Engagement: A Proactive Approach
When you enter a classroom, what do you see? Are students engaged in their work or activities? The goal of student engagement is that students are focused, eager, and challenged at an appropriate level. Engagement happens when critical and independent thinking is the norm, where creativity is at the forefront, and meaningful connections with peers and mentors are evident. When a student is fully engaged, both success and failure hold similar value and they apply their coursework to real-world situations.
This ideal level of an engaged classroom originates from mentors, who are the facilitators of learning and coaches of growth. Mentors who have encouraged authentic student engagement do not check off boxes on a list of strategies, but rather they get to know their students from the start. They nurture a classroom community that values risk-taking and personal interests. This community is student-led, collaborative, and encouraging— a bonded group that guides and supports all types of learners, and aims to create a space where students feel empowered and motivated.
Here are several strategies that mentors can use to engage and support students proactively:
- Embrace the same mission and vision as your students. Anyone new to Quest Forward Learning gets re-introduced to the concept of school and learning. This involves making it clear to students that they are learning and growing together with their mentors. They will be working toward how to be active, independent individuals, who are able to think critically about their world and to achieve their goals with intention. Mentors emphasize the following points with their students:
- You are doing this for you. You are here to learn and grow.
- You are in control of your life and learning. If you’re interested in something, learn more about it.
- How you learn and the skills you have are much more important than memorizing facts and cramming for tests. The ways in which you work and the skills you develop along the way can be used throughout your entire life.
- Learning is hard, but rewarding. It can be frustrating and uncomfortable. Take these feelings as signs that you are becoming a more knowledgeable, skillful, and confident person.
- Mentors get to know their students. This is not always obvious. For students and mentors to best work and learn side by side, they must really understand and know each other. The mentoring process deepens as relationships and respect deepen. The better mentors understand students, the more knowledge and skills they have to draw upon when things get tough. Mentors and students begin to form these connections through ongoing feedback loops, a safe space for questioning, and opportunities to explore specific student interest. For example, while teaching a music course, a mentor may realize that a specific student is interested more in composing and writing his own music rather than building a musical instrument as originally required. In Quest Forward Learning, mentors have the freedom to adapt the curriculum so students not only still learn the core concepts of trigonometry, geometry, and sound waves, but also draw on their interests and have them compose a musical piece as a final project.
- Developing classroom norms should be a collaborative effort. There is great power and responsibility in mentors and students deciding together which norms are necessary to produce students’ best work. Once a manageable list evolves, students and mentors spend time exploring it, as well as the more challenging norms. (For example, what does respect look, feel, and sound like? Which norms will be easy to follow, and which will be more challenging? Why?). Throughout the year, students and mentors refer back to this list and revise to best fit their learning community.
- Mentors should model resilience and participation. It is important that mentors lead the way and show students how to uphold the classroom norms consistently. This may come in the form of positive redirection, new learning strategies, or communication methods. A great learning community is one where students are doing as much of the talking and problem solving as the mentor. For example, a student may be having difficulty with reading and comprehending certain resources. Instead of jumping in and reading it for them, the mentor may help the student break down the resource into more manageable pieces, waiting patiently while the student thoughtfully considers each piece. Peers encourage along the way and celebrate success together. In this case, the mentor intentionally creates the kind of space where this productive struggle can occur, knowing that it encourages independent thinking and supports deeper learning.
- Recognize student effort and growth. Not only do mentors record student engagement in the Quest! app, but outwardly recognizing student effort and growth is important. If a student had trouble focusing for the duration of a class, going from five minutes of focused work in January to 15 minutes in March is progress that should be recognized, even as a mentor encourages setting the bar even higher.
The next time you walk into a Quest Forward classroom, look closely. Do you see a place of true engagement? A place where students are building independent, problem-solving skills and mentors are creating a safe, productive space for individualized learning? This is the kind of place where students are willing to dig more deeply and learn actively, a place where all interactions are positive and collaborative. Every student deserves this type of place—a Quest Forward learning community.
Kelsey Cain is the former Director of Professional Learning at Opportunity Education. She worked closely with schools and OE teams to develop and implement a comprehensive professional learning program for all school-based groups that align with organizational goals and strengthen instructional practices. Prior to OE, she was a classroom teacher and district leader across both urban and rural school districts in the U.S, and taught in Ghana and Costa Rica.