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Ben Slavic

On Student Engagement

Some kids engage at the right amount. Some too much. What about the kids who withdraw? It is my position that, generally, kids who withdraw from interacting in a CI class have good reasons to do so.

We all know that kids withdraw in traditional textbook classes from pure boredom. But when things are interesting (and they always are in a properly run CI class), then there is reason to look at the withdrawal of the kids in CI classes as more serious.

If we were to videotape hundreds of CI classes vs. hundreds of worksheet classes, we would see much more varied observable non-verbal authentic engagement in the CI classes than in the traditional classes. One thing is certain in CI classes – kids are listening more than they appear to be. At least there is something to listen to….

But what about those who are clearly out of it, which includes not only the kids with their hoodies up in physical classrooms but also all those kids who choose to not participate in online classes by turning off their video functions? What about them?

Those kids have a reason to not participate and they cannot be made to do so. Participation in a language class cannot be forced and it is not our domain to pry into what the reasons for their withdrawal are, which may go back many years as a part of their own inner zeitgeist of just having to be in school.

What about using tests to prod their involvement in class? How’s that working for you?

What about using the Class Communication rubric described here over the past 15 years? Has it worked for you? Or has it merely given you a needed grade?

I think that there are three main general reasons why kids don’t participate in our online or physical classes:

  1. Their home lives have taught them that they cannot trust others and that lack of trust – no big surprise here – carries over into any whatever classroom or social setting that they find themselves in. We have seen this for decades in our instruction.
  2. If they are brown or black kids, they have been taught by the system of education in place in American schools that what they think doesn’t matter and so they act that way. This is the gorilla in the room that in my view has never been addressed in schools – the race piece.
  3. The class is boring.

Can we undo the massive amount of damage done by their home lives or by racism to the confidence and successful functioning of kids of color in the school? Of course not. That’s the slow train. Yes, it’s moving faster now with BLM and the events of the past months but it’s still the slow train in terms of bringing real change for those kids in our schools. (That’s one of the reasons I pray so much on this topic.)

The fast train would be the one we can do something about – actually change, actually control – reason #3 above , right? Can we change the way we teach to actually make it more interesting and get the video functions in our online classrooms turned back on?

So here’s the big question – can we, given what we have experienced since March, change the way make our online instruction – AND our physical classroom instruction – more interesting? That’s the challenge before us in our field right now, isn’t it…to learn how to make our language instruction more interesting?

How does that last paragraph sit with you? Are you willing to at least agree with the idea that the way you teach may be a major cause of your students’ lack of participation in especially their online work? Are you willing to address that piece?

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