The importance of engagement

Every once and a while, the stars align and it seems that nature makes something stand out.  Sure, my psychologist friends would chalk it up to the “frequency effect” and explain that after something has come to someone’s attention that it begins to appear with improbable frequency.  You buy a Kia Sorrento and you start to see them everywhere.  Or you hear a Joni Mitchell song on the radio and then you start to hear her at the grocery store, at the coffee shop and everywhere. But this is different.  Or at least it feels different.  Let me explain.

Last week, I met with some teachers who taught in an online school.  The teachers discussed how it important it was to make a connection with students.  One teacher talked about fist bumping his monitor while engaged in a webcam meeting with students.  Another talked about getting students to do “the wave” digitally by raising their hands in succession in the virtual classroom.  Another discussed starting and ending his synchronous classes with the playing of a popular song.  As he explained, “you have to engage them in the class to get them to learn.”

After that meeting with the online teachers, it seems my head has been in this “student engagement” place.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about how important student engagement is and how effective I am in involving my students in the learning process.  Then, yesterday, I started teaching an online class.  As part of their first assignment, my students were asked to reflect on their own experiences teaching or learning online.  One of the students, a middle school math teacher at a “brick and mortar” school discussed how she tried to teach a blended course and struggled because she couldn’t connect with the students.  She explained that the class felt sterile and that she hoped our online class would give her some strategies to better engage her students and help them learn.  Score another point for student engagement.

But this awareness to “student engagement” isn’t only limited to online teaching.  Last night, I had the pleasure of hearing a guest speaker who was presenting to a colleague’s class.  The speaker was an adolescent who had experienced a traumatic brain injury several years ago and was visiting the class to discuss her recovery process in depth.  While she talked mostly about her years of rehabilitation, she also discussed her experiences in school and with teachers.  She talked about how certain teachers helped to bring the content alive and made her understand the topics despite the challenges she faced.  She then said something that brought the student engagement piece home.  “If I’m going to like the content, I have to like the teacher.  They don’t need to be my friend or anything.  But I have to know they’re trying to get me involved.”

Maybe it is the frequency effect. I may be seeing signs for student engagement everywhere because a recent interaction helped to bring the topic back to the surface.  Or maybe the world is trying to show me how important it is to engage my students and involve them in the learning process.   Either way, student engagement now has my attention.  Maybe this post will help it have yours as well.

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