Engaging Learners - Steve Barkley

Engaging Learners

I recently took part in the Bridges Conference in Cape May, New Jersey and attended a session titled Tune in and Turn It Up!  Engaging Students in the Classroom conducted by Sunny Weiland (sunnyweiland@kings.edu) and Chris Juhasz (cjuhasz@pls3rdlearning.com). Sunny and Chris, modelling engagement in the session, shared 20 different strategies to actively involve students and encourage collaboration.

The first strategies they shared dealt with building relationships among teachers and students.

Example: Unforgettable Neighbor (Ed Nuhfer, University of Colorado at Denver)

Have students meet a ‘neighbor’ and introduce themselves. The assignment is for the neighbor to introduce their companion “with a trait no one can forget.” Obviously, the partners have to be helpful with a trait or mnemonic aid. Pick randomly from around the room for introductions. After a third person is introduced, point at those introduced and the class has to name the individual. Continue with the introductions and cumulative reviews. The repetition in reviews really helps.

In The Education Revolution: How to apply Brain Science to Improve Instruction and School Climate, Horacio Sanchez shares that: “Effective instruction employs practices that reduce a student’s production of chemicals that  inhibit the brains ability to function at its best. Teachers can learn to utilize techniques that help students relax before they are challenged.” He also identifies the importance of the teacher being seen as caring and passionate. (pages 9-10)

Several of the strategies in the workshop stressed the value of students collaborating for learning and using random structures for forming the various size learning groups. (Chris and Sunny will share all the strategies with you here.)   A blog written by Laura Wheeler introduced me to the research of Peter Liljedahl on visibly random groups. Wheeler shares that she makes random groups every day so that students work with different partners each day. Students work with all their classmates, getting a chance to hear different viewpoints and strategies each day. Whether using smartphone apps, websites, or playing cards students see that the groups are random…not teacher decided.

Liljedahl found this concerning the use of visibly random groups…

In the workshop my visibly random group took part in a Learning Carousel. Large poster sheets on the walls around the room had single engagement strategies explained. My group selected a strategy that interested us and discussed how we would implement it in our classrooms. We left a drawing and comments on the chart as we moved to another chart where we added our thoughts to those left by a previous group.

Wheeler’s blog introduced me to the term vertical non-permanent surface’ for students’ work area. Identified again in the research of Lijedahl:

“In general, almost all of the teachers who were introduced to the notion of vertical non-permanent surfaces were determined to try it within their teaching and were committed to keep doing it, even after 6 weeks. This is a significant uptake rarely seen in the literature. This is likely due, in part, to the ease with which it is modelled in the various professional development settings. During these sessions, not only are the methods involved easily demonstrated but the teachers immediately feel the impact on themselves as learners when they are put into a group to work on a vertical non-permanent surface.”

Wheeler uses the following rules in her classroom for groups working at the boards:

  • One person has the chalk at a time.
  • The person with the chalk can only write down what their partners tell them to (if they want to explain the next step, they hand the chalk to a different partner).
  • The teacher can say “switch the chalk” at any point & a new partner needs to become the writer.
  • I also tell them that if one person does the solving & writing without partner input, I’ll erase their work.
  • No sitting down.
  • No working things out on paper before using the board.

Weiland’s and Juhasz’s strategies, Wheeler’s blog, and Liljedahl’s research provide resources for teachers’ instructional planning, coaches’ and principals’ facilitation planning and coaching ideas to share with teachers.

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2 Responses to “ Engaging Learners ”

  1. Laura Says:

    Thanks for the shout out Steve!

  2. Sunny Weiland Says:


    First, so excellent to meet you, collaborate with you and learn together! #learningissocial

    The shout out on your blog is amazing! You rock!
    Engagement is key!

    Sending my best,

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