Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement

Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement
By Heather Wolpert-Gawron 
(Corwin, 2018 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Sarah Cooper

Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement is one of those books about teaching that you will want to consult again and again.

Crucially, everything in the book is based on extensive research: academic educational research, interviews with teachers, and, impressively, Wolpert-Gawron’s national survey of more than 1,500 students, grades 6-12.

As the author says in a video link from the introduction (one of dozens such real-world links in the book), “I think there is a lot for a lot of teachers in this book.” That’s an understatement.

You might browse the contents and think that you’ve seen these topics before in other books and articles. You have – but you likely haven’t seen them all in one place, with the richness presented here.

The table of contents reads like a list of best practices put into kid language:

  1. Let Us Work Together
  2. Make Learning More Visual and Utilize Technology
  3. Connect What We Learn to the Real World
  4. Let Us Move Around
  5. Give Us Choices
  6. Show Us You’re Human Too
  7. Help Us Create Something With What We’ve Learned
  8. Teach Us Something in a New Way
  9. Mix Things Up

Such student voices appear not just in the videos but in thought bubbles on many pages of this highly visual book, such as 10th grader Shakira G.’s observation about technology: “I like when teachers use technology in our lesson plans because its something we know how to use and it will make it more understandable… lessons that use [it] have lots of color and visuals.”

Suddenly I was thinking about all my lessons that don’t use visuals and imagining how to spruce them up.

My notes in the margins

I often found myself nodding in agreement as I read – or writing “yes!” or “great” in the margin. In any chapter, you’ll find multiple practical ideas for your classroom, combined with quotations from educators and researchers.

For instance, in Chapter 3, “Connect What We Learn to the World,” Wolpert-Gawron suggests that teachers “bring in an outside expert,” “involve an authentic audience to help assess student achievement,” “base learning on questions related to life outside of school,” and “desegregate the content areas.” Each of these subtopics features a variety of specific ways to implement the strategy, including “reach out to museums and local laboratories” and find “business leaders and politicians from the local community who want to see their newest constituents’ ideas.”

Drawing on her years in the classroom (she’s still teaching) and as a consultant, Wolpert-Gawron ties together these specific suggestions with global observations such as these about project-based learning: It “transfers the teaching from the teacher to the student” and “enfolds the learners in lessons on empathy and advocacy.”

Wolpert-Gawron also believes that teacher engagement is symbiotic with student engagement, that it’s “cyclical… And much like your phone gets a new boost of energy after you slap on a spare charger, so do you get a new surge of engagement for each day the students are engaged.” It reminded me of Donald Graves’ excellent The Energy to Teach, which emphasized the need for teachers to avoid burnout by tapping into the energy our students have in the classroom.

Even grading can be more fun when students buy in: “Think about the tests or assignments you don’t mind spending time reviewing over your own coffee table at home. Which ones do you prefer? I would argue that if you are engaged reading them, the students were probably engaged developing them.” This point made me want to make every major assessment one that gives enough choice and running room, one in which students show their authentic selves in the final product.

In fact, reading this book has already inspired me to update two research projects I’ve done for years in eighth-grade U.S. history, one by adding a visual component and the other by including more collaborative work.

There’s a lot more I’d like to do with Just Ask Us, which ultimately feels more like a comprehensive professional development workshop than simply a book.

In the process, I’ll avoid feeling overwhelmed by heeding Wolpert-Gawron’s advice from her introductory video about how to dig in:

“I think your goal is to start thinking about these strategies and start figuring out what works for you and your students because I think, if you’re hitting even a fraction of these, you’re really focusing on engagement. And your kids will thank you for it.”

For sure. Read Just Ask Us – your students will thank you for that too.

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California. She lives just outside Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and a new book Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current
Events in the History Classroom
(Routledge/MiddleWeb, 2017). She writes posts for the Future of History blog and reviews books for MiddleWeb.

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