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How to keep kids engaged

A One District, One Community series story

A road tour of schools across Douglas County

Miss a stop on the road tour? Visit the One District, One Community page for all past articles.

Written by Chris Silberman

CASTLE ROCK- Have you ever attended a long meeting or conference, and somewhere around hour three you realize that you drifted off somewhere for the last how many ever minutes?

Or maybe you were multi-tasking, listening to a seminar and checking your email on your phone: oh right, Rebecca’s opening night performance is tonight...we have to find out if the neighbor can babysit for us...Bill needs the analytics report for tomorrow’s meeting...Facebook notification, it’s Erin’s birthday today, wish Erin a happy birthday.

Staying engaged in what’s happening now is hard for us adults. With such a distraction-heavy culture, it becomes really difficult to sit still for a few hours or more and truly listen, learn and be engaged.

Imagine what it must be like for kids.

For teachers everywhere, the traditional distractions combined with modern day interruptions bring new challenges in ensuring that students are remaining engaged in their learning, are enjoying their learning and will also carry their learning forward.

This week I talked with teachers and students in District D, which stretches along the eastern side of Douglas County from Castle Rock to the southern edge of the County. How are teachers keeping Douglas County students engaged?

For Jan Francis, the Science teacher at Cherry Valley Elementary-- a rural K-6 school in the southeastern region of Douglas County with a school population of just 55 kids-- keeping the kids moving and busy is a big part of keeping them engaged for her.

“I do our health and wellness for both staff and students here, so I think just through those trainings I’ve had a shift in my mindset of not wanting them to sit,” Francis said. “I don’t like going to meetings and sitting, so we are always moving.”

For the class I was observing, this meant first working together or independently to research ways--other than using a battery-- to provide lighting to a cardboard city the class created. Each student or group of students had a unique solution. HINT: while I was talking with one student, named Seth, he showed me how using lemons, a galvanized nail and a penny will make this work.

Then, the young MacGyvers moved to a group discussion. They then chose partners to construct a tower using only gumdrops and toothpicks, upon which they had to rest books on top while the structure had to hold.

“Think about what you learned in geometry and math that will help you with your structure here,” Francis told her class.

“We’re always doing experiments,” said Rusty, a fourth-grader in the class. “She makes learning and the activities very fun.”

“I like this class because it’s not just a lecture,” said Seth, the lemon-power expert. “It’s a lot of fun, we get to move around a lot, and I never get bored. We learn a lot.”

I visited the school towards the end of the day, around 3:30 pm. But with the energy level, one would swear it was 9 am.

“I don’t have discipline issues because they’re busy, and they’re moving and they’re talking and they’re active!” Francis said. “I feel like science lends itself well to do this kind of stuff, but even if I was back in a traditional classroom I would be incorporating movement more just because I think it’s important.”

As many of the students attending Cherry Valley live on ranches, agricultural learning plays a major role in the learning process at the school. For instance, a hydroponic tower sits in Francis’ classroom and the kids are growing and learning about the plant life cycle, the technology of the apparatus itself, pollination, and harvesting the vegetables and herbs that they are growing.

Vegetables make it to the cafeteria where they are sometimes served. For instance, knowing that hamburgers were going to be served the day after my visit, two girls asked to harvest the lettuce to be used for the next day’s feast.

I came on the wrong day!

The tower engages the kids year-round. Francis was able to add this to her classroom just two years ago thanks to a grant.

“We’ve been able to gain so much learning just by having it,” she said.

The kids’ engagement with their learning is carrying over to their family lives, as well.

“We finally got a recycling program going here and one of the students’ moms told me that she was using disposable cups for something and her daughter was like ‘oh no mom, you can’t do that! Do you know where that stuff is gonna go if we use it? We have to keep it out of the landfill.’ I thought that was really cool. That’s the impact we can have at such a young age. They’ll think about that throwing away their trash.”

Moving north to Castle Rock, Keely Vaughan, who teaches sixth grade at Sage Canyon Elementary, uses a Project Based Learning approach and makes learning as personalized as possible to keep her students engaged in their learning-- an approach that the entire school is actually utilizing.

“My philosophy is ‘how do I create a learning environment where kids are excited to come back the next day?’” Vaughan told me. “I want to make the learning experience as personal as possible for kids. I’ve always known as a learner myself that if I believe in a topic and am passionate about it, I’m going to be more invested in it, give my best work and be committed to what I’m doing. And I know the same is true for kids, especially now, having to go out into a world that we do not yet know what it’s going to look like.”

There seemed to be a constant rotation of kids moving around the classroom during my time in Vaughan’s classroom. Following a five-minute meeting in which the students set their own learning goals for the day based on the learning plan they wrote for themselves, some kids moved into groups and began giving each other feedback, some worked independently on laptops, and some groups moved into the front of the room for a “seminar.”

While much of the class is student-run, a seminar involves direct instruction from Vaughan for when the students hit a roadblock or have a larger question they would like to have discussed. The kids, however, still suggest  the topics for the seminars.

For example, students were working on a heavy global issue project and they noticed that they couldn’t identify whether or not their source was a credible one.

“They started to notice that the research they were looking up was very opinionated or biased,” Vaughan explained to me. “So some of the kids suggested a seminar on ‘how do I know if a source is credible.’”

Kids who already had that knowledge were able to become mentors in that particular situation, furthering the collaborative nature of how the classroom is facilitated.

I wondered, though, how would this work for students who do not have an assertive personality? I was pretty shy and quiet in school growing up. Would someone like me get lost in the mix?

“Kids know where their strengths are and they’re very cognisant of where they need help,” Vaughan explained to me. “We built a community in here where they can trust each other and reach out to those people at some point in that process. We also talk about failing forward-- the idea that everyone is going to make mistakes in here, and that learning is a process. That’s something we’re constantly pushing through together, which helps establish a community.”

“Kids are at different places in the process and I think that’s what is truly personalized for them,” she added. “They are getting to lead that in the way that is best for them. Ultimately if they leave me at the end of the day and feel like they love to learn, feel they can control their own learning experience and drive it in a direction that they are going to be passionate about, that defines success for me.”

Over at Douglas County High School (DCHS), English teacher Jen House similarly has moved her class to be more engaged by incorporating a student-centered learning approach in which the students have ownership of much of the work being done in the classroom.

“I really like to encourage a fun learning environment, within reason,” House said. “I don’t want the students to be distracted or off the wall, but I do want them to walk in the door and enjoy what they’re doing, while achieving real-world application, in the process.”

House spent the first semester developing expectations for them, providing models for them, working alongside them and giving them a lot of feedback-- all to help set up the second semester, in which the students know the expectations and they are able to guide each other on assignments, discussions and projects.

House is a DCHS alum, graduating just eight years ago. In fact, she is now teaching alongside some of her own former teachers, including the individual who inspired her to become a teacher.

“At first, I was really intimidated, and sometimes I still am because we have some great teachers here, but it has turned into more of a mentorship, so I feel really lucky,” House said. “Brian Stebbins, who teaches on the other side of this wall, is the reason I became an English teacher.”

Currently, House’s class is working on creating a visual representation of a motif from The Catcher in the Rye. In addition to drawings, students are working on things like memes, YouTube videos, comic strips and word cloud images. In addition, they are writing a separate piece using text evidence to support how quotes from the novel display the function of the motif in the novel. The students are working together on this, and challenging each other with questions to push and encourage each other.

“What do you think ‘yellow’ means in the novel?” I heard one group asking each other, while each student took their turn and discussed their perspective.

They certainly seemed engaged. But what did the students really think of this kind of learning?

“We like hearing what other people have to say and think because we all have different perspectives,” another group of girls told me. I could barely keep up with taking notes as the girls enthusiastically told me how much they love their class. “Working in groups, we’re able to share these perspectives. My mind kind of drifts off in a larger class setting. And there’s also a lot of pressure in a large class setting to say what you think other people want you to say. In smaller groups it’s easier to share ideas.”

Just a few hallways away from Jen House’s classroom is Karie Johnston’s theatre classroom. Theatre, much like any art form, requires strong commitment and full engagement in order to be successful. Where stage fright or shyness can limit how engaged someone is, Johnston sees as her primary role helping her students to break through that fear or shyness.

“The goal is to get them comfortable with each other and performing in front of large groups because that is something they will need to take on past my theatre class,” Johnston said.

Her classes start each day with traditional warm up exercises like improvisation. As they move into scene study, she allows the student to self-direct themselves. They select a scene from a modern American play, they cast the characters and direct the execution of the scene itself, from the movement, to the inflection of how they interpret their character’s voice and to other nuances. On performance days, classmates provide each other feedback.

“In theatre, students can really create on their own, so there’s a lot of ownership there,” said Johnston.

While I spent time with the Theatre III class, they were learning how to apply makeup that would make them look much, much, much older. I chatted with some of the students to hear about their experiences with the class.

“I was really shy,” Chloe, one of the students told me. “In freshman year I didn’t have many friends because I came from a charter school and the people I did know were in theatre, so I thought ‘why not?’ I’m still shy but it’s helped a lot. I’ve gotten a lot more confident-- I used to sit in the back of classes but now I’m sitting towards the front of classes and talking to a lot more people, so theatre classes have helped me a lot.”

“I like that it gives us an opportunity to express ourselves in a different way,” two other students, Selena and Mary Rose, said to me. “I think a lot of people just look at theatre kids and think ‘oh...weird.’ But it’s an art and I like being able to not be me for a little bit. When I first got into it last year I was going through a rough time, so when I was in rehearsals and on stage and doing a show I wasn’t me and my problems weren’t mine. It’s like I’m someone else when I’m in the theatre.”

“I feel like I’ve learned so much, not just in acting, but as a person and how to be a good person really,” the girls added.

The young actors also talked to me about the importance of arts programming in education.

“I think people underestimate how life-based things like this are,” Selena and Mary Rose said. “Like when you go into an audition it’s a lot like you are going into an interview. So it gives you confidence to be able to speak in front of other people, because when you are giving a presentation at your job it’s the same thing as performing on stage.”

Another student, Zoe, is enrolled in the International Baccaleaureate (IB) theatre program at DCHS, but also serves as a student leader for the Theatre III class.

“Our classes are technically separate, but we do work together on collaborations, like on my first directing project,” Zoe said. “So I got to cast actors and help them improve in the scene, know their character more and give them tools to work with their character. Having the seniority of the class and having been down the path they are on, I’m able to guide them in the direction that I went and push them to learn more about it.”

She was inspired by Johnston to pursue the IB program and work to go into teaching theatre as a profession.

“Part of the reason that I want to be a theatre teacher when I’m older is because I’ve had teachers like Mrs. J, and I had another great teacher in Middle School named Marie South at Sagewood Middle School. Theatre has really helped me a lot, it’s gotten me to push beyond my boundaries, become a better person and push myself to limits I didn’t even know I had,” she said.

It has been interesting to me that when I speak with English or Arts teachers, many regularly tell me that they can see how certain ways of learning, whether it’s project based, or something else, is really working to engage students, but that they can’t see how this would work in a Science or Math atmosphere. Science and Math teachers say the same thing, that their kids are able to engage in their learning using similar methodologies, but that they can’t see how this would work in an English classroom.

What was most impressive to me was seeing kids genuinely enthusiastic about their learning. They did not fulfill the stereotype of having their head buried in their phone or laptop, or highly distracted. They were all actively working with their peers and owning everything that they were doing.

I even asked one group in Jen House’s class what keeps them from looking up answers on their phone.

“That would be just one perspective and we’ll need to have a deeper understanding of it later so it doesn’t help to just look it up online,” they told me. I could tell they thought it was strange I would even ask that question.

“We want to hear each other’s perspectives,” they added.


NEXT WEEK: Follow me to District B, which covers a large region on the western side of Douglas County. I'll be visiting Larkspur Elementary, Sedalia Elementary, Castle View High School and Coyote Creek Elementary.

Chris Silberman joined the DCSD Communications team in September 2015. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Colorado in 1999. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Denver and served as Executive Director of a local music education nonprofit, as well as a local disability nonprofit prior to joining DCSD. 

March 3, 2016 | By CSilberman | Category: Elementary Education, High School Education, Schools, World Class Education

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