Theory and Practice

Rethinking Engagement

“Children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?” – Peter Johnston

For Millennials, the End of the TV Viewing Party by Alex Williams (New York Times, November 7, 2014)

With the advent of the smartphone, landlines are starting to become a thing of the past. But what about television? Williams provides a close perspective of how millenials are moving away from the community screen. In its place: Laptops and tablets. Media is consumed via subscriptions and one-time purchases within this format. While some lament the lack of physically being with fellow viewers, others note how socialization still occurs in the privacy of our own screens. For example, many fans of popular shows such as “Scandal” connect with each other via Twitter, commenting on each episode while it is live.

Creating and Composing in a Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks and Kristin Ziemke (Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, November 5, 2014)

This collaborative post was written in response to a piece by highly respected literacy expert Nancy Atwell. She referred to iPads in the primary classroom as “trendy” and “a mistake”. Troy’s and Kristin’s response is thoughtful, balanced, and convincing. They do recognize the importance of moderation with technology in the classroom. However, the number of examples they list that incorporate digital tools effectively is impressive. For example, Kristin’s students use the app Book Creator on iPads to create original eBooks with audio narration. They can be stored in the device’s iBooks library, which stand side by side with other titles from major publishers.

Effects of Classroom Practices on Reading Comprehension, Engagement, and Motivations for Adolescents by John T. Guthrie and Susan Lutz Klauda (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

This research study conducted through the University of Maryland wanted to determine the correlation between classroom supports, student motivation, and informational text comprehension. Guthrie and Klauda specifically looked for outcomes related to the presence of student choice, conveying the importance of reading, collaboration, and perceived competence in the classroom. They facilitated these elements of instruction within the Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction framework. History at the secondary level was the context in which this study was conducted. The researchers found that when students were provided with these specific supports, they better “persevered in unraveling complex texts”. Students also increased in the amount of value they attributed to “the importance, benefit, and usefulness of reading”. Comprehension was subsequently stronger when compared to more traditional instructional methods.

The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents by Gay Ivey (The Reading Teacher, November 2014)

Dr. Ivey, a literacy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an acolyte of John Guthrie. In this summary of her own research on student engagement, she set out to determine how to normalize an authentic reading culture within a high-poverty school environment. The teachers in this study put few requirements on their students regarding their reading – just read high-interest texts, talk about their reading with peers, and then read some more. What they found was students not only became better readers, they also became better people. Through the world of fiction, students learned about “working on relationships, both with others and themselves”. They also discovered the skill of “taking up perspectives” and residing within the characters in their books. This led to students increasing their capacity for empathy. Where as some educators might worry about the accountability of students not being required to complete a reading assignment, Ivey found evidence to support the notion that students looked “to further complicate” their thinking by asking questions of peers and demonstrating reading comprehension. Students “turned toward each other” in their learning.

The Mindful Educator by Sarah McKibben (ASCD Education Update, November 2014)

Mindfulness, or the purposeful act of being present, has been a hot topic in education lately. McKibben highlights the research that suggests using mindfulness strategies, such as breathing techniques, can “improve cognitive performance” and increase “resilience to stress”. Educators profiled for this article acknowledge the resistance that parents might have with these practices. They suggest family education prior to implementing mindfulness activities schoolwide. Also important is that educators teaching students how to be more present in the present should model these strategies themselves in their daily lives.

Connecting the dots…

The image at the top of this post is of my son and some of his classmates celebrating a reading activity. Where are the books? you might ask. They just finished a project for the Global Read Aloud, an online literacy event created by Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp). They recently read the book I’m Here by Peter Reynolds. Motivated by the theme of friendship in the text, they made “friendship planes”, which contained original suggestions by the students on how to be a good friend. Attaching their learning to a meaningful concept helped the students connect their reading to a bigger idea. What made the kids’ day was the author himself commented on the classroom blog that contained this image.


In my humble opinion, this is a wonderful example of engagement. The teacher captured their hearts and minds by appealing to something important to her students (friendship). She then connected this concept to reading and writing in authentic and meaningful ways. There was a tangible impact on their lives, both socially and emotionally as well as cognitively. Later on, my son and his classmates may not recall the exact text they read during this event. However, it is more likely they will remember how it made them feel and how this experience helped each of them become a better person.

Without tapping into the emotions and excitement for the subjects we are teaching, our instruction will fail to meet its learning potential. We can require work as much we want, but if our students are not engaged in the learning, what they produce is more likely a result of compliance. It’s one thing to point to the board and read aloud the learning target at the beginning of the lesson. It’s another thing to present a thought-provoking video or image, or to ask a provocative question that forces learners to think deeply. This type of engaging instruction creates its own sense of mindfulness. Technology can help make these types of activities possible, but only as a way to support the learning and not lead it.

Digital experiences are not a panacea for all that is lacking in education. Nothing can replicate the face-to-face social experience. Technology is only a tool, albeit a powerful one, for learning in the classroom. At the same time, we should not deny the impact that it has on learners. To dismiss this influence would reflect our ignorance of these possibilities, instead of a broader understanding of its impact on our students’ learning lives. In our upgraded roles as teachers in the 21st century, we would be wise to regularly rethink how we are most effective in engaging our students in new learning possibilities.

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