The Engagement Gap: Making Each School and Each Classroom an All-Engaging Environment

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By Walter McKenzie

Whole Child Symposium: The Engagement Gap

ASCD brought together educators, both face to face and online, for the 2016 Whole Child Symposium on May 4. The focus this year was on how schools can most effectively engage students. ASCD Director of Outreach Sean Slade moderated the event, first welcoming Russell Quaglia, the executive director of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. The conversation quickly delved into an examination of what creates the engagement gap.

“I could have the greatest content in the world, but if I don’t have relationships with my kids, what do I really have?” Quaglia asked. “I want to know what matters to you. I want to know what you are going to do with this learning.”

Where is the shift? Well, it’s two-fold.

First, Quaglia insists, “I don’t look at students as clients. I look at them as partners. Students need to take responsibility! No whining!” And second, “Sixth graders find schools more relevant than 12th graders. I want schools to get that survey data back and reflect on it. I want schools to say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me.’ Go from data—understanding what that data means—and then connect it to your vision. Let’s spend less time thinking about where kids are coming from. Let’s spend more time on where they’re going.”

It was an invigorating start to the evening.

Chancellor of DC Public Schools Kaya Henderson joined Slade and Quaglia next, and explained that student input informs teaching: “As a teacher, I have a responsibility to meet your needs as the student. Teaching and engagement are not mutually exclusive.” But the point is not necessarily teacher effectiveness. “We have to get back into the business of trusting our amazing young people! It’s as important for us to build students’ talents as it is [for us to improve] their test scores.”

Student input informs teaching, Henderson explained: “As a teacher, I have a responsibility to meet your needs as the student. Teaching and engagement are not mutually exclusive.” But the point is not necessarily teacher effectiveness. “We have to get back into the business of trusting our amazing young people! It’s as important for us to build students’ talents as it is [for us to improve] their test scores.”

How far does Henderson take her commitment to student engagement? “We ask high school students what they want to see in the budget and build our budget based on what they tell us.” She walks it like she talks it.

As the evening continued, Bena Kallick, the codirector of the Institute for Habits of Mind, continued the focus on teachers as the engagement “difference makers”: “The whole idea we are talking about [is] the degree to which teachers are excited . . . especially when we’re trying to do professional development with them. Are we able to help them feel the electricity of it?”

Professional learning is needed to help make the shift to a student-centric, student-valued learning culture in schools. According to Kallick, “It’s not enough for students to have voice. It matters what they do in the classroom. To what degree do we bring students to the design table?” Voice, cocreation, social construction, and self-discovery are key factors in closing the engagement gap.

Kim Thomas, the 2016 Illinois State Teacher of the Year, rounded out the panel, sharing her practitioner vision for student engagement in her classroom. “Creating relationships is the prime factor in effective teaching. It is my job to make students want to come back to my classroom and learn,” she explained.

Her creativity and enthusiasm were contagious—both in person at the Newseum that evening and online on viewers’ browsers. “You put the kid first and everything falls into place! Every teacher needs to get up and live it every day—not just the first day.”

As a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at Woodruff Career and Technical Center in Peoria Public School District 150, Thomas presents a bodacious vision for her classroom. “I welcome students to be mathlicious. It is my goal that the time you spend with me is one of the best parts of your day,” she said. And from all indications, that is exactly the experience she provides her students.

Ever mindful of its responsibility to walk the walk, ASCD rounded out the evening with questions from the audience, led by local public school students from the DC area. It is clear that focusing on student engagement is the next step in transforming public education and ensuring that all students can thrive in learning environments that are healthy, safe, engaging, supportive, and challenging. Feel free to continue the discussion with ASCD through its professional learning resources, publications, and constituent groups—and don’t miss the new #ASCDtopics slow chats on Twitter.

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Walter McKenzie is the senior director of constituent services at ASCD. You can reach him at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

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