I love the word “serendipity.” I also love when I actually experience the feeling of serendipity. It shows up unexpectedly in moments when I feel a surprising connection or happy coincidence between two seemingly separate things. It makes me believe in the power of the universe and often leaves me questioning whether these occurrences are more than a fluke. I especially love when serendipity shows up in my teaching, learning, and literacy life.
A book I’ve been reading the past couple of months has filled me with more serendipitous moments than any other I can recall. Starting with the beautiful blue cover and its title Engaging Children, all the way to the last page of Appendix G; “Essential Conditions for Engagement,” I have felt an overwhelming sense of awe because it seems as if this book was written especially for me! More than any of my other professional books about teaching (and trust me, I have an extensive collection), this treasure of a book by Ellin Oliver Keene, feels like a culmination of my teaching career as well as a perfect reflection of my educational philosophy, my most passionate hopes and dreams for kids.
The first chapter entitled “Let Me Entertain You!” immediately grabbed my attention with the first sentence: “A pie in the face: What does it take to motivate?” Just days earlier, we had kicked off an exciting Readathon fundraiser at my school and one of the challenges for kids was to meet a certain dollar amount to win a chance to toss a pie at our beloved principal. Keene opens her latest book with a replay of a conversation she shared with educators about external and internal motivation as it relates to kids’ reading. She calls on her readers to rethink motivation. She ponders whether our attempts to motivate students, though well-intended, are actually failing kids. She also shares research from Marinak and Gambrell about the pitfalls of extrinsic rewards (sometimes handed out in the form of points, pizzas, or pies in the face) and how these incentives have actually been shown to decrease motivation for some kids. From there, Keene offers various definitions of motivation and explains important distinctions between four profiles that impact learning; compliance, participation, motivation and engagement.
At this point in my reading (still on Chapter One!), I was so excited about what this book was offering that I couldn’t keep it to myself. I started texting my teaching “soul-sister” Kris. I sent her screen shots of several pages of the e‑book, marveling at all of the coincidences I was encountering. In addition to the pie story, there was a reference to motivation being described as attaining a “flow”; in other words, finding oneself so immersed in a book or activity that all sense of time and place is lost. The term “flow” also happens to be the title of the monthly newsletter our district superintendent sends to staff. Then Keene brought up reading logs, a very relevant topic given the recent conversations Kris and I had shared about our mixed feelings and questions about using them effectively. Yet another connection popped up when Keene reminisced about being a third grader who loved maps… my buddy Kris has often proclaimed her own love of maps and we both teach third grade! Serendipity surrounded me as I read on and finally stopped texting Kris so she could enjoy her Friday evening.
It wasn’t just that this book resonated with me because it continually referred to topics and ideas that were familiar and relevant. It was so much more. You see, throughout my teaching career, I have always maintained that promoting an excitement for learning was the ticket. All this time I believed that motivating kids was one of the most important approaches to teaching I could embrace. And now, here was a new take on motivation. Rather than just hope kids would catch the motivation bug, I could actually teach engagement using strategies that help kids recognize when they become disengaged so that they can reengage.
So that’s exactly what I decided to do when we returned to room 212 the following Monday. I started by introducing my students to the four profiles: compliance, participation, motivation and engagement. Next, I accepted Keene’s challenge to share with my students some of my most memorable and engaged learning experiences. Since that first attempt to put Engaging Children into practice, we continue to talk about the importance of all four profiles and how to distinguish the differences between them. I strive to weave engagement into our discussions on a daily basis. Kids are encouraged to share their own stories of engagement, to offer examples of how they know they are experiencing engagement. I’ve already noticed a difference in how my students take ownership of their learning and this is just the beginning!
Keene has put together an extensive and powerful collection of practical ideas and useful tools from which all educators and students can benefit. I am convinced that Engaging Children has the potential to transform the learning taking place in our classrooms. The appendix is full of checklists, rubrics, record-keeping forms, engagement reflection guides for book clubs, and so much more. Please don’t just take my word for it, though. Better yet, check it out for yourself. Get your hands on this book and see if you discover a bit of serendipity for yourself!
In closing, I offer a few quotes from the book and the uncanny connections they have to past articles I’ve written for Teach It Forward. This my friends, is serendipity at its finest!
“In a large group lesson, a crafting session, for example … I ask students to pay attention to what they think, feel, believe and are compelled to act upon.” (pg. 84) “Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors, and Maps”
“Engagement is often born of an emotional resonance for ideas – engaged children can describe experiences when a concept is imprinted in the heart as well as the mind.” (pg. 115) “It’s All About the Heart”
“Children will develop a sense of agency and independence — and engage in learning — if given time and proper scaffolding.” (pg. 71) “The Beauty of Imperfection”