During the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was privileged to manage a component of a comprehensive national service-learning initiative Learning In Deed.  Learning In Deed, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, combined a practice and policy demonstration project, research analyses, field building, advocacy, communications and leadership to inform and influence federal, state and local education stakeholders to integrate and sustain high-quality service-learning.

Led by Senator John Glenn, Learning In Deed established the National Commission on Service-Learning, an active and committed group of individuals from diverse geographic, political and cultural backgrounds who represented K–12 and higher education, government and business, citizen action and youth leadership.  One of the members of this distinguished commission was Cameron (Cam) Dary a middle school student from Waupun, Wisconsin.  It is noteworthy that the National Commission on Service-Learning engaged Cam in their deliberations, decisions, communications, site visits and interactions with critical stakeholders acknowledging his experiences and insights.

I got to know Cam through his many contributions to Learning In Deed and accompanied him and his family during Hill Visits (interactions with Wisconsin Congressional Members on Capital Hill).  Cam shared his story, research and action steps that federal legislators could take to encourage, support and reward service-learning in schools throughout the U.S.  He was an effective advocate for service-learning and was able to bring a reality to the National Commission on Service-Learning from his current daily experiences as a student.

Fast forward to 2016 where 29 year-old Cam Dary is a Chemistry teacher at Lake Mills High School in Lake Mills, Wisconsin.  I again I had the privilege of connecting with Cam and interviewed him to learn about his education journey and strategies he uses to engage high school students.  The telephone interviews took place over several weeks as Cam responded to specific questions about student engagement and corresponding challenges, strategies, interactions and outcomes of engaging students to increase their knowledge and skills.

Below are insights and responses to specific interview questions Cam shared with me with implications for student engagement advocates.

Insights to effectively engage students:

  • Student engagement is a process that focuses on acquiring/enhancing academic, knowledge, skills and attitudes
  • Trying new things, experimentation and risk taking are effective strategies to engage students
  • Creating trusting relationships with students, being transparent and focusing on goals are necessary to effectively engage students
  • Sharing responsibilities for designing, implementing and sustaining student engagement is a recipe for progress and success
  • Ensuring students understand the reasons for engagement and connecting engagement to learning are necessary for student progress and success
  • Daily reflection, by students and teachers, is a critical component of effective student engagement
  • Co-creating goals for learning outcomes and student engagement effectively measures progress and success as well as impacting continuous improvement
  • Understanding the uniqueness of each student requires a set of student engagement strategies rather than one size fits all
  • Classroom and school climate need to support student engagement
  • Engagement is not only an effective strategy for student development but also an essential component to teacher professional development, reflection and continuous improvement

What Student Engagement Looks Like in Cam’s Classroom

Rather than being the keeper of knowledge as teachers traditionally have done, Cam positions himself as a facilitator of learning.  He has transformed his classroom into one which engages students as true partners in the learning process, using self-paced instruction as a core structure through which students access information and gain skills through active learning requiring higher levels of inquiry, problem solving, and application.

With the wealth of information available on the internet and the skills needed to truly be successful in school and beyond, Cam believes students don’t need someone to simply tell them facts to write down so they can memorize them.  Rather, Cam focuses on encouraging growth, motivating students to succeed, and pushing them to use what they are learning in real world applications.

If you were to visit Cam’s classroom, you would see students developing, working toward, and reflecting on self-identified goals.  Cam’s role as facilitator is to structure the learning that is taking place, provide resources to support and strengthen that learning, drive student learning toward higher levels through daily conversation and formative and summative assessments, and collaborate with students as they proceed on their journey.  You will find students highly engaged and gaining skills in acquiring, processing, and applying their learning in new ways.  They manage their own time as they collaborate with their teacher and each other, with each student progressing at their own pact to achieve mastery.

Responses to interview questions

  1. When you are doing your best in school, what is happening?

I am helping, encouraging, challenging and leading my students.  This takes many forms and requires me to understand each student’s unique characteristics, interests and talents.  Through the relationships I develop with students, I can help them progress in their learning and obtain mastery at their own pace, while using the structure of my curriculum to ensure each student is successful. 

  1. How do you describe the climate in your classroom?

Controlled chaos: the chaos comes both from students and from me and provides a dynamic climate for students to be engaged.  It used to be chaos came from students and control from me; now it is shared chaos and control.  It surfaces energy but with a focus on course content.  I actually expected more chaos coming from our self-paced strategies but find that is not the case.  The control is provided by the class structure and the student’s motivation to succeed.  The chaos comes from the energy of our class learning, reflecting, and growing together.  

  1. How do you describe the climate in your school?

Freedom oriented, trusting students and focus on teacher independence.  Through the positive, safe (physically and emotionally) learning environment we’ve created, there is trust between staff, between staff and students, and between teachers and administrators.  This seems to be unique here at Lake Mills High School.

  1. When students are most engaged, how do you know (what does it look, feel and sound like)?

When students are truly engaged they feel comfortable asking questions, share their sense of wonder and curiosity about the subject and applications.  I spend a lot of time listening to students and observing them in small groups.  When they are not engaged, they will not ask questions of me, each other, or of themselves.  This has become my biggest asset in determining how engaged students are.  When students connect today’s learning to previous content and to future implications, things are really clicking, and they are truly engaged.

  1. When students are disengaged or unmotivated what strategies do you use to engage them/motivate them?

This is not an easy thing to do and takes some experimentation to engage unmotivated students.  It starts with ensuring there is a positive/trusting relationship with the student and understanding their interests and how we can orient the topics so they are relevant and meaningful to them.  I determine if they work best by themselves or in teams.  I evaluate the dynamics on a daily basis, deciding if something is happening today that is unusual or is it a typical day and then employ a corresponding strategy.  Most importantly, I am always reflecting on whether my strategies are working or not.  I also encourage students to ask questions, believing that is an effective way of engaging and motivating students.  I do believe each student can be engaged and motivated, rejecting the notion that not all students can be successful.  What it takes is listening to and working with students to ensure that we are in this together.  

  1. How hard is it for students to take responsibility for their own learning and what strategies do you use to assist them?

I have found responsibility for learning shifts from the teacher to the student by using “self-paced” strategies that start small and build on their initial progress while always focusing on the class goals (student outcomes).  I consistently ask questions of students to determine what they might be struggling with and the best ways for me to support their learning.  I initially tested the self-paced strategies with a small group of students and expanded it from there, in part because students really embraced the strategy and progressed better than traditional teaching methods.  On a daily basis, we discuss the reason behind our class work; to ensure we all understand “why” we are doing a particular strategy and what are the intended outcomes.  These strategies lead them to take responsibility for their learning and set an expectation that students will be successful and supported.  Finally, I focus on transparency so that students know what we are doing, why we are doing it and the expected outcomes.

  1. What types of assessments do you use in your classes?  What options do you have to create your own assessments versus those required by the school/district?

I have quite a bit of freedom to design assessments to determine student knowledge and skills, which is very fortunate for teachers in our school.  We can design any test that determines student progress.  We always begin with learning objectives and then identify the best ways to determine achievement.  I use a lot of smaller quizzes to determine each student’s progress.  In addition, I incorporate essential questions for each unit with corresponding summative labs, quizzes and tests.  Practice, such as worksheets and labs, is considered core to learning and isn’t ever assessed for a grade.  These strategies are used to guide students in increasing their skills and help students gauge their understanding of their progress so they know when they are ready to be assessed.  It is driven by the goal setting and is part of the learning process rather than a measure of what they’ve learned.   

Setting goals is hard for students, as they live life “in the moment” and have less experience setting goals.  Through lots of practice and discussions over time, we are able to focus on goal setting and how students can chart a path to achieving them.  We use a goal tracker that breaks down course content, which keeps everyone on track and connects learning from one day/lesson to the next.  

  1. Do you provide opportunities for students to reflect in your classes?  If so what strategies/protocols do you use?

Reflection is a core value in my class, for both my students and me.  I try to incorporate reflection daily, but it is challenging.  Many students want to be told what to do rather than taking time to reflect on their experiences and learning.  I’ve also learned that we don’t really ask students to do a lot of goal setting and reflection, so they need time and practice to become better at it.  I integrate reflection into classes through discussions, progress monitoring and goal tracking: using questions such as: What helped me understand the lesson?  What did I struggle with to understand course content?  What does it mean to me?  I use reflection at the beginning and the completion of class; this is where goal tracking identifies student progress and challenges.  My goal is to help students not only increase their understanding of course content, but to help them understand how they learn, what the course content means to them personally, and how all of this learning can be useful and applied in their daily lives.  

  1. Do you formally and informally reflect on your experiences and if so what do you find to be the most useful ways of reflecting and sharing your insights?

Reflection is a critical part of what I do every day.  It is how I’m able to integrate what is working and what isn’t, how my students are responding to the resources I’ve created to guide their learning, and where I need to focus my energies next.  I try to continuously improve my work and am willing to consider other strategies to ensure students understand course content.  I talk with my colleagues daily about successful strategies they use and share my strategies and any challenges I face.  I find the other teachers in my school are collaborative and willing to learn from each other.  Some colleagues engage and reflect with me regularly as we share our strategies, success and challenges that are mutually beneficial.

  1. How do you engage parents/families?   Have those strategies changed over the years you have taught?

I engage parents through a letter, and share with them how I use self-paced learning and other engaging strategies to teach course content.  My website is available to them so they can see the resources we are using and content we are learning.  I encourage them to share questions with me, followed up by discussions.  We host parent-teacher conferences that provide us an opportunity to discuss specific progress their daughter/son is making and ways we can support their learning.  I am working on videoing some of our classroom activities to share with parents so that they “see” what we are doing rather than just “hear” about it.  I find as I enhance student engagement I need to share more information with parents so they understand some of the shifts we are making and the positive impacts.

  1. When you are challenged who do you go to assist you?

Since my mother has been a teacher and education leader I often share my challenges with her and seek her wisdom.  I also seek advice from my department and other teacher colleagues.  In particular, I collaborate regularly with a friend and math teacher across the country that has helped me become a better teacher.  We constantly push each other to justify exactly why we teach the way we do, and it ends up helping us identify the changes that need to be made.  I review on-line resources (web sites, blogs, etc.) and find some appropriate to address challenges I face.  In addition, I engage students and listen to their insights on how to address challenges (I do ask them specifically what advice they have for teachers).

  1. What type of professional development do you find most helpful to increase your teaching and subject knowledge and skills?  Are you part of a school-based professional learning community?

The best professional development for me is planned, intentional and creates a sense of collegiality.  I do appreciate good presentations and keynotes that inform me and inspire me, but too often we are talked to about a topic rather than truly engage in enhancing our skills.  We hold multi district in-services that are very helpful as they are more interactive and focus on what goes on in the classroom and how we can better motivate and educate students. These are practice-focused, which is why they are helpful.  However, the most helpful professional development I’ve been part of was the curriculum work I did over the past two years, helping facilitate my transition towards my focus on self-paced mastery learning. 

  1. Are there ways you collaborate with the local community?  If so, what are those ways and have they changed over the years?

This is an area where I need to improve as I incorporate service-learning into my classes.  I know the community is full of opportunities for students to apply classroom learning and aspire to collaborate more with the local community.  This is one of my goals to better connect with the community consistently throughout the school year.

  1. Given all of your experiences as a K-12 and college student what advice do you have for current students interested in becoming a teacher?

Two main things (1) teaching is a process that never ends, a teacher is never done nor perfect, but engaged in very important work and (2) improving is always about the students:  Do they understand the course content?  Do they gain both knowledge and skills?  And do I acknowledge the uniqueness of each student?

  1. What advice/guidance do you have for colleges/universities that prepare teachers?

First, future teachers need more experience in the school and classroom, hands on experience mixed with observations in multiple classrooms and more time for reflection and feedback on those experiences.  Second, a teacher’s attitude is as important as (or even more) their knowledge and skills, so there should be more focus on what type of attitude is best suited for teacher and student progress and success.  Third, there needs to be a good mix of learning content and pedagogy, and which strategies are most effective in certain circumstances/environments.  Fourth, it is important to know that teachers motivate, inspire and educate students, so future teachers need to not just learn strategies focused on delivering course content.  They need to learn how to collaborate with students and facilitate learning rather than just delivering instruction, how to use strategies that enable all students to find meaning in their learning and be successful, how to guide reflection and assess progress in meaningful ways, and how to build strong relationships with each student that comes their way.   

  1. What do you wish you knew when you began your teaching career that you know now?

I wish I understood how much of a process teaching really is.  When I started teaching, I tried to be the best teacher on day, rather than understanding it’s a lifelong process.  The goal should really be to do the best job I know how at this moment each day, knowing I will continue to grow and improve over time.  I also wish I knew it is better to 

focus on a small number of things to reflect on and improve rather than taking on too much too soon.  Being able to prioritize the tasks and the things to focus on is critical to being a teacher who continuously improves.  

  1. If you could change anything at Lake Mills High School what would be the one thing you would not change?

Our administration and teaching staff offers an important freedom to explore, identify and integrate the best strategies and approaches in each classroom.  We are encouraged to be innovative and to utilize the strategies that will help students be successful, while having the support we need to grow and improve along the way. 

Implications

Following Cameron Dary’s story of engagement from a middle school student and national leader to a high school chemistry teacher surfaces the following implications for advocates of student engagement.

  1. Student engagement is an effective strategy to support student development if it is intentional, focused and assessed.  Therefore, it needs to be integrated into the school’s accountability system and professional development offerings.
  2. Student engagement, to be fully sustained, needs to be supported by school policies, infrastructure and support so that it does not depend on one teacher and/or one leader to ensure it is school-wide and experienced by each student.
  3. Student engagement requires a safe, nurturing, engaging and supportive school climate that encourages students and teachers to collaborate, take risks and continuously improve.
  4. Student engagement is a process that acknowledges the uniqueness of each student and provides relevant meaningful opportunities for them to develop academic, civic, social emotional and career knowledge and skills.

The insights, responses and implications are offered for student engagement advocates to consider, adopt and adapt to effectively integrate and sustain high-quality student engagement in their schools.

Terry Pickeral
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Terry Pickeral

Terry Pickeral, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations, evaluation and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
Terry Pickeral
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