Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space

Every Junior made a square for the Class of 2017 quilt
A details from the Class of 2017 Quilt…every junior made a square

In a blog entry several years ago I wrote this about rites of passage:

I have always been fascinated with rites of passage as they make ritual from the incomprehensible space between one stage of life and the next.  Rites of passage represent moments where we are between and therefore we are nowhere—not where we were and not quite where we will be. In response to such moments, we create ceremonies, we say a prayer or two, we have parties, and perhaps we wear silly hats.  We used to give each other watches.

Last week I spoke for a few minutes to our current juniors, the St. George’s Independent School class of 2017, about the school year to come–a year in which they will be counted on as leaders while simultaneously bracing themselves for the following year when virtually every routine, every group that has been familiar will be replaced by routines and groups they cannot yet see or fathom. They are entering a liminal space where all messages can seem conflicting–all is possibility but everything is out of their hands; it is the “time of their lives” but also the most difficult moment many of them have faced.

I spoke to our juniors at the end of their class trip to Victory Ranch. Over the course of a couple of days, they had not only connected over various group physical challenges, but they had also worked together to imagine a better school and finally suggest some changes to their Head of School–hence my cue to speak.

Since my last blog post, “Student Engagement: It Has To Come First”, I have been thinking about the components of student engagement, and while reflecting on my time with the juniors, I realize that my initial list was incomplete.

Here is the list from the last blog entry, somewhat abbreviated, from my original post:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic.

What I neglected to emphasize was the importance of listening to students to create engagement. This strikes me as particularly true when they are in these moments between. The moment between I am referring to might be something as large as graduation from high school, but it could also be any moment between when a student first hears a concept in class and when he or she grasps it and makes meaning from it. On different scales each example represents a liminal moment for students. In education we have emphasized the importance of students listening to teachers, but we have often missed a key correlation between teachers listening to students and the students’ engagement in and ownership of their learning. Additionally, we have often minimized the correlation between students listening to other students in creating a culture of engagement in our classrooms. As teachers we can get so caught up in what we need to say that we miss opportunities to hear our students and create ample moments for them to hear each other and collaborate.

The time the Class of ’17 spent on their class retreat provided a rich chance for students to work with, to hear, to make plans with, and to challenge each other. In turn, they challenged all the teachers who joined them…and they challenged me. I believe they will be better prepared for their senior year and our school will be stronger as a result. Most relevant here, however, there was no hiding their engagement, sustained, deep, and loud, in the work they shared together.

3 thoughts on “Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space

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