Getting students to engage — not just comply

September 17, 2013
(By Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
(By Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In this post veteran educator Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, talks about the difference between student engagement and student compliance — and why he’d rather have 90 percent of the former than 100 percent of the latter. Ferlazzo has written five books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog, on which this appeared.

By Larry Ferlazzo

I have students in my mainstream ninth-grade English and in my English as a Second Language (ESL) classes complete a simple “Reading Log” every Friday. It has five columns — ones for the day, title of the book, the number of minutes read, space for a student signature and one for a parent signature.

Though I leave it on for a reason, the “parent signature” box has remained blank for years.

I tell students at the beginning of the year that I expect that they will read a book of their choice at least two hours each week, and that if they promise to me that they will tell the truth on the log — even if they read less some weeks — that I will eliminate the requirement of a parent signature. Students always agree and make a public commitment, as well as shaking hands on it with me. I think seeing the “parent signature” column is a reminder of that commitment.

Each Friday, they quickly complete the sheet and, if they haven’t read for two hours during the previous four days, they write a few words at the bottom of the sheet with specific plans on when they will read that Friday night or over the weekend (“I’ll read for twenty minutes after we get home from our cousin’s barbeque,” etc.). I check with students on Monday (during the first ten minutes of class, which is always silent reading time) if they followed through and, if not, they tell me how they’re going to make-up the time that week. And we talk about how things do come-up, and that there’s always flexibility.

I’m confident that the vast majority — at least 90 percent — of students are genuinely honest, and determine that by seeing how far they’re getting in the books they read during our silent reading time and by the progress they make during cloze and fluency formative assessments. And, based on my previous experience, I’m also confident in saying that it’s a much higher percentage than years ago when I required parent signatures, which are easily faked.

Yes, I talk with parents about the reading expectation, but between the multiple home languages, regularly changing phone numbers and moves, and other difficulties in making parent contact, there is a large percentage of parents that I just can’t communicate with — despite my obvious commitment to parent engagement.

Of course, this instructional strategy is combined with a strong emphasis on relationship-building and with life-skills lessons focused on helping students develop intrinsic motivation.

So, let’s say 10 percent of my students might not be entirely truthful to me.

I’ll take 90% student engagement over 100% “compliance” any day….

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 17, 2013