The Six Principles of Student Engagement

Is there a way for Teaching Artists who lack basic CRP competencies to keep their heads above water, even while they are still learning how to be more culturally responsive pedagogues?

If you’re a professional teaching artist working out in the field, you’ve probably already noticed that student engagement is a big problem. In my experience, even the best teaching artists spend an inordinate amount of time battling to overcome high school students’ attention deficits; often struggling to create lessons that hook and engage. When teaching is your life, the daily slog to gain and keep the attention of yet another class of teenagers, who you only get to see once per week, can be exhausting.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) has been offered as a panacea, and there is ample evidence that CRP is virtually guaranteed to raise levels of student engagement. So, if you’re struggling to engage your students, the good news is that Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is definitely the way to go, but what if you’re not there yet?

If your classroom management problems are killing you, softly, I respectfully submit Six Principles of Student Engagement. Based on my experience and review of the literature, some of which can be found here, I think that aligning lesson plans with these principles results in learning experiences that are more engaging for teenagers. Especially for teaching artists who have not yet achieved cultural competency or the ability to consistently engage their students, these principles can function as a quality control checklist and a road-map.

Even if you’re drowning, even if you’re not yet able to call yourself a culturally responsive pedagogue, there are things you can do to make your lesson plans more engaging for your students, right here, right now.

The Six Principles of Student Engagement

To create more engaging learning experiences for teenagers in urban schools, the Professional Teaching Artist should design lessons that align with these six principles.

Learning experiences should be:

Practical: Treat students like producers, not consumers. Set up project-based learning experiences with a beginning, middle, and end. Make things. Produce exhibitions, and installations. Learn how to do something you don’t care about, so you can do something that you do care about. For example: I like to be the center of attention. I learn to type, not so I can type, but because I need to write and share my story. I love spoken word poetry.

Active: Make talking, moving and interacting an integral part of the learning process. Teens crave novelty and risk. They need new experiences and they are learning to self-regulate. Give them the chance to practice self-regulation by creating spaces for them to encounter new things and practice managing their emotions and responses in different situations. It’s harder to be bored when you’re asked to keep moving. For example: I like to win. If I want to win the game and get the (insert incentive), the only way is to work with my team to write rhyming lyrics that contain all five answers. I love being the best.

Purposeful: Invite students to help define the driving idea behind the project. The teaching artist should be transparent and collaborative when setting goals for learning experiences. Teenagers, like adults, deserve to know why they are learning something, and, ideally, students should be able to make the connection between what they are learning, and a tangible goal. For example: I like to make movies. If I want to make movies, I will learn historical facts, because I need to learn historical facts to create and edit a short digital documentary. I love being a real filmmaker.

Progressive: Honor students’ prior knowledge and experience by developing scaffolded lessons. Create experiences that allow students to feel a personal sense of accomplishment and growth. Make sure your lesson plan allows students to bring what they already know into play. Familiarize yourself with the learning standards and make sure students have the prerequisite skills, competencies and understandings, before you move on to new learning. Use more relevant alternative grading systems, like badging systems. For example: If I want to paint, I can gain points toward earning my 3rd level badge in geometry by successfully representing all of the basic geometric concepts in my painting. I love being recognized as a real artist.

Shared: Don’t set yourself up as the only expert in the room. Don’t be solely responsible for providing information. Don’t set arbitrary rules and make yourself solely responsible for enforcing them. The message to the student from the teacher who refuses to share power is “This is my room, not yours, and you are uninformed, unaccountable, and untrusted”. Students who disrupt such inequitable social situations are only doing what is expected of them. Create more situations in which people can simply be trusted and expected to be themselves. For example: I like to talk with my friends, and my class is set up as a series of small group discussions, so I may as well go to class. At least I get to talk.

Playful: Your job is create a space for people (students) to engage in learning that closely resembles the way people play. Create learning experiences that ask students to use their imagination and creativity, but stay as much as possible on the sidelines or, conversely, place yourself right in the middle of the action, and let the game go on around you. In baseball terms — be the referee, the coach, or the pinch hitter, but resist the urge to be the center of attention. Guide the game with clear rules, but make winning an inevitable possibility for each individual player. For example: I like video games, so it has been fun to design and beta test a live version of a video game about the wildlife of the Amazon. I love making masks of animal characters.

In conclusion, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are many teaching artists who care deeply about social justice, but who are still developing an authentic sense of a cultural connection to their students. It’s not that they don’t care. It just that they aren’t there, yet. For their sake, and for the sake of their students, there is an urgent need for the bridge these principles can make between those teaching artists who can use CRP effectively and those who are still on the path. We who deem ourselves to be culturally responsive teaching artists can’t simply abandon our colleagues who are still struggling. The idea that CRP is totally related to personal experience is false. CRP is not an inherent skill set. It can be learned, but it’s a process.

Impatience or disregard for those who aren’t there, yet, is an unhelpful, if totally understandable, response. A teaching artist’s CRP competency should be judged on a spectrum. Rejecting the culturally incompetent teaching artist outright, especially one who is dancing as fast as they can, is bad for the field.

Instead, we should help our colleagues along by beginning with the idea that nearly any professional teaching artist who authentically cares about their students potentially has something to offer. If we don’t support our colleagues who struggle every day to engage their students, then the message we are sending to those who are at risk of losing heart, is that there is no way forward; that there is no way to go from being an oppressor to a true ally. Without hope, teaching artists who can’t yet employ CRP to address their student engagement and classroom management issues may abandon the field prematurely. That’s a brain drain we can’t afford.

If our commitment is to diversity, then we have to do everything we can do keep a diverse field of practitioners doing this work.

Becoming more culturally responsive pedagogues should be our shared professional goal. It’s in the best interests of our students and we have an obligation to support our colleagues in this process, no matter where they are on the CRP spectrum, or we risk a further fracturing of the teaching artist profession between those who “get it” and those who don’t.

That way lies a sort of a pedagogical civil war that I think we would be wise to avoid.

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