Spotlight On Teaching and Learning--PLC: Building Student Engagement
Our school, like many others, offers optional Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, where teachers across grade levels can come together and share what they are doing in their classes and learn from their colleagues. I have had the pleasure of facilitating these meetings for three years, with a cohort of five teachers each guiding a PLC. Throughout this time, our PLC work has been supported by Prizmah coach Melanie Eisen; we meet monthly to discuss our success and challenges in facilitation, and she provides new ideas and resources for each of the PLCs. PLCs provide opportunities for teachers to ensure their students are learning, create a culture of collaboration and institute actionable results. We set goals for the year including confidentiality, honesty, participation, open-mindedness, a promise to support each other’s learning and the ability to discuss the “undiscussable.” The topic for this year is building student engagement.
One of the main concerns teachers have in the classroom is motivating their students to want to learn the material they are teaching. As educators, we approach teaching with a passion and a drive to be masters in our content areas, while striving to build lasting relationships with our students. By focusing on the ways we can better engage our students to want to learn and participate in their growth, we as teachers can start to help our students on a path of accountability and success in the classroom.
Specific topics are chosen and presented at each meeting. The first presentation concerned teaching students using state-of-the-art modalities, such as online classes and flipping the classroom. Integrating technology in the classroom can promote and extend student learning on a daily basis. Next, we heard evidence on inquiry-based learning. Educators were encouraged to build a culture of inquiry, empowering students to ask questions such as, How do I problem-solve through this? How do I persevere when things are tough? What strategies can I use to help me solve this problem? One strategy given was to begin a class with teacher-guided inquiry, where teachers model how to develop questions over a series of lessons, showing students that there are multiple ways to solve problems. This prepares students to lead their own inquiry by the end of a unit. Strategies like this encourage students to think critically and develop strong problem-solving skills.
At the third meeting, we discussed building a classroom community as an important way to foster student engagement. Research revealed that students who feel a sense of identity within a group are the most well-adjusted and successful in school. Examples presented were focusing on the classroom space to make it feel familiar, and giving it a sense of warmth and beauty. In addition, students respond well to feeling safe, knowing they can trust their teachers, having a predictable routine and seeing examples of family involvement.
Subsequently, student voice and choice was discussed. This is the idea that the teacher is no longer the only one giving information, and that we are permitted to tell our students we don’t know or understand something ourselves. Five suggestions for implementation were offered: ask the students what they want to learn about in the content area; create teams to come up with questions related to the topic; assess the students’ needs and wants; modeling think-alouds; and allowing students to have choice of a project or alternative assessment options. Throughout all these presentations, fellow teachers were asked to provide feedback and examples of how they can implement these strategies in their own classrooms.
Ultimately, the group was a strong example of the positive impact teachers can have on each other’s growth and learning. Through peer observations and group discussions, we achieved improvement in many areas. We learned to share our successes and failures and, most importantly, how to better reach our students through several engagement strategies. We also discovered that the essential element to engaging our students in our classrooms was US! It is not the number of manipulatives or materials, or the size of your space that really matters. It is our loving, compassionate attitude towards the children in our classroom and the intrinsic motivation to be better educators that propel us forward to reaching our goals.