By Morgan Davis
I walk into a class of second graders whose teacher has asked for my help in gathering some data on student engagement. Right from the start, I notice that all kids are engaging in the work of readers: most have their eyes on text, one is placing a sticky note on a page before turning to the next, two are choosing another book from their book bags, and one more is at the classroom library looking for a copy of a book his friend is reading. This is a workshop full of engaged readers.
That is, except for Jay*. I watch him covertly for a minute to see if—like all of us do sometimes—he is simply distracted or having a hard time getting started. Without a book in hand, or even within arm’s reach, he isn’t even trying to fake it.
For the next few minutes, I try all sorts of things: I try relating our expectations. “No,” he says and starts rolling around on the floor. I try talking to him about things I know he likes. “That’s stupid,” he says before adding, “You’re stupid.” He’s right; I should have known better.
I glance up and, sitting atop the heating vent is a copy of an Elephant and Piggie book. I get up and grab it, my back to Jay. “I love this one!” I whisper to no one in particular. I simply sit down on the stool at the back of the room and start reading. Two pages in and his eyes are glued to the pages, too. A few more pages in and many of the words are his to read. By the end of the book, he is nearly sharing the stool with me for how badly he wants to see if Elephant will have any ice cream left to share with Piggie in the end. And when he doesn’t, Jay is the first to say, “I told you.” He is also the first to go back to the shelf for the next in the series.
Engagement. When it is, you can feel it, like the hum of a well-oiled machine. When it is absent, you can’t fake it. It has the power to make or break any workshop, any classroom community. More than ever before, we know how loaded the word engagement can be. Each day we are responsible for maintaining student attention, building relationships, and advancing achievement, a veritable trifecta of engagement: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.
So where do we start? How do we become the ringmaster of wha
t could otherwise feel like a three-ring circus?
We start the way Jay and I did:
Behavioral Engagement through the Work of Readers
It is amazing what happens when you give seven-year-olds Post-its with a purpose. Last week, they used them to mark tricky words that they solved and wanted to share with the class. A month ago, they used them to jot down how the characters were feeling. And before that, they captures their expectations from a preview of the pages. Sure, they played with them at first, found out what makes them lose their “sticky” and even lost the privilege of using them a time or two. But their teacher did not wait to use them.
If we want behaviors to align with engagement in the work, we show students how to work like readers do: Readers read. They stop and jot. They read some more. They choose their books and make plans for what to read next. In first grade, this looks like a book stack at the start of workshop, one that gets smaller as the workshop goes.
Readers get distracted and learn strategies to get back on track. This often means making the most of our space. In third grade we draw students’ attention back to the bulletin board where at the beginning of the year, they drew themselves in their best reading spaces. They do their best approximate this kind of place, revisiting their drawings each time they need to be reminded.
Readers meet with other readers to share what they are reading. In kindergarten, this means that students sit side-by-side on the carpet with a book open between them. In third grade, this means modeling how to turn our stop-and-jots into meaningful conversation. Their teacher does not put the learning objectives for character analysis on hold because students need to be taught how to work with partners. She teaches students how to talk with their partners about their characters and work through the hard parts of inferring together.
When we teach students how to engage in the work that readers do, we teach authentic behaviors that become authentic habits.
Emotional Engagement through the Work of Readers
My first day with our kindergartners ended a few minutes before dismissal and the room was vibrating with the energy of the day, a perfect opportunity to get to know each other. I could have chosen any number of ways to go about this. I turned to a story I know by heart from innumerable bedtime readings with my own daughter, Mem Fox’s The Magic Hat. We giggled and enjoyed our time together.
Now when I join them in their classroom, many of them still reach for the “magic hat” on their heads before we channel this shared experience into other literary activities. From that first day of school, I showed them what kind of teacher I am: the kind that can tell a story in an Australian accent, turning the word giraffe into a fancy word rhyming with “off.” And it showed them what kind of learners I expect them to be: the kind that giggle and play and learn along the way.
To be to true to the human experience, emotional engagement is not just about making reading fun; it can’t be giggles and play all the time. Down the hall from the kindergarten class, our fourth graders are reading Tiger Rising. The main character struggles with the death of his mother even as he is tortured by his classmates, and the curriculum suggests exploring the concept of bullying as a way for students to learn to analyze the depth of this character. With expertise in “listening to teach” (a la Samantha Bennett), their teacher, however, takes a different path. During our planning session, she points to an empty desk: “She lost her mom last year.” She points to another empty desk, “and he hasn’t seen his mom in a while,” and another, “and I’m pretty sure he lives with his dad.”
The curriculum is not the content here; it is not where the learning leads. Their teacher sees this is an opportunity to get to know her students better by listening to them talk about the character’s experience with loss even before they may be ready to share about their own. Just like this teacher is doing, we can connect to ourselves and to each other through our connections with the stories and characters that become as much a part of the community as the students we serve.
We can forge lasting relationships with and among our students through the work of readers.
Cognitive Engagement through the Work of Readers
Our third graders are working to refine their expectations of fictional stories. I sit among them as their teacher reads a fable. They expect that, even in this short story, there will be a problem. It is pretty obvious who will be the problem-solver. They understand the basic story structure, which is the reason their teacher chose this one. This is not where she wants the cognitive demand.
Today, they are reading more carefully: they are looking for clues about the character that hint at how the problem might be solved. Like detectives solving a mystery, they notice things about how the character lacks confidence through his weak voice. They notice that his friends are not any help. They are learning to turn those noticings into predictions that synthesize what they have read already. This is demanding work.
The model their teacher has provided—the one that breaks this process into a series of stop-and-jots—makes this work accessible and therefore engaging as they go back to their seats and apply these strategies to their own stories and share their noticings with their partners.
When this kind of struggle to understand what we read is productive, students tend to stick with it. The decisions we make during workshop about access to text (who is doing the print work) and gradual release of responsibility (who is doing the meaning making) are critical to ensuring that learning remains accessible during whole- and small-group instruction as well as during collaborative and independent practice.
Our work in listening and studying the way students process the content gives us opportunities to make adjustments that adapt to each reader and keep them at the edge of their learning. It is from this edge that students send up a collective groan at the end of the reading block, that students sneak a book beneath their desk to read during another part of the day, that they ask if we can order the next book in a series or if we can go to the library before it is our turn.
Understanding what we read requires a cognitive demand, one that rewards our efforts to engage with an experience that can last a lifetime.
Becoming the Ringmaster
Readers might not be aware of the behaviors that make reading possible. They might not stop to think about how each book changes them before they order the next one in the series. They might not articulate the theme or lesson that a character learns as a result of solving a problem. But they do seek out spaces and places to lose themselves in the pages of a book. They do work what they are reading into the topic of conversations. They do make stacks of books by their bedside tables. They do let books keep them awake at night. They do remember the books that make them cry and laugh out loud and they remember the people with whom they share these experiences.
When I visit Jay’s classroom next week, we will both be better for our shared experience with Elephant and Piggie. The next time I see him in the hallway, I will have something to talk to him about. The next time he reads, he will have one more positive experience to add to the side of the balance that, I’m sure at times, seems stacked against him.
To read is to engage behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively.
When we make the work of readers the focus of our instruction, we become the ringmaster under this big top, building a classroom community on a solid foundation of life-long literacy.
*The name of the student in this post has been changed to protect his anonymity.
About the Author: Morgan Davis is a K-6 Instructional Coach in Jefferson County. She also serves on the conference committee for CCIRA and will be presenting for the JCIRA local council in January. You can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes at “It’s About Making Space”.