I recently read about the Sequoyah Shool in Pasadena, California, where engaging students is the school’s primary concern.
Engaging students through curiosity
By Josh Brody
director, Sequoyah School, Pasadena, CA
from Pasadena Star News
I recently sat in on a parent-teacher conference led by a 6-year-old student. She was presenting her tree notebook.
She eagerly turned the page to a map of her school, pointed to a spot on the page and said, “Here is the patio, and there is the pepper tree, and that’s my favorite. The ash tree is over here by day care and it has lost all of its leaves. The tree by the library has leaves that look like fans, it’s a gingko tree, but the one at the park has bigger fan leaves.”
She turned to another page titled “Ash Tree.” The page contained a pressed leaf, a photograph, a bark rubbing, and the definition of the word “deciduous” was written in the corner. That page was one of seven similar pages about trees that were highlighted on her campus map.
While education reform over the last decade has focused on accountability and test scores, we may be overlooking one of the most critical aspects of learning: student engagement.
After years of curriculum, policies and incentives geared to raise test scores that narrowly measure and, indeed, define student achievement, we still have too many students in our schools bored, disengaged and dropping out.
In fact, less than half of the students in Los Angeles public schools who begin high school will graduate after four years.
There are many factors that lead to such an unacceptably high dropout rate, but one that is seldom discussed is whether or not students find school meaningful.
We must ask ourselves the question: How can we better engage students in school?
The example above does not illustrate the accomplishment and engagement of an exceptional, supercharged student. Rather, it shows what genuine curiosity can do for any child when it comes to seeking and retaining knowledge.
More importantly, it shows the type of experience and level of engagement all students can and should have, if we are willing to explore methods beyond those more routinely used in classroom instruction.
The next section of the student’s book was titled “leaf rubbings.” She pointed to a rubbing of a Russian mulberry leaf and informed her parents, “This came from the tree we planted last year. Look, you can see the veins and the rib.”
She turned past photographs of trees at a local park to a letter addressed to her class from the office of the city park supervisor. She told her parents, “We tried to figure out how many different trees there were at the park. We weren’t sure so we had to ask the park supervisor. See, he said there were twenty-eight different kinds of trees at the park! He says there are 101 trees all together, but we haven’t counted them yet.”
One way that teachers have found to successfully engage students in school is by using the campus and the surrounding community as the context for teaching and learning.
This approach to education is called place-based education. Here at Sequoyah School, a teacher took advantage of the student’s natural curiosity about her surroundings to explore a particular topic.
In studying trees on campus and in the neighborhood, students had opportunities to apply knowledge and terms they had learned about trees, watch trees over time and observe the cycle of change, and compose maps and surveys of local trees.
They collected and pressed leaves for art projects, practiced speaking Spanish by talking about the colors of the leaves, and wrote creatively by telling stories from the trees’ perspectives.
After spending months learning about local trees, students took on the task of watering some of the school and nearby community garden fruit trees. According to the students, the young fruit trees need five gallons of water per week, one gallon per day, or, if you have a partner, they explain that you each pour half a gallon.
Since John Dewey, educators have made the case that learning that takes place in school is meaningless unless it connects to other parts of students’ lives.
Given the alarmingly high number of students who continue to drop out before graduating high school, students are sending a clear message that, indeed, schools are not meaningful to their lives.
It is time to move away from teaching and learning driven by curricula preparing students to succeed on standardized exams but failing when it comes to engaging students’ creativity and curiosity.
It is time to move toward more place-based and project-based learning that builds knowledge by taking advantage of children’s natural curiosity about and love for the world around them.