I saw the real power of engagement. I saw Average Joe intrinsically motivated.
I continue to try to find ways of snaring all of my students because I see the difference when they feel like they own their work. That means, for me, that I have to invest time in establishing an environment that allows students to make decisions and be in control. The learning objectives still determine the focus of student work, but I try to keep the focus on the standard or the competencies, rather than on a set of criteria that apply only to the project. This gives students a window through which they can make meaningful choices. Also, I try to provide multiple reflective opportunities to make sure that students are really invested in their choice. When my students care about their work, I can focus my attention on what they’re learning. The actual work, being on-task, and concerns about quality become non-issues. Their desire to engage makes learning seamless.
I know that teachers have been trying to find ways to engage students forever and that it can be a struggle. Often, however, our well meaning efforts fall flat simply because we put too much of ourselves into the assignments. Creativity in education has to mean student creativity, not teacher creativity. Don’t let your great ideas seduce you. Set your ego aside and watch your students learn to become enthralled.
Finding a hook isn’t something that you’ll get right the first time, or even the second, but once you see your disengaged students get excited about learning, you’ll be snared too
Barbara Weed holds a B.F.A and a M.S. Ed. She is a National Board Certified Teacher. Ms. Weed taught middle school art for seven years, and is currently an instructional coach. She has been engaged in school transformation, as a parent and as a teacher, for many years.