When Students are Engaged!

Recently, I visited a fourth grade science class at Drew Charter School in Atlanta.  I was very impressed with how the 4th grade science teacher, Connie Taylor,  organized a lesson on Force and Motion.  She had structured a series of hands-on activities that students had to complete, three to be exact.  The second day of the lesson ended with the last activity in which students had to explain and experiment forces acting on a helicopter that help left it up.   Before they started the lab activity, they had to work in groups and explain what they knew about helicopters and predict the type of forces that were acting on it.   Ms. Taylor guided them through this exercise with periodic questions and answers.  She also did a few demonstrations to draw out answers or stimulate their thinking.

This first video shows two groups of students collaborating on the pre-lab question.  Watching their conversation and body language, I think you will note the high-level of engagement.

Students will remain engaged when they are involved in trying to tackle interesting, real-life problems.  In this case, the teacher gave them an open-ended problem that they had some experience with.  They could draw on their experiences, converse with partners, test their assumptions with a model, and explain the phenomenon.  The lesson has a strong collaborative element running throughout.  You can see this in the way the students function within their groups. 

This second video shows the students struggling with the “helicopter” model, but finally getting it to work.  Notice again the high level of engagement, conversation, and problem-solving.

I saw a number of important ideas working extremely well in this class. 

  1. hands-on exercises
  2. student-centered class
  3. students focused on their work
  4. students collaborating on a challenging problem
  5. students needing to communicate with one another
  6. high levels of engagement
  7. students having to think about the problem and write their observations

I corresponded with Ms. Taylor after class and she asked me if I noticed the groups of students.  At the time, I did remember seeing tables with gender grouping, boys working with boys and girls working with girls.  Ms. Taylor created these groups intentionally.  Having read some of the literature on gender issues in the classroom, she experimented with these arrangements as a way to promote more focused group work.  I think it was a successful experiment. 

Here is a video segment of the boys collaborating on the project.

I show these videos as an example of what a classroom looks like and feels like when students are highly engaged.   Isn’t our task as teachers to try and create lessons that connect students to ideas they care about or ideas that embrace the principles operating in Ms. Taylor’s class?

If you view this piece I found on Edutopia, How to Keep Kids Engaged in Class, the author, Tristan de Frondeville, writes about 10 elements of a highly engaged classroom.  Ms. Taylor uses many of these techniques in her science lesson.

In Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering’s book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, they have chapters entitled:

  • How do I feel?
  • Am I interested?
  • Is this important?
  • Can I do this?

 All of Ms. Taylor’s students would answer these questions in the affirmative.  I have no doubt.

What thoughts or questions arise for you after interacting with this post?