If you were an elementary school kid in the 90’s, you might remember the quiet, strategic thinking needed for an electrifying game of Heads Up, 7 Up!
Head down on the desk with your eyes squeezed shut and one thumb in the air, you had to listen for the footsteps of a classmate, discern their breathing pattern, and try to sense their identity through the clammy hand that mashed down your thumb. It was riveting, silent, and intense.
There were days in my English 9 classroom, when I looked around and thought, “are we playing Heads Up, 7 Up! and… I just didn’t realize it?” Two or three kids would be wandering around the back of the room for reasons unknown, plus several more with heads down, all oblivious to the aching beauty of Sandra’s Cisneros’s “Rice Sandwich” as I read it aloud.
But that is the reality of so many classrooms on any given day: some students quivering with excitement no matter the task, and others who are desperate to be anywhere but where they are. Add in the circumstances and challenges of our current era, like the constant pings and notifications from our phones pulling our focus, and it becomes more apparent than ever that we cannot take a one size fits all approach to classroom activities. And we absolutely cannot afford to ignore the students who aren’t engaged, letting them keep their heads down – whether figuratively or literally – as we shrug and say “well, they aren’t even trying to stay awake!”
It’s easy to look at a mixed bag of students, with a thousand different reasons for the ways they engage – or don’t – in the classroom, and just throw up our hands. Especially if we don’t even know where to begin.
I am offering you a place to begin, with a resource called Inside. Outside. Changes. Opening this document isn’t going to transform your classroom overnight, but it will give you a structure for taking stock and a system for making changes. This resource guides you through an inventory of circumstances for a student whose engagement has recently plunged, or maybe has never risen off the floor.
First, you look inside your classroom at factors like curriculum, learning differences, opportunities for student choice, and even relationships. Then, you look outside your classroom, considering larger contexts and reaching out to colleagues for insight. Finally, you start taking steps, even if your first step is just a gentle, open conversation.
Whether the view from the front of the room is a sea of heads down on desks, or just one lump on a log in a forest of enthusiasm, it is always a good idea to reflect on your students’ engagement and potential opportunities for growth. Structure that reflection using this resource, and truly engage with engagement.