Student engagement is conceptualized in terms of Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) theory of flow, and is defined as the confluence of concentration, interest, and enjoyment (Shernoff, Cxikszentmihalyi, Schneider, & Shernoff, in press)
The first day of summer school, I found out that 60% of my students were repeating Algebra II. They had failed at their respective high schools, for a variety of reasons. John took me aside the first day and told me that “my Mom made me come to Summer School. I have always failed my math classes.” John was typical of the students in this class. Many of them lacked confidence in their ability to be successful in a math classroom. I decided to employ a smart board every day in my math instruction, to help ease the students’ fears about math, and to help with student engagement.
The smart board allowed me to put together power point lesson plans in about fifteen minutes for a four hour class, and this included turning on the computer and setting up the projector. My lesson plans were interactive, including the use of Smartview software from Texas Instruments that allowed me to project a real image of a TI-84 calculator onto the smart board. I also used the picture function included in the smart board software to move pictures from our book to compact disc. This enabled me to provide review problems, notes, graphs, example problems, and class work sets within my presentations. The largest benefit of using the smart board when planning lessons was the ability to move from presentation to graphing calculator to hand-written explanations and back again without losing any continuity in the lesson.
If a student had a question within the presentation, I would merely take a picture of that portion, move to another screen, and work out the explanation with the student by hand, before seamlessly moving back to the presentation. Since the presentation was prepared before class, my students would more often than not progress in the instruction with just a little encouragement from me. The ease of the smart board allowed me the freedom to help students at their seats as other students moved the presentation forward. I employed this scaffolding as a technique to give students at the board the confidence to stand in front of their peers and present explanations. I would constantly tell them, “I won’t leave you alone at the smart board.”
To ease my grading load during the term, I decided not to give homework. I had used this technique before, with mixed results. When I did give homework assignments in the past, many of my students would say, “I’ll do it at home,” only to arrive the next day without it. To defuse this problem, and because my use of the smart board gave me extra time, I decided to eliminate homework and check the students’ work at the end of every class period. I called these checks “right now” assessments. I would go to each student’s desk at the end of the period. The student had to complete all of the notes, examples, and class work correctly during the period. Failure to do so resulted in no credit for the student. I would no longer give partial credit for incomplete work. After the first few weeks, the students developed a culture of completion. It became a routine to complete the entire assignment by the end of class.
Each trip to a desk provided me with a precious teaching moment. One of the nice results of grading this way was that I got at least one of these moments with each of my students every day. My students, in the surveys I conducted twice during the summer quarter, commented that they never felt like their questions went unanswered. One student said it this way: “I always feel like I can ask questions, because if it’s stupid, Mr. Sullivan will come to my desk.” This also reduced the anxiety that so often accompanies math instruction. In my classroom, a student cannot feel as though he or she is on an island, because I arrive at each student’s personal desk at least once every class period, and on most days it is multiple times.
These techniques I used were in no way reinventing the wheel. On the contrary, I had used all of these techniques at different points in my career, with mixed results. The smart board enabled me to use all of them at once, to maximize student engagement. The colorful nature and interactivity of the smart board kept the students’ interest. The smart board allowed the students to become active participants in their own instruction. The “right now” assessments forced all of the students to maintain concentration for the entire time we were together, because failure to do so would result in no credit for the whole day. Many of my brighter students commented that, for the first time in their schooling experience, they did not feel held back by the questions of other students. In the words of one of my Somalian students, “Mr. Sullivan teaches very fast, but I feel like it’s OK because I always can ask questions.”
One of my old football coaches, Alan Jones, said, “It’s always more fun when you win.” Many of the students from the Ohio State University who visited my classroom said it was unimpressive, but every student was engaged and asking questions. In the surveys I got from the students, I concluded that one of the biggest reasons 86% of my students enjoyed Algebra II was the daily reinforcement of their success. Thirty out of thirty-three, or 91% of my students, received an 80% or above in the course. No student failed, for the first time in my career since I moved into an urban district. I judged the retention of knowledge by the fact that 88% of my students passed the district final. Of the four who failed the final, two of the students had over a 100% in the course, but turned the exam in after only 20 minutes.
In closing, over the past five years I have reinvented the way I teach math. I presently plan and grade less than I ever have in my entire career, but I receive unbelievable results in my math instruction. Part of my success comes from the time I now have to involve parents, read instructional journals for more ideas, and work individually with students to bring their knowledge up to grade level. These days, I do not waste countless hours grading papers to find out what my students are learning. Thanks to new technology, I see it every day, when I visit their desks.
Shernoff, D.J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, b., & Shernoff, E.S. (in press).
Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory.
School Psychology Quarterly.