Ask the students

I’m trying to incorporate more inquiry activities into my fourth and fifth grade science classes. The students seem to enjoy them, and I can tell from talking to them and reviewing their notebook entries that they are learning content and skills. However , my principal has noted to me that students were off-task during his 10-minute walkthroughs.  How should I respond? How can I tell if students are really on-task and engaged in the activities?
–Michael, Orlando, FL

You could ask your principal how he determined in a 10-minute visit that elementary students were off-task! In a busy science classroom, there will be many levels of activity that ebb and flow with the task itself, the time of day, the combinations of students, and other factors. The bottom line is that you have evidence they are learning from the activities. But before you approach him with your evidence, here are a few points to consider.

The writer Alfie Kohn suggests “When students are off task, our first response should be to ask, ‘What’s the task?’” It’s hard for fourth and fifth graders—or students at any other grade level—to sit still through class after class of worksheets, silent reading, death-by-PowerPoint lectures, or copying notes from the board without getting restless (just as it’s hard for their teachers to sit through similar activities at a meeting or workshop). Even videos or multimedia can become distracting or lose their ability to engage if students perceive them as time-fillers and don’t know how they relate to the learning goals. I could tell my seventh graders were not engaged when, after a few minutes at an assignment, the requests to use the restroom or get a drink or water began, along with “What time is this class over?” But when I structured the same activities as cooperative learning, provided a choice of activities, or when the activities required more student involvement, questioning, or creativity, the requests seldom appeared. Other positive signs were  ”Is the class over already? Can we continue tomorrow?” comment sat the end of the period.

However, with all due respect to Mr. Kohn, I think the first response to a student that appears to be off-task should be for you or your principal to ask the student “Hmm…What are you doing?” You might find out that what appeared to be an off-task behavior was very much on-task for that student.

I learned this from the experiences my siblings and I had in elementary school (and I can only imagine the phone calls my parents received). For example, during seatwork or a class discussion, I would gaze out of the window or stare into space. I wish teachers would have asked me what I was thinking about instead of telling me to stop daydreaming and pay attention or get back to work. I could have told them I was thinking about what was being said or visualizing the connections between the new information and what I already knew (and yes, once in a while I was lost in space and just needed a gentle reminder to come back to Earth). My brother was a socializer in school. He loved to talk and listen to people. Perhaps he and his friends were talking about unrelated topics, but some of their sidebar conversations may have been relevant to the class topic or consisted of more in-depth discussions. The teachers could have discovered this with a simple question instead of giving detentions or sending them to the office for talking in class. If teachers would have looked at or asked about my sister’s doodles instead of telling her to put her pencil down, they would have seen an artist at work, taking in the information and reformatting it graphically. (By the way, all three of us applied our dreaming, talking, and drawing to successful careers in science, business, teaching, and the arts.)

Your principal may even find that asking students to explain what is happening or what they’re doing can be helpful in other situations, including discipline referrals, as described in a recent blog.

Photo:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504443770/

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