I walked into a 5th-grade classroom Tuesday morning during our math block and almost walked right back out because I was sure the students were taking a test and I didn’t want to interrupt. The students were working fervently on a worksheet, pencil to paper, pausing periodically to reflect, erasing at times, and moving on to the next problem. Literally, a pin could have dropped and I would have heard it.
I slowly started to tiptoe backward out of the room when I caught the eye of the teacher who was looking over the shoulders of students at a cluster of desks.
“Are they taking a test?” I whispered.
“No, just independent practice.”
“Do you mind if I walk around and talk to the students?”
“Not at all.”
Now normally I wouldn’t ask, “do you mind if I talk to the students,” because that’s just a regular part of what I do when I go into classrooms, but I was still mesmerized by the perseverance of these students and was afraid if I talked I’d somehow break the magical spell and ruin the determined working the students were doing.
As I moved in closer (still slowly) and started looking over students’ shoulders I was even more impressed. Not only were they highly engaged, they were working on multiplying decimals, a concept that can be tricky, causing some students to shut down and give up without even trying. Not in this room though. The air was thick with intellectual engagement.
Each student I spoke with could articulate not only what they were doing, but why they were doing it. They had a process for checking whether their work was accurate and did this without prompting. There was a palpable feeling of this work is important and I want to do it well. When I think about Danielson Domain 2B, “Establishing a Culture for Learning,” this was it personified.
Deep Learning Doesn’t Have to Always Involve a Big Production
When thinking about student engagement, many educators (myself included) tend to think of having to create elaborate lessons that incorporate exciting content and usually require a lot of time and materials. Words like collaboration and creativity are hallmarks of next practice that deepen learning and motivate students to be engaged in the work they are doing.
The work that I observed that day incorporated pretty much none of these things and yet the students were unquestionably deeply engaged in the work. It was a good reminder that as wonderful and effective as collaboration creative projects can be, kids need time to process concepts and develop understanding on their own. When they work independently, they get to work at their own pace, choose strategies that work best for them and develop their own conceptual understanding. This leads to self-confidence in any subject area.
It also reminded me that as much as innovation is important in our classrooms, we also have to make sure we don’t just dismiss everything we did before just because we have learned something new. Sometimes we simply need to tweak what we know has worked in the past layering in new ideas. The work students were doing in this lesson was essentially a worksheet of math problems. Many would dismiss this as an ineffective old school practice. However, because the teacher had communicated clear expectations with success criteria to students, in addition to having a classroom culture that values learning and rising to challenges, the worksheet became a powerful learning tool for all.