Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Engagement of the Whole Child a Sustainable Educational Practice?

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Educating the whole child is undeniably important in producing healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged students who become productive citizens in our society.  However, severe cuts to school funding have forced many districts to make difficult choices in which programs to support.  Often times, programs that support the development of the whole child are sacrificed in order to maintain the continuation of support for the core academic curriculum.  With diminished funding to school programs, can the practice of “engagement” of the whole child remain a sustainable educational practice?    

Wiggins (1993) stated, “Education involves working with the whole child. Students can get excited by what the world offers, by what types of activities they are provided in school.” (p. 69)  Rather than just presenting information and expecting that it will be absorbed, the astute educator understands how to motivate the learner to work hard.  Increased motivation occurs when students see the connection of their learning to the broader community. 

Activities that engage the whole child often take students out of the school building to experience real world learning or invite experts into the classroom to impart their knowledge onto the students.  These formats may be too costly to sustain as educational strategies.  Shrewd educators look at their own instructional practice for ways students can engage with others, challenge their intellect, contribute service to their communities, and encompass participation in extra-curricular activities.

Classrooms with a sense of high energy seemingly support engagement of the whole child.  Many educators have restructured their teaching practice to ensure students opportunities to work with their classmates in cooperative learning structures.  “Students find working with classmates to be far more engaging than individual effort.” (Danielson, 2009, p. 38)  Also, providing students with an audience of their peers as they present their class work often brings out their best performance.  Students care deeply about the opinions of their peers.  Students are also driven by an innate curiosity about the world in which they live.  Educators utilizing inquiry-based learning challenge their student’s intellect to understand incongruous events, solve problems, or understand anomalies.  Skilled educators are adept at crafting their lessons to ensure all levels of intellect are challenged throughout the curriculum.  Students in high energy classrooms are engaged through creative and careful lesson planning and opportunities to collaborate with their peers.

Students participating in volunteer projects, internships, or service learning see themselves as contributing members of the community.  Collecting donations for local charities, becoming pen-pals with deployed soldiers or the elderly in convalescent homes, establishing an ink cartridge recycle program or helping at a local shelter are a few examples of sustainable student learning connected to the broader community.  Students engaged in these activities are intrinsically motivated to help others’.  They see firsthand how their efforts at school benefit local organizations, individuals or groups of people.  

Providing students with opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities is an effective way to engage the whole child.  Some students participate in sports and fine arts activities after school.  However, the cost of participating in these activities is prohibitive to other students.  Many schools find ways to provide extra-curricular activities at their schools through the use of community and parent volunteers, donations, and grant proposals.  Working with local colleges and universities can provide a win-win benefit for pre-service teachers and local schools.  Schools that are not able to tap into local resources look among their own talent pool to provide instruction.  School schedules purposely include enrichment classes during the school day.  Classroom teachers, instructional assistants, and other school staff share their talents and hobbies with various groups of students. Within the school or out in the community, many adults are eager to share their resources, skills and expertise with students to support the development of the whole child.

Developing healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged students is paramount in producing citizens that contribute positively to our society.  As each component of the whole child works in tandem, “engagement” is the area that motivates students to learn.  Understanding the importance of sustaining engagement of the whole child, classroom teachers are re-designing their instruction, schools encourage students to provide service to their communities, and school staffs take it upon themselves to create extra-curricular opportunities.  As school districts work within the constraints of reduced funding, schools are finding innovative ways to educate the whole child. 

Danielson, C. (2009).  Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wiggins, G. P. (1993).  Assessing Student Performance: Exploring the Purpose and Limits
Testing.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Karen Johnson, Principal
Evergreen Forest Elementary School
North Thurston Public Schools

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How can we be more like Bob?

I had the opportunity lately to travel back to Washington, DC as part of ASCD’s legislative committee.   Our sixteen-member committee spent a day on the Hill, meeting with representatives from the Department of Education, Democrat and Republican aides from the House Education and Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  This was a day for us to hear their perspectives in prepared remarks, followed by open question and answer sessions.   The next day involved an intense committee work session alone at headquarters, where we debrief what we heard, and begin the crafting of ASCD’s legislative agenda to be revealed in the spring.

 In recent years, the focus has been on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, (ESEA), nicknamed No Child Left Behind in 2001, and is now four years overdue.  This year, the majority party is different in each chamber, and the committee chairs have different approaches to reauthorization.  The Senate chair wants full-scale reauthorization, and the House chair is preferring to address one aspect at a time.   As we listened to our speakers, it became readily apparent that there was far more similarities than differences in what all of the sides wanted to fix about the law.   Supporting career and college readiness standards, (including the Common Core), making accountability more flexible and less punitive, and addressing teacher effectiveness rather than teacher licensure were clear themes. 

On this particular September day, President Obama held a press conference announcing the Department of Education’s waiver plan.  In it, he stated, “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting”.  This was a ‘throw down’ to Congress – which made the rest of the day quite electric.  Although the Department, and House, and Senate committees had far more in common than different about the reauthorization, they appeared to be at a stalemate – again.

As the day ended, we remarked about the apparent lack of collaboration and dialogue amongst the lawmakers, and discussed nuances of policy.  We walked out of the House office building, and into a charter bus to take us back to the hotel.  It was there that our day changed.

Bob was a large man that appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies.  His hands were gripping the wheel while he waited for us to board – but his body was dancing to the Isley Brothers.  As we pessimistically boarded that simple bus, we were immediately engaged by Bob.  Soon, we were singing and dancing in our seats, and enjoying the moment.    Shortly after departing though, our bus began to experience difficulties.  We could go a few blocks, or maybe a mile, only to break down again.  Even through this hardship, the music was playing, and Bob was present in the moment.  His radio calls back to his headquarters were like stand-up comedy, and he had a way of keeping us calm and enlisting us as co-problem solvers.

What is the lesson?  It is easy to get lost in the complexities of education.  What is the algorithm used to calculate safe harbor?  Must we defer to supplemental educational service providers as a mandatory intervention, or is it a promotion of untested private business with public dollars?  A growth model is a better way to gauge student achievement, but what are the details and nuances of a potential model and is it fair?  Who is in power in DC, who is running for re-election, and how does that influence decision-making?  But, despite the ‘noise’ of all of these issues, the real question we need to focus upon, is how can we help our students (and ourselves) be more like Bob?  How can they find a role in society in which they can find joy?  How can they be of service, no matter their profession, to their fellow man or woman?  How can our education system keep its focus on what is important and not on distractions? How can we attend to the needs of the whole child with a well-rounded, high quality education?

I can assure you, that the following day was highly influenced by Bob.  When you see the agenda this spring, you will likely see words such as ‘citizenship’ and ‘statesmanship’.  By this, we don’t necessarily mean the study of governments, but what it means to take care of one another, show compassion, to find joy in our contributions, and to truly reason together to make our country a better place for everyone. Reauthorization of ESEA is critical to us on a daily basis, but I challenge you, as I am challenged, to try to remember Bob – and what our mission is all about. 

Dr. Becky Cooke
Deer Park School District