I am sitting on the floor next to a grade eight student discussing the elasticity between fiction and truth. She wants to know how far she can test “the facts” while writing a feature article about child-soldiers in The Sudan. She is thirteen years old, looking at me in the eye asking if she will lose creditability if she fictionalizes too much of her story. We discuss the gray area between fiction and non-fiction, the possibility of understanding truth, and how text is meant to entertain and inform. The worlds we create as writers, in a sense are all fictional, but our ability to trace our “truths” back to credible corroborated sources is a way to maintain our integrity. Does that make sense I say, doubtfully. “Yes,” She nods her head. “Yes,” she says and with a furrowed brow returns to the sofa and begins to type frantically.
Like a dutiful bee, I move to the next student, this one in a bean bag and we discuss how to maintain an ongoing, moving, linear back story to anchor the raw data and information he wants to convey to his reader. He decides he will begin his article at the beginning of a cattle raid. After his lead, he will share the information he found after weeks of research on the value of cattle for Dinka culture. He tells me that he will return to the cattle raid now in progress- back to more information about the economy of cattle, and end with the aftermath of the raid. This is one of my learning support students who struggles to remain engaged. That sounds great, I say and leave him to wrestle with the words. The room is silent as the entire class stares at their laptops, fingers gingerly dancing on the keys.
You can either think of yourself as thirteen year olds writing for a teacher in English class, or you can think of yourselves as writers who demand to tell a story. There is a difference.
A few of them look up and smile awkwardly to acknowledge what I have just said, but most continue to write. I am not worried about distractions or Skype or Facebook or kids gaming. These guys are busy and engaged. They have assumed the identity of citizen journalists.
Being labeled a tech savvy teacher I sometimes feel pressure to always use technology. I don’t even know what that means any more. I sometimes feel guilty when I notice how “traditional” our curriculum has become. On days like today, however, none of it matters. Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids. We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.
Our activity this week has little to do with technology. Sure we are using Google Docs to draft our work, giving me access to their on-going work, and yes we used Diigo to annotate and tag all our research, and yes we hope to publish these articles on a blog called Stories from The Sudan and maybe even publish a selected few in an iBook of the same name, but really we have been focused on text and conversations about text and fiction and truth and justice and genocide and stories and voice and empathy and understanding.
I have been incredibly proud of our students. For the last several weeks they have read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a dense 500+page novel about the Sudanese Lost Boys. They have researched a variety of topics for their feature articles. Ranging from The Sudanese diaspora, to gender equality, to child-soldiers, to slavery, to cattle culture, to the socio-political causes of the regional conflict. As their summative assessment they are writing a 1500 word feature article which attempts to entertain and inform, assessed by a rubric they wrote as a class.
Sometimes I cannot believe they are only thirteen years old. So often we underestimate what student are capable of, or worse we set the bar too high, but do not invest enough of our own passion to carry them through. The formula for engagement is simple- Students need high expectations and challenges, but they also need every ounce of energy we have to maintain enthusiasm and love for what we teach. We need to prove to them that we value what we ask them to do. We need to give them enough choice and autonomy to take ownership of what they do, then we need to support their choices with fluid and constant feedback.
How do you maintain engagement? What are your tips or formulas?