Posts Tagged ‘Eighth grade’

Student Engagement

This was a comment I posted in response to a blog post you can read here

I just finished my 3rd yr teaching 8th grade Language Arts and have found that finding the balance between engagement and relevance is tricky. The 8th grade team completed our first Expeditionary Learning Unit (See what that means here: and found that engagement was very high. It involved student choice and a fair amount of self-directed work by the students. They produced some of the best work I’ve seen so far from 8th graders (you can see the work here:

I always ask myself questions before beginning a project, why am I doing this: How does it meet my teaching goals? Can the students do what I’m asking them to do, have I done enough to make sure they have the skills required to complete the task? (I will often ask students this question outright when introducing a project – “Does this sound doable? Is what I’m asking you do a reasonable request?” Of course kids don’t always know what they don’t know but it’s a good place to start assessing what they need to know collaboratively.
And secondly (and I think the point of your post) do the students know why we are doing this and will they care? My goal this year was to make sure the students knew why I assigned the work I did, I think it made a difference.

The engagement that we saw in the Expedition was a result of the students personal connection to the work – one student remarked that she felt like the work she was doing was meaningful, and could make a difference. This is why so many students worked so hard.
Of course some kids did need a modified process, that will always be the case; so no, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to think that.

I think that reflecting on lessons and figuring out what went wrong (and what went right) by ourselves and with colleagues is the best thing we can do as teachers to improve our craft.


A new model

I convinced my 8th grade colleagues, and the administration, that King Middle School‘s model of Expeditionary Learning (EL) is worth looking into and emulating. We visited the school yesterday and everyone is really fired up about it. I think that we’ll do our first expedition next year!

I am familiar with King because I interned there for 13 weeks while completing the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. (While at King, I taught the Laurie Halse Anderson‘s novel, Speak. You can learn more about that work here.)

If you aren’t familiar with Expeditionary Learning, it follows Outward Bound principles. An Expedition can be many things but at its center is careful planning, an authentic task, an authentic product, and an authentic audience. Notice the focus on authenticity; this drives both student and teacher to excellence. When you know that the public is going to see your work you are more likely to do what needs to be done and a bit more to make sure it is quality.  King’s website has examples of past and current Expeditions and products.

The culture of the school is amazing. We had two 8th grade students give us a tour of the school. Everybody, staff and students, was polite and helpful and excited for us to be there. Teachers waved us into their classrooms and were happy to talk to us. Even more impressive was that while there were 5 new adults in the room who were taking the teacher’s attention away, the students continued working quietly and without issue. We stopped a couple different students in the halls to ask questions and they were thoughtful, well spoken, and happy to help.

Everyone knows that integrating academic disciplines leads to higher student involvement, buy-in, and achievement. Everyone wants each student to be challenged appropriately to do their best, to learn and improve. Expeditionary learning combines all the things that we know about what is best for students and fits them all together. Instead of individual pieces, we have a cohesive whole. Differentiation within an Expedition becomes much easier. I think that it lessens the stigma that still surrounds ‘difference’, especially at the middle school. There is a great deal of structured independence embedded within this model, people work at different paces and perhaps in a different order. This means that it is no longer obvious that one student is doing something different than the rest of the kids. Traditional schools have kids move from class to class, subject to subject with no connections between. But think about it, if each class is working on a piece of a larger puzzle school starts to make more sense, the disconnect between classes is healed and, paired with the authenticity of the learning, students begin to discover the joys of learning and exploration and want to share what they know with others. It makes our job as a teacher more enjoyable and easier – the principal of King, Mike McCarthy, said during our meeting “Engagement trumps discipline.”  This is absolutely true, if kids are interested then they are not going to be a behavior problem.

Needless to say, I am very excited about this. I hope that the Administration continues to be fired up about it, that the school board will go see King’s “Celebration of Learning” and that Kittery can follow the shining example of King Middle.

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