For thousands of educators and school leaders around the world, the cheery presence of instructional expert Cheryl Abla ensures that McREL professional learning is engaging as well as rich in content. That’s fitting, since student engagement is one of Cheryl’s professional passions. Cheryl is a former classroom teacher and education program director, and a co-author of the influential Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works. Now she’s co-authored a new white paper about student engagement (with researcher Brittney R. Fraumeni—available now on the McREL website) so we thought we’d ask what she looks for in an engaged classroom.
Q: You’re known for your enthusiasm and the liveliness of your PL sessions. How do you maintain that energy level?
A: I love teaching and I love people who love teaching. Put me in a room full of fellow educators and there’s no holding me back! It’s an incredible privilege for us as teachers to have this level of influence on young people’s future. We all know that education is full of challenges, but when you focus on the challenges that are within our control—like trying new approaches to solve a professional problem of practice or learning to lead the process of adopting an instructional model or framework—it can revitalize your passion for the profession. It does for me.
Q: What does an engaged and energized classroom look like?
A: Here’s a real-life example from an Arizona high school I recently visited. It was 7:15 on a Thursday morning and kids were lined up outside their Algebra II teacher’s classroom. I was standing alongside the students when the door burst open. Music poured from the room and the teacher began welcoming his students.
Following the students into class, I saw that the teacher had placed homemade whiteboards around the perimeter of the room and had prepared math problems for his students to begin class with. Kids instantly paired up and began using the whiteboards to write solutions to the algebraic questions. No one was seated. The teacher stood in the center of the classroom, and the students—using mathematical terms—were talking to one another about the process and steps needed to solve the equations. The teacher watched everyone’s progress, stepping in when he saw students who needed a bit of guidance to get back on track. I was in awe of the smoothness, the level of energy, the tone and feel of the classroom, and of course the level of engagement both the teacher and his students were demonstrating. You could tell this was a common ritual for the beginning of the class period. Just picture it, more than 20 high school students happy to be starting school early in the morning, up and talking about math like they were all highly qualified mathematicians! It was an example of thoughtful bell-to-bell teaching that brings joy to students and teachers.
Q: Did that teacher just have a gift, or can other teachers learn to do what he did?
A: Instructional skills can be learned and improved on by teachers at any stage of their career and at any level of expertise, and this professional learning is a big part of what McREL offers to educators. Mastering effective instructional techniques also involves learning to put students in the right frame of mind to learn. If you think back to the teachers who had an impact on you, they probably were the ones who took a moment to ask how you were doing. A simple act of connection like that comes naturally to some people while others may need some strategies and reminders in order to more intentionally work on engagement, and I think that’s a legitimate line of inquiry for professional learning. Suppose generations of students remember you as the teacher who was masterful with content and clearly cared about them. That seems like a great legacy for a teaching career.
Q: Engagement is one of those words that seems to have a plain meaning, but in reality, has lots of complexity and is defined in many different ways by educators and researchers. How does McREL view engagement?
A: Yes, there are different facets to engagement, and I think it’s helpful for teachers to have some familiarity with them because they could help you fine-tune your approach to students. Over the years researchers have gone back and forth over whether engagement is more about outward, observable behaviors, or inner attitudes. Is it about what students do at school or how they feel about it? After reviewing the research on engagement and the many definitions in circulation, my McREL colleagues and I came up with our own: “A condition of emotional, social, and intellectual readiness to learn characterized by curiosity, participation, and the drive to learn more.”
Q: So if a student thinks deeply about the content and produces high-quality work, but doesn’t participate in class, they’re not fully engaged?
A: Not fully. But the point is, I don’t think we have to settle for one or the other. I think teachers who understand engagement can learn how to nudge even the most introverted students to participate in the school community and produce great work.
Q: McREL is known for its analysis and PD on good instructional strategies to help students learn, retain, and apply academic content. How does engagement affect teaching and learning?
A: I think we all recognize in our heart and our gut that students need to feel physically and emotionally safe in school before they can learn at high levels. The difference these days is that researchers are able to articulate how these two sides of the educational coin can, and in fact must, coexist. One of our signature research-based PD programs and series of books is called Classroom Instruction That Works®. You might think they are all strictly about academic teaching strategies, but in reality CITW, as we call it, has always recognized the social-emotional foundations of a productive learning environment. Strong instruction is built on a foundation of engaged, enthused teachers and learners.
Q: Do you have some tips for teachers?
A: I sure do! One would be to familiarize yourself with the theoretical and research base surrounding engagement because it’s helpful to see how an important concept evolves over time. Another would be to keep in mind at all times that your ability to help students learn content is intertwined with your ability to maintain positive relationships with them. As for classroom practice, a pivotal area to work on would be questioning. A thoughtfully crafted question can not only help students recall facts, but also draw them into a socially beneficial conversational process.
My colleague Brittney Fraumeni and I elaborate on these ideas and more in our new white paper, Student Engagement: Evidence-Based Strategies to Boost Academic and Social-Emotional Results, which can be downloaded for free from the McREL website.
Cheryl Abla is a former elementary school teacher and now develops workshops and trainings with McREL International for K–12 teachers on research-based instructional strategies in the areas of instructional technology, English language learners, and culture and climate. She also consults on technology integration, technology leadership, and classroom observations. She is a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, which takes the research and provides easy-to-use tools to help get the strategies into the classroom on a daily basis.