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I admit, I'm no expert in student engagement. Few teachers would claim that they are.
Still, we all recognize the presence and power of engagement. It is a vital, if elusive, part of any effective class. It marks that often-unpredictable moment when students come alive to the subject matter, when everyone scoots forward in their chairs, when something "clicks" and teaching suddenly stops feeling like work.
Student engagement is hard to define, but to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart - on a somewhat different topic - "We know it when we see it."
And, just last term, I saw it. I saw Brown University's Kenneth Miller enthrall a Lakeland College audience with a lecture - yes, a lecture - on evolutionary biology, the legacy of Charles Darwin, and the ongoing confrontation between science and religion.
I saw engagement in the way students stayed glued to their seats, even through Miller's question-and-answer period. I heard it in their immediate reactions, including when one freshman said to another, "I think this is the smartest guy I've ever seen." I even felt it in the energy of the room, as well as the emails I received afterward.
More to the point, Ken Miller's presentation demonstrated that, yes, I did know a bit about student engagement and how teachers can foster it. I left that evening not only excited about biology and evolution, but also about education itself - and about two or three techniques that I could take back to my own classroom.
Students rarely ask for hard work, but that doesn't mean they don't want to work hard. Indeed, true engagement only comes from a feeling of accomplishment, and accomplishment requires challenge - that sense of having to reach for something.
Ken Miller made his listeners reach. I'd even say he made them stretch. He presented his tales of evolution and creationism clearly and engagingly. But he never spoke down to his audience. Miller was confident that, through an engaging larger story, he could lead students to and through challenging scientific evidence and weighty philosophical terms.
Telomeres and Tiktaalic, bacterial flagella and blood-clotting mechanisms: such examples could have been replaced with easier, less threatening fare. By retaining them, however, Miller not only supported his case with memorable examples, he implicitly told students that this stuff matters - and that he knew they could, given the right tools, rise to the challenge of the material.
The most engaging classes at Lakeland follow Miller's example. Sometimes these challenges take the form of demanding service-learning projects, conceptualized and implemented by students. At other times, one sees such engagement in student-led science projects that push biology majors to new levels of professionalism.
But just as often, Lakeland students rise to everyday challenges, whether it's in a world literature class confronting Homer's Iliad, a CORE I section puzzling through the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, or an intro-level religion course grappling with feminist theology. By aiming high, these teachers take a chance on student success - and, through increased engagement, that gamble pays off.
Ken Miller used a variety of techniques to keep his listeners' attention: from jokes and stories to eye-catching visuals. But most of all, Miller put his commitment and passion on display. He did not simply tell us that this was an exciting and energizing topic; he came to Lakeland, in part, to show us his excitement. His slides, ad-libs, and delivery were merely his way of acting out - and acting up - that passion.
Everyone in that room could see that this was a man who cared about his subject. He cared enough to fight for the theory of evolution in a Pennsylvania courtroom. And he cared enough to perform that deeply held commitment - cared enough to get his listeners to care too, regardless of whether they agreed with him. Teaching, he reminded us, is about more than one's subject. It's also about one's emotional and intellectual attachment to that subject, as well as the infectious nature of those emotions.
Suffice to say, I've seen such engaged and engaging teaching in countless Lakeland classrooms. It's about more than making the class "fun." It's about more than simply being unpredictable, however memorable that can be. It's about being yourself - which, for a teacher, means enacting your own emotional engagement.
Like most teachers, I tend to focus on my own instructional shortcomings. I feel that many of my English classes fall a bit short. But I think there is one thing I do consistently well: I show my students, every day, what a person acts like when he loves to talk about literature. And that - as far as student engagement is concerned - is a good first step.
The hardest question for any teacher to answer is, "So what?" But in a sense, that is the only question that matters. "So what" reminds us that intellectual challenge and personal passion are not enough. For true engagement to occur, teachers must reach out to the concerns of their students and, thus, to the world at large.
Ken Miller's talk did this in spades. He did not merely present well-packaged information; he presented that information as the solution to a problem - a problem about life and politics, the teaching of evolution, and even people's understanding of God and science. Moreover, he spent time convincing us these were problems that we, his audience, should want solved.
Answering the "so what" question is one way that teachers reach out and connect their ideas to the world, but there are other, more concrete ways of achieving this end. The Miller talk, for example, was not just attended by students and faculty, but also by the community at large. This was not simply another class and not simply another Lakeland event; it was a common intellectual pursuit, attended by people engaged in a shared problem.
I admire the Lakeland professors who have mastered the technique of "reaching out" - of engaging classrooms and communities through common inquiry. This form of student engagement is at the core of the Lakeland's curriculum-wide "Student As Practitioner" commitment, which is dedicated to learning through doing, turning the world into a source of learning experiences.
But beyond internships and off-campus activities, "reaching out" happens whenever teachers encourage their students to care about problems they never knew they had. The life of the mind starts, for scholars, with some small intellectual itch that just begs to be scratched. The life of teaching - and the vitality of student engagement - begins when you can make your students feel that itch too.
I wish I could say that Ken Miller's lecture and these three small reminders - Aim High, Act Up, Reach Out - solved the problem of student engagement. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Because, truth be told, there is no formula for engagement. And even Miller's talk left some of my students unaffected. (One even said to me, "I slept through most of it, but disagreed with all of it.") Sometimes it happens, and sometimes - despite your best efforts - it doesn't.
But perhaps this is evidence of one final truth of student engagement. It is not created by and, ultimately, not controlled by teachers. Engagement takes place where learning takes place: inside the minds of students. And no amount of "reaching out" can ever reach quite that far.
Students do the real engaging. Teachers can only provide the opportunities for such engagement. By framing challenges worth accepting, showing excitement worth sharing, and posing problems worth solving, even the best teachers begin a process that only students can finish.
This is, in the end, what makes student engagement such a mystery. One moment it's not there, and then - amazingly - it is. It happens in college courses, in campus auditoriums, and in the countless classrooms of real world.
But it does happen. And when you see it, you know.