CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 41 . . . . June 24, 2011
Charlton challenges us to rethink some common teaching practices as the above excerpt exemplifies. Her key message is that, to guide students towards independence, we need to scaffold their learning opportunities, but not "help" them to complete their work. Independence leads to a much greater feeling of success than being helped and, therefore, leads to engagement in learning.
Engaging the Disengaged is an inspiring teacher resource for both elementary and middle year teachers of all subject areas. Written in an easy to read format with margins for adding your own notes, a detailed table of contents, an index and many concrete examples of ideas in practice, it is a book teachers will return to, to mine it for more ideas and to reread parts to confirm ideas for change.
The introduction briefly describes the problem of disengagement along with the behaviors often associated with it, noting that it is a bigger problem than many teachers realize and the solutions often presented do not work. Beth Charlton proposes that the answer lies in the question, "What do you know?" In Chapter 1, she defines each word in this sentence and then proceeds to examine these words in relation to our teaching practices in the following chapters. Her discussion also includes personal grade school memories of engaging and disengaging experiences with reading and writing, of her husband and herself, along with actor and author Phil Daniels.
What refers to the information we have about disengagement based on our personal experiences and on research. Chapter 2 presents some information we have based on various levels of assessment: international, national, provincial/state and local. She raises concerns about these assessments and how they are used, cautioning us not to rationalize the results, not to adopt a deficit perspective, not to be seduced by numbers or political use of data, to beware of the medical model, and to broaden our search for data beyond tests. A perspective shift that includes dropping presuppositions, listening effectively, and recording precisely what students "can do" concludes this chapter. The work of Marie Clay and Carol Ann Tomlinson provides evidence for these strategies, and a reproducible page of questions to assess listening skills is included. Other pages that can be reproduced include a Debate Graphic Organizer, Connection Collection Template, Interest Bank Graphic Organizer, and Planning Next-Steps Instruction.
In Chapter 3, Do refers to the positive perspective we need to have to see students' abilities and possibilities and is clearly explained as being very different from starting our planning and teaching based on a deficit perspective. Charlton effectively uses two running records and a student writing sample to illustrate her points. The writing sample does demonstrate many skills when we look at it through Charlton's experienced eyes, and the running records show both a useful and un-useful record, the difference being the level of text the student is reading. Charlton shares her own method of record keeping using a scribbler and sticky notes instead of checklists or rubrics which she often finds too wordy and cumbersome. Professional conversations that focus on what students can do and sharing this information with the student can lead to trust and re-engagement. We are cautioned against counterproductive thinking about common terms in teaching such as strengths, needs and help.
Chapter 4, Getting to Know the Student as a You emphasizes the importance of relationship building and advocates for daily scheduled conversation time. The suggestion is to write this into your plan book and monitor and reflect on the teacher-talk/student-talk ratio of the day. A good variety of conversation topics is suggested, along with the caution that we need to assist our students in learning how to have social conversations and meaningful classroom dialogue. This is illustrated by examples from pop culture and a discrepant event, and a reminder that communicating, asking questions, wondering, and problem-solving are engaging activities if they arise out of student interest. Ideas for getting to know families and the school community are also briefly explored.
Know encompasses the professional knowledge we have about good teaching and learning along with learning new techniques and strategies to re-engage disengaged learners. The chapter opens with identifying elements that are part of successful lessons and then moves into a short discussion about the active thinking process that leads to learning. The basic steps of planning for engagement are to match student's interests with subject area content, plan instruction that leads to independence, develop lessons with a focus on thinking, and involve the visual arts, music, movement and technology.
Other thinking lesson plan ideas include debates and a "Thinking Fair." Neither of these are new ideas as the Thinking Fair is an inquiry project under another name. The "Connection Collection" is a grid of words, the number of which can vary depending on the grade level and the competencies of the student. The words are used to engage students in looking for connections between the words and writing down their thinking. It is an idea that is easy to differentiate, and, as Charlton points out in one of her examples, they can be cross curricular and based on student interest. For example, Cleopatra's Make-up grid words connect to Egyptian history, geometry, and the student's interest in make-up.
The chapter turns next to a brief discussion of re-engaging students with reading and writing. Recent reading research would certainly support the key points included, but disagree with the statement that "at 90+% accuracy, the student 'hears success' and knows that he or she can read." (p. 70). Richard Allington states that, for a student to read independently and to comprehend and feel successful as a reader, that percentage should be 95 – 98%.
The conclusion turns the question, "What do you know?" to us as teachers with a challenge to rethink some of our practices, discuss our observations with colleagues, read and continue to research. Teachers need to stay engaged in the learning process along with their students, not look for quick-fixes, but instead take the time to rethink their practices.
This book is Charlton's own reflection of her reading, research, conversations and teaching experiences that encompass experience as a classroom teacher, literacy consultant, literacy assessment coordinator and university lecturer. It provides a good starting point for any teacher's reflection on her/his practice. Further reading would be necessary to examine engagement and related topics in more depth.
Betty Klassen teaches in the Faculty of Education in the Middle Years Program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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