Formula for Engagement

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?


9 thoughts on “Formula for Engagement

  1. avatarCarl Hooppell

    You have an extraordinary ability to write with such feeling, I can’t take my eyes away until I’ve read the whole thing!

  2. avatarTricia

    Couldn’t agree more. I love your reference about 1:1 being about one person: one person. Engagement results from ensuring that the work matters enough on a personal level, that the students want to share their results on a global scale.

  3. avatarJulie
    Twitter: JulieLemley

    I think you have stated very eloquently in this post what motivates kids – “good pedagogy and content with a teacher’s love for the material”. Technology is good, like you said, when it is used appropriately and to help with the learning process or creating the product, not just because we have a device with us. I think challenging our students is also important. Asking questions, not giving them answers and making them think, that motivates them to do well and keeps them engaged.

    Knowing our kids is really important too: What do they like? Where are they strong? Where do they struggle?

    I also think it’s amazing you read “What is the What?” with your class. I read this book a couple of years ago. It is a really powerful book. I would have never have thought to do this with my MS students, but you made me think, why not?

  4. avatarLou

    Love your writing Jabiz and totally agree with the highlighted part about setting high expectations and putting in the energy. That is how I totally feel about my teaching everyday

  5. avatarari
    Twitter: webuyballoons

    I really connect to your reflection here. You do a super insightful job of finding the golden mean between not enough help and too much. And how tech fits into that ratio.


  6. avatarFincherW
    Twitter: FincherW

    Great post! Students need encouragement, motivation, and praise. When they know someone cares, they work harder.

    -Show personal importance and relevance through videos, discussions, sharing, group work. This can also be done with videos showing peers excelling and enjoying the idea.

    -Make it fun! Play games and have rewards

    -Be enthusiastic! Show them your passion and why it is so important. Apply the learning to everyday situations.

  7. avatarSherri Marie Hudson

    Hi! My name is Sherri Hudson, and I am an EDM310 student at the University of South Alabama. While I read this post I couldn’t help but to recall my eighth grade year. I love to write, and that’s the exact year I decided to be a published author. If you look at my blog you’d see that I blabber about it all the time. I do it because I came a long way from where I started, a poor English student. Keep encouraging those students to write! I love it!

  8. avatarPaula Lu

    Hi Mr. Jabiz. I don’t know if you remember me from a couple weeks ago. I have been assigned your blog again this week. On Sunday, a summary of your blogs and my comments should be posted on my blog here:

    I think it is amazing how you encourage your students to write. You get them so interested and so serious about it, making it seem that it is more than just an assignment. I love to write too. When I was in high school, I use to write short stories all the time. Though I never finished any of them, I thought it was fun. Writing helps me get a lot off my mind. I have never been a strong speaker (which I should work on) and writing helps me release what I need to say. I do think we underestimate kids sometimes. Sometimes we forget what they are capable of. I think when you push kids the right way and encourage them a little, they will blow you away with what they can do.

  9. avatarChasity Heubach

    My name is Chasity. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoy reading your blog posts. It sounds like you classroom would be fun and engaging. Giving students the feeling of importance is the best form of motivation we can offer them. I think about when I was a child and the proud feeling I had when my parents would put my picture I had colored on the fridge. After kids reach a certain age we for some reason think that they no longer need that recognition. I think what you are doing is great. Thank you for sharing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.