Teaching, tips

Susag on Student Engagement

We received the following email from Dottie Susag, in answer to our questions about student engagement:

About the engagement question:

I like Schlechty’s “patterns of engagement,” and on any given day, in all classes, I’ve seen them all. When I first started teaching, I encountered too many in the “rebellion” pattern, with their feet braced against the door, daring me (and whatever I would suggest or offer or require) to come in. I think the most important issue is not the what or how of teaching, but the why. I’m sure it’s true in any required class, but students need to know the answer to that question, and of course it’s the teacher’s responsibility to provide it. 

So at the end of my first year, I wrote and delivered to my students a short essay on the value of studying literature and of writing with care and excellence. That worked for a time, but we need to present it over and over again. I found myself suggesting literature would help them better understand themselves and their environment—they didn’t mind that idea. I gave them opportunities to meet readers from the work world who would challenge their ideas, their presentation, their work ethic in school.  That disturbed them, and it worked to motivate them for awhile. Then I suggested they would find college less daunting if they came with the necessary skills. It helped when former students would come back to the classroom and confirm my arguments.  Finally, before my involvement with Heritage, I constructed my ”wish list” for all students. I would keep it in mind for myself and would read it at the beginning and end of the year—my own objectives and goals. That worked, also, for a time. 

You asked if I’d thought about “engagement in planning” my teaching. Always! But never in those words. What’s the point of teaching if energy and passion are not shared, if students pass tests and aren’t moved to act on what they know, if they haven’t learned how to make a contribution that matters? But nothing has worked to “engage” students to go beyond the personal fears or rewards like the Heritage Project and the way you’ve defined it as “real, important, and social work.”

On the day we went to the archives, you saw students at the very beginning of the project. Each is in a different place in knowledge and curiosity, with most having spent the last eleven years in all of the patterns but “authentic engagement.” Heritage Project education requires change, and it’s not going to happen unless we try to understand what our students think and feel and wonder about at all stages. My sister-in-law is an amazing cook.  She gets out of the recipe book, away from “exact” measurements, and she smells—and occasionally tastes—the stew. Then she adds more oregano, or parsley, or whatever it needs. And then she smells it again and adds what’s needed. I think that’s the way I teach, if you don’t mind the analogy. I guess this is leadership, rather than facilitation.  Personally, I think it’s what makes teaching worth the effort. You also can’t have an effective project, community-based or not, without this element.

So teacher engagement as a model is the first requirement, and I believe your Heritage teachers carry through whatever you, Mike and Marcella, have modeled with us. Then it’s up to us. I’m not just talking about engagement with ideas, although that’s critical. The engagement is human, purposeful, value driven. 

When teachers model this kind of engagement, with one-on-one attention to their particular needs as often as possible, with enthusiasm for the value of the work to the community, students see and follow the pattern.  But this isn’t where any of it starts. It always begins with finding the immediate and most signifcant motivation (fear, punishment, rewards, whatever works) to get them through the “familiar rituals” of knowledge until they have the confidence or vision to see the ultimate value. I love the moments when they forget the “points,” and I’ve been privileged to see those moments with almost all of my students. I saw it happen in Sarah’s class three weeks ago. After a few weeks of research and interviews and information about citations and presentations, I came in for five days.  At the end of the class period, one girl stood up, somewhat stunned, and said, “so . . . we have to do this in front of a lot of people?” Comes the dawn, my mother used to say. And then she proceeded to write, revise and revise and revise, based on new information we found.  “Authentically engaged,” she was the first to finish and practice her narration for the presentation. 

For myself, I believe I can see the individual “possibility” in each student. That’s a miracle I can’t explain and don’t really understand. I don’t believe I get it from books or essays or theories about teaching. I get it because I want to know each student, and for that I’m thankful. It’s made teaching a joy rather than a job. It’s also what makes my “presentation” work more frustrating and definitely more challenging than classroom teaching.

Well, I don’t know if this answers the question you asked. If not, let me know.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/23 at 12:41 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project
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