Seeking Out Deep Student Engagement

Lettering and design by Eleanor Peters, Sixth Grader at St. George's
Lettering and design by Eleanor Peters, Sixth Grader at St. George’s

[I have been thinking about and planning for an opportunity I have on April 5th to speak to our Parents Association at St. George’s. I have a longer time to speak than I have yet had with families, so I have been going back though some old notes in order to spur my thinking and juxtapose whatever that search uncovers with a topic that has been much on my mind recently–STUDENT ENGAGEMENT. I have recently written two other blog entries about student engagement–Student Engagement–It Has To Come First” and Prioritizing Engagement In The Liminal Space.” What follows is a revision of something I wrote several years ago regarding what I believed at the time, and still believe, are critical ingredients for students in a demanding school environment such as St. George’s. Those ingredients are Place, Connection, and Expectation. I now see the connection between these ingredients and a school environment primed to best support student engagement. A central piece here is that deepening student engagement demands much from teachers, from students, and critically, from parents and families.]

“When partnered with a sense of PLACE and of CONNECTION, a culture of high expectations inevitably becomes a culture of deep ENGAGEMENT.”

Our students have a rare opportunity to live within and contribute to an extraordinary community of learners, artists, musicians, and athletes. In order to benefit fully from this opportunity, students need three things from the school: Place, Connection, and Expectation. The success of a school in creating and maintaining a Progress Culture is rooted in these areas as much as, if not more than, it is rooted in the execution of specific innovations in curriculum or program.  If a school works well in establishing place, connection, and expectation, it will be in position to create the engaged learning community we want.

  • Place: Students need to feel that the school is theirs, and they should graduate placing a value on stewardship. When student voices matter, they are far more likely to take care of the gifts they have been given and to feel some ownership. The positive result of this sense of ownership includes deep engagement in their learning and with those around them.
  • Connection: Students need connections with peers and with adults that in turn attach them to the school and permit them to see their role in it. With these connections students are positioned for engagement. This connectivity supports them when they struggle, celebrates them when they succeed, and importantly challenges them when otherwise they might become complacent or apathetic.
  • Expectation: Often what students need is not what they ask for in the moment.  Generally, however, students want to be in a school environment where there are expectations for their character, for their behavior, and for their achievement. When we hold students to high expectations, we demonstrate our faith that they can meet and even exceed them. High expectations then are a way of demonstrating our commitment to them. When partnered with a sense of place and connection, a culture of high expectations inevitably becomes a culture of deep engagement.

As I think about these three factors working together to make a great school, I am reminded of the importance of building partnerships with students, with faculty, and critically, with parents and families. While I do not know that we will discuss these questions specifically in my time on April 5th, I find myself identifying some key questions for parents designed to help bring us into alignment in creating an engaged student community–one in which students are engaged in their academic work and co-curricular involvement, as well as with the life of the school.

  • What is easier for kids today than it was for you at the same age?
  • What is harder?
  • What excites you most about the experience your child is having at this moment in their lives?
  • What scares you most as a parent?
  • How should we (faculty, administration, and parents) work together to help kids navigate the difficulty of being in high school in this time?
  • What things do we need to prepare your children for that have not been covered in the traditional academic classes?  How should we do it?
  • How do we, as educators and parents in partnership, find the balance between our engagement in these kids lives and the need to give students enough space to become more and more autonomous?

These questions allow us to have a conversation relevant to what students most need from the adults in their lives in order to become engaged in their learning now and importantly in order to become the adults who will be deeply engaged in the communities where they will live, serve, and lead. I am interested to see what questions others might add to my list.

3 thoughts on “Seeking Out Deep Student Engagement

  1. admiral17(RB) April 5, 2016 / 7:01 am

    “Place” has a power that is often lost in our ultra-mobile allegedly “connected” society. While I would not adhere to the almost worshipful attitude I think Robert Penn Warren reserves for it in All the King’s Men, I do believe it helps us connect to those things we should value most; both in our own experiences, but also in our deep primeval past. “You can’t cheat the Mountain, Pilgrim.”
    Nice piece, be well.

    • J Ross Peters April 5, 2016 / 11:03 am

      Thanks so much for reading and for commenting, RB! I always appreciate your feedback and hope all is well at The W.

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