Those who know Mary know the special role of glitter in her classroom. In 3rd grade, glitter actually serves, perhaps unintentionally, as a wonderful metaphor for student engagement: Much as glitter, once released from the jar, has the potential to reach every nook and cranny of a space, students' minds, once fully engaged in learning, will reach into every nook and cranny of the topic that has sparked their imagination. Tapping into students' interests, capitalizing on their innate sense of curiosity, and nurturing their passions are all areas in which Mary excels as a longtime educator. Year after year, Mary replicates the same sense of genuine wonder and love of learning in her 3rd graders. And what, you ask, is the secret to her craft? In this interview, Mary answers that question by delving into that which makes learning such a marvelous experience in her classroom: sincere student engagement.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the hallmarks of an engaged student?
I would say their enthusiasm and their excitement—when they ask questions and when they want to collaborate and give some of their ideas for something that we're doing.
What strategies do you use to engage students?
I always strive to bring my class together as a family; we learn to be respectful of one another, to appreciate our differences, including learning differences, and we learn what it takes to be a true friend. Once that is set in motion, students feel safe in their environment and are ready to learn and to take risks. In the afternoons, I have "happy hour" office hours with them. It's all about making connections with children. Once that is achieved and they know that you care about them, that you love them, and that they're safe with you, they are open to all the wonders around them. The world becomes their classroom. Before you can do anything with children, you must make a very strong connection with them.
How have you adapted your strategies and tools to accommodate the different modes of learning during the pandemic?
We have all these whistles and bells online! We use Kahoot for spelling, Boom Cards for multiplication, a lot of videos and interactive games, enVision math, the document camera for projects, and Seesaw, where students can go "pick up" their activities, submit them, and see my corrections. I also have my own website where the children get their schedules every morning and can access any assignments, handouts, videos, homework, and Zoom links for the class. The number of things that my students are able do independently is outstanding.
What projects or assignments from your class do you think especially highlight the ways in which your students fully engage in the coursework?
We've been researching Native Americans and all their regions in North America, and we've been writing Native American legends. There was a structured way that we came up with our legends, but, when it came to the presentation of the legend, I said, "How would you like to present these?" Well, they were on fire! It could be what they're passionate about, so I have children who will make clay models, write a book with a partner, make finger puppets, and read or sing their legends. It got everyone enthusiastic—they even want to have extra breakout rooms to collaborate during my "happy hour" office hours! Anything you do with the children, whether it's on-campus or remote, if you suggest the idea but let them be creative and collaborate with their peers, it becomes their project.
What difference do you think that genuine engagement makes? How does engagement enhance a student’s educational experience and outcome?
Relationships that students have with their teachers often have a profound effect on their perceptions of being accepted, supported, welcomed, and safe, which then helps establish a certain excitement and buzz about the learning about to take place. This comes from teachers' positive demeanors, shown through their enthusiasm for their children. Ultimately, engagement is the most important thing—engagement is education and learning. ❖
Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Lower School Quarterly Vol. III No. III in February 2021.