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Learning Invitations - 3 Way To Get and Keep Students Engaged

My father was a big fan of Will Rogers, the vaudeville cowboy who, if you're not familiar with him, could best be described as a comedian/philosopher. One of his most memorable quotes was,“ you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

When we enter a new situation, like a social event or start at a new job, we instinctively try to put our best foot forward so the people we meet form a positive initial evaluation of us, and recent research backs up how important and influential first impressions are in setting us up for success.

It occurred to me that while a lot of emphasis is put on the importance of first impressions for social and professional growth, there is less emphasis on their role in a classroom beyond the all-crucial first day of school (a la Harry K Wong). What I was interested in are the role first impressions might play in daily student engagement, for example, when we launch a new unit of study or multi-week project. If teachers put more emphasis on first impressions students get of instructional sequences like these, would they see better long-term engagement, completion, and effort?

The consensus among the many teachers I posed the question to and my own anecdotal experience indicated a resounding yes, a student’s first impression of a lesson is crucial especially when other sources of motivation are absent. One important observation made by many teachers who don’t have self-contained classes was the role previous experiences have on how students engage in their class, or choose not to. One teacher put it like this, “It’s like some of them they’re waiting for an invitation or something.” This last statement was genius, and here is why.

One of my favorite educators is National Park ranger Sheldon Johnson. Yes, you read that correctly, and if you’re confused read this previous post about why I think every teacher should learn how to teach like a ranger.

Johnson says that in the spaces that are traditionally exclusive or exclusionary, an invitation is not just polite, it is essential. When he said this, he was talking about the lack of diversity in National Parks an the outdoors, which have historically been seen as white spaces and how the NPS has been working to reverse the legacy of exclusion against Black and Brown visitors. You can learn more about this work and Ranger Johnson’s perspectives on it in this short video.

But let us think about this from the perspectives of our students. Have any of them had bad experiences in school previously? Do they all feel that school is a welcoming place they want to be at, or do some of them feel as though they just can’t win? If we’re being honest, there are many students that do not feel a sense of welcome when they walk through the doors of our classroom, and in many cases it’s through no fault of our own. Therefore, we should always try to make sure that above all, they feel a sense of welcome, an invitation into every learning experience they have in our class.

And like America’s favorite social-commenting cowboy reminds us, you only get one shot, so you wanna make sure that the entry events for your projects, or the launches for your instructional units are invitations.

Here are 3 ways to ensure that you are extending invitations to your students;

  1. Make sure that students see themselves from the get-go - an important aspect of invitation is to make sure that you are always reflecting on your knowledge of your students. Not only is this a powerful vehicle for equity in the classroom, it ensures that learning is relevant and responsive to the needs and identities of the learners. Include resources that reflect the diversity of your learners. Pull in popular culture when you can, such as in the form of television, movies, or music that is current. Above all, have students actively reflecting on their own lived experience as soon as you can. If your lesson is going to be on the events leading to the American Revolution for example, ask students to reflect on and share a time in their lives when they felt that disobeying the rules was justified. A universal or open-ended experience like this is referred to as an ORACLE question (Only Right Answers Come from Lived Experiences) and they are a great way to give students a way to relate a subject to their own knowledge regardless of who they are.

  1. Make it fun - Starting off with an engaging, low-stakes activity, like a collaborative game or simulation, is low stakes and helps get participation to 100% early on. You might also begin with a thought-provoking artifact of learning, like a short video or selection of images in a gallery walk. If you were going to introduce the concept of air expanding and contracting (NGSS 5-PS1-1) you might start off with a demonstration like this one, and then ask students to explain why the match went out and the water level suddenly rose. Getting to hear all the wacky theories and explanations could be an entertaining and easy way to get students involved.

  1. Make sure they are successful early on - Whatever initial activity you choose, it should be something designed with every student’s success in mind. If students begin a new unit a hit a metaphorical wall right out of the gate, they might surmise that the level of difficulty is too high for them to succeed and long-term engagement plummets. The previous examples we’ve shared are strong choices not just because they are fun or incorporate knowledge of students, they are also easy wins that build confidence and are important for more rigorous tasks later on. Examples of this might include starting out by including a review of foundational knowledge that they probably learned before. If you’re going to teach them to find the lowest common denominator, start off by asking them to write out fractions you’ve represented visually. If you want them to eventually debate the relevance of the themes in novels like 1984, have them begin by debating which Disney villain is the most evil or what song would be the main theme for their teacher's biopic? These seemingly simple wins for students will lead to more willingness to participate later on.


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