Beyond Student Engagement

Every few years, a new buzzword tops the charts as the newest educational pinnacle to be reached.  When I started teaching, it was “differentiation.” Since that time, the word that has taken over educational conversations is “student engagement.”

The dictionary tells me that “engagement” means (after definitions related to an agreement to be married) “a promise to be present at a particular place and time.” Tell me that your goal for instruction is to have students “present” and I’ll show you the door.

A simple search of the etymology of this word shows that “engagement” is not the bar we should be shooting for. Its origin is the word “to pledge” or to “hold to an obligation.” Again….if your goal is for students to feel obligated to be there, or to just be there….

In our district, the Pleasant Valley School District (@PVSDCamarillo) we are focusing on some ideas that are not unique to us: STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), PBL (Project Based Learning), and the maker movement. Earlier today, I led a tour of two of our makerspaces, at Tierra Linda Elementary (@TLSHawks) and Camarillo Heights STEM Academy (@CamHeightsSTEM). We welcomed about 15 teachers and administrators from the Hueneme School District, Rio School District, and Ventura Unified School District. They were interested in what our makerspaces looked like, what we had in them, what we did in them…you get the idea.

We stood by as 2nd and 5th grade “buddy classes” worked on a stop motion movie using Legos and an iPad.  The students were telling a story through the use of these tools (Creativity and Communication).  The Big Buddies had already learned how to use the app in a previous lesson, so they were to coach the Little Buddies on the how to make a movie (Collaboration).  Students were not limited to the Legos for inclusion in their movies, and some turned to the supply cabinets to aid in their production.  One group wanted to film a plan taking off, and discovered there was string available to them (Critical Thinking). BAM! In less than 5 minutes, all 4 Cs were in use. It was exciting to watch.  Here is a snippet of what it was like to be in the room of about 60 kids.  Believe me, the students weren’t just “present.”


After about 30 minutes of working together, most groups had created a 10-20 second video.  While not quite ready for an IMAX showing, the students clearly understood the incremental work that needs to be done to animate or create stop motion.  Here is an example of one:

Cute, right? The best part is that this group of boys planned on going home and working on one for longer, so that it could be “perfect.” Again, that’s way more than being “present” or “obligated” to do this work.

Next, we went to Camarillo Heights STEM academy, where we saw 2nd graders using the Design Process to create catapults using soda cans, popsicle sticks, and tape. Beyond the building of the catapults, students had to test their design for RAP:
Range (How far can my catapult shoot something?)
Accuracy (Can I hit a target using my catapult?)
Power (Can my catapult shoot something hard enough to knock over another object?)

Students were testing their designs throughout the room, using classroom developed measuring tools like this to measure Range:
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Students measured accuracy by shooting those little plastic counting bears into a pyramid of plastic cups.

We spent another 30 or so minutes watching students work in groups, record each other’s data, share ideas on how to improve each other’s design.  Again, do you hear the 4 Cs? It was an electric place to be.  Throughout the day, I was mindlessly snapping photos of everything. Afterwards, I was perusing all of the pictures and videos that I had taken, and I saw it: THE picture that sums it all up.

So far, this post is abut 660 words, and this picture adds at least 1,000- as the saying goes.  This picture shows the look that I long to see on my own children’s faces when they are at school.  This is the look that provides the “Why” for me as an educator.  It is more than “engagement.”  It is WONDER. It is EXCITEMENT. It is PURPOSE.

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Now those three words are buzzwords I can get behind.

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