Monday, October 20, 2008

Keeping Students Engaged

Teaching Tip Tuesday

Ben Franklin once said, "Tell me... I forget. Show me... I remember. Involve me... I learn." His life was a model of authentic learning. He wrote, performed, experimented, and invented, influencing the scientific thinking, writing, and politics of his day. Though he had many accomplishments in his lifetime, he is most widely remembered for his incurable curiosity and his hunger for learning. Although I won't be taking my boys outside during a thunderstorm, there is a nugget of wisdom in his educational philosophy that I try to exercise.

"Involve me." Sometimes that is such a daunting task. How do we involve our children in the learning process? Must we craft? Must we do every hands-on activity in the teacher's manual? Imho, no, we do not need a flurry of activity for our children to be productive learners. Instead, I try to follow four guidelines to teaching "authentically," which played out nicely in one of our favorite family projects, a Birdieland Government.

First, I try to develop units around the boys' interests. When introducing the government unit, I was careful not to say, "You are going to learn about the United States government." That was my goal for the unit. I wanted them to understand the founding of our nation and the basic workings of the government. However, I told them, "This six weeks you will create a new nation, one for your plush toy birds." Immediately, they were challenged, excited and ready to start!

Linking learning to students' interests does not mean teaching only the subjects they like. Bruster is Social Studies intolerant. As soon as I start to open up a history reader, his face glazes over; he has no intrinsic interest. I could, however, read from a science book all day, and he would be elated. While he completed this government project, though, he said that history was his favorite subject.

Secondly, I try to keep my students productive, doing and making instead of just receiving. There is a time to listen; it is a skill that must be developed. However, I much prefer for them to be active. Sometimes that means doing jumping jacks while stating math facts. Sometimes it means building a model. Other times it means responding to a listening cue. But mostly, it means working toward a challenge... researching, writing, planning, debating, experimenting, proposing, and enacting.

After I gave the boys the challenge of creating a new bird nation, they started researching. They had to read from many sources and answer questions like the following:

"What is a nation?"

"What form of government does the United States have?"

"What are the duties of the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court?"

Then, they had to make decisions and model their birdie government after ours. They were given the tasks of writing a Constitution, holding elections, and proposing bills that would be debated and voted upon. They gathered the birds and held sessions of Congress, keeping a record in the form of a journal. They made campaign posters and organized an election in which their homeschool friends participated. As they worked, they learned what I wanted them to learn, but accomplished what they wanted to accomplish.

I imagine what some of you are thinking right now. What about emerging or non-readers? How do I do this with kids too young to tackle this level of thinking? What about the multi-age dynamic of a homeschool? This leads to the third principle I try to follow... scaffolding. When my boys were younger, I did most of the work. I demonstrated how to read for knowledge, how to take notes, how to develop a good project. As they mature and gain more skills, I pass more and more of the responsibilities to them.

I also help them divide the work. One of the boys had more writing responsibilities because he is a more independent writer and better speller. The other had more design responsibilities because of his artistic talent. Allow each child to contribute according to his particular talents and abilities.

Also, as I hand over responsibilities, I try to keep my expectations reasonable. We do not want to have low expectations, but the driving force of authentic work is that it is the real product of the children and not the highly-polished work of an adult. Teachers often feel frustrated or give up on this approach because they fear that their students' work is inferior when, in reality, it is grade-appropriate.

Finally, I try to link learning to real-world problems. The Birdieland project is on-going. The boys continue to write bills to bring before their Bird House of Representatives to propose solutions to house-hold problems. They have created laws concerning cleaning schedules and taking turns choosing bedtime stories. They have also continued to add to the project as they progress through their history studies. Just recently, a new state, Ken-turkey, entered their union. There was much controversy over whether it should be admitted as a squirrel-labor state or a free-squirrel state. They had to devise a compromise, similar to the Missouri Compromise. Currently, the birds are on the brink of war concerning this issue. It is believed that the state, Cardinalville, is considering seceding. If this happens, newly elected President Cal Condor will have no choice but to send the toy soldiers there in an effort to save the union.

Following these principles has made our school a much more productive place. I encourage you to try incorporating them and see what happens. Start small. Think about what your children love the most and try to weave it into some aspect of your curriculum. Then think of a challenge you can give your children. Remember that it is okay if you have to take them by the hand and walk them through the first few projects. That is what you are there for. Over time, give them more and more responsibility and help them to make real-world connections. Your kids will enjoy the productivity, and you will love the results.

Need more ideas? Read my post for more authentic learning ideas.

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