The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

In the early 80’s when my teaching career began, the term “classroom management” was widely used to describe the multitude of things teachers do to minimize disruptions and maximize learning.  I learned to increase my effectiveness through trial-n-error as almost no time was spent discussing and practicing the variables that mattered.  Courses designed specifically to support student teachers with “management” did not exist; the conversations were about the subjects and the “how” of teaching.


During the early 90’s, as a school psychologist, I was called in when individual students were communicating displeasure about their situation by acting out, physically and/or verbally.  They had “behavior problems” in need of  “fixing”.   Classroom management was the cure.  A rigid behavior system that included appropriate consequences was the focus.  I have been a primary author of thousands of individualized behavior plans, and yet I could see the forest behind the trees.

The forest was problematic.  



To help solve the real problem, I had to set my eyes on a larger concept that included not only the humans in a classroom and school, but also the physical environment itself.  I reject the term classroom management and have adopted a more appropriate, supportive and prescriptive notion

Classroom Culture


The culture of the classroom teaches

Ron Ritchhart, Principle Investigator for the Cultures of Thinking Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes there are 8 cultural forces  that define our classrooms:

  1. Time
  2. Opportunities
  3. Routines and structures
  4. Language
  5. Modeling
  6. Relationships and interactions
  7. Physical environment
  8. Expectations

These cultural forces exist at all times.  The argument is that we should intentionally design the culture with the students so that what we value and believe around teaching and learning is immediately evident.  The culture does,  indeed,  teach.  Some important questions to ask:

  • Who holds the power for decision-making?  Students, teacher or both?
  • Have we anticipated variability in advance, offering options for students to engage with new content, master the concepts and show understanding?
  • Does thinking and learning trump work completion and grades?
  • Are there consistent routines in place to help students think and engage in meaningful conversations?
  • Does the physical environment provide options for seating?  Is there adequate natural light and ventilation?
  • Have we created an inclusive, interdependent tribal community where we learn from one another?
  • Do we take time to thoughtfully solve conflict together, as it arises? Do we help ensure equitable resolution?
  • Do we show that we value understanding by taking the time to adequately explore topics?
  • Do we avoid unhealthy competition, shaming, blaming and other interactions that are defeating?
  • Is there plenty of opportunity for time spent solving real problems?  Do all students experience mastery?
  • Do we have lists of teacher-generated rules or have students identified norms for how we will be together?


Students in thriving, engaging  classroom communities do not need to be managed. 



A Model for Student Engagement


Authentic smiles from engaged students

A tremendous amount of research has concluded that student engagement is one of the key contributors to academic (and life) success.

We also know that engagement is influenced by context.  Learners are more likely to engage if their learning environment is supportive, compassionate, attentive and responsive. Just as students need support to be engaged, classroom teachers may require support to be successful in the challenging work of cultivating and maintaining a high level of student engagement throughout the year and across years.


We asked students and staff all over our county what student engagement mean to them.   Students from Huron Valley, MI created a song to accompany the varied pictorial responses in a video you can view here. 


According to the Glossary of Education Reform ,

In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of student engagement is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise ‘disengaged.’ Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.”

Model For Engagement


Members of the Culture/Climate Unit at Oakland Schools, including Karen Gomez, Dr. Jay B. Marks, Dr. Julie McDaniel and myself, created the model above to depict important features of student engagement.  Work out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Archambault, et al (2009) facilitated our thinking.  Students (and staff) experience varying degrees of affective, behavioral and cognitive involvement.

  • Affective engagement:  the experience, feelings, attitudes, and perceptions a student has towards school, including their sense of belonging, interest, willingness to learn, and general sense of liking school.
  • Behavioral engagement: a student’s willingness  to follow rules and adhere to cultural norms and  involvement in the classroom and with extracurricular activities.
  • Cognitive engagement: cognitive functions involved in learning

Four other major contextual features were identified.  These either inhibit or support engagement for students and staff.  We must intentionally attend to these features,

  1. Culture Is the environment inclusive and learner-friendly?  Are cultural forces intentionally designed to support belonging, thinking and learning? Are there predictable routines that remove roadblocks and facilitate smooth transitions?  Does the physical environment provide access to resources; create an inviting backdrop for deep learning? Is the culture collaborative, void of unhealthy competition?
  2. Student Voice Are students stakeholders, articulating their perspectives and directing activities? Do they have a collaborative role, leading change and contributing to data sources?  Do adults share authority, demonstrate trust, protect against cooptation, learn from students and facilitate equitable conflict resolution?
  3. Relationships  Are adults and students able to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups?  Can they communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed?  Are interactions authentic and respectful?
  4. Social Emotional Learning  Can adults and students recognize and interpret emotions, understanding their causes and consequences? Do they have the ability to label and discuss emotions? Do they know when and how to express particular emotions?  Can they effectively regulate emotions when they are triggered, managing stress, maintaining impulses and staying motivated?

When the context is healthy, authentic, supportive, encouraging, compassionate,  attentive (and responsive) adults and students are more likely to be engaged and stay engaged.

You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
                                  – Abraham Lincoln

Archambault, I., Janosz, M., Morizot, J., & Pagani, L. (2009). Adolescent behavioral, affective, and cognitive      engagement in school: Relationship to dropout. Journal of School Health, 79(9), 408-415; 415.

Next up:  The Engaged Classroom:  Current State

What Is Your Special Purpose


Like Navin R. Johnson, in The Jerk:   everyone has a special purpose.  Knowing and monitoring the “why” of your work will increase the chances that you hit your target.  If you stand for something, you are less likely to “fall for anything”.  How you spend your time matters (as Navin will attest).

I had the pleasure of reading Annie Murphy Paul’s blog last week.  This particular entry was essentially about knowing your purpose.  AMP  uses the concept of “templates” to harness this:   there are  commonly occurring patterns in your work.  You need to find them; use them to  define your purpose.

‘Think for a moment about what “pattern recognition” means in your own job. For me, it means being able to recognize an interesting insight hidden within often-dense academic papers, and being able to fit that insight into the structure of things I know about learning, as well as into the structure of a blog post or a magazine article.

When I worked at Psychology Today magazine many years ago, and had to churn out dozens of news items for every issue, I actually made a list of common story-telling structures: “So you thought X was the case? Well, new research shows that actually Y is true.” “New research shows that that old bit of wisdom, X, is more true than we realized.” “Here’s something you’ve never considered: X.”

This long digression brings me back to the question I posed above: What are some “templates” or commonly occurring patterns in your own work, and how can you more precisely define and refine them? I’

And so, during knitting and morning walks with my Pug, I tried to articulate this:   What ARE my templates ?

Recurring themes in my work:

  1. Become a better coach:  Teachers and principals are overtaxed , undervalued and treading water.  How can I  be more effective in helping them deal with their most pressing issues around student engagement/school culture?  
  2. Become a better teacher:  Old school professional learning no longer works.  How can I meet the needs of the learners who count on me to support their unique needs around  thinking and learning ?  All professional learning must embrace  adult learning in the age of technology; it must meet them where they are and help them to the next place.
  3. Become a better peer:  Working collaboratively means we need to understand one another; support strengths and weaknesses; celebrate the diversity therein.
  4. Focus on what matters: I must go back to the goals of my work; identify what matters and  let the rest fade into the abyss. Less is more.


  • Kids want to be engaged; teachers want to engage.  Coaching and teaching must be innovative and reflective of the unique needs of the learners.
  • The world needs all kinds of people to “tick”.  Take time to understand people who speak a different ” language” .
  • Locate what is “core” work.  Be sure THAT never takes a back seat to other things.

My purpose:  Coaching, teaching, collaborating around student engagement and school culture/climate.  I will explore my  templates around each of these areas.  Next up:  Articulating my templates around coaching.  

Staying Engaged

engageI had a lively conversation with some great educators on Twitter recently.  It started with an article

Technology:  Myth of MultiTasking.  Not surprising, there were educators who despise “multi-tasking” and those who embrace it without much thought.  I suspect their biases fuel each one of them.  Multi-tasking while driving cannot be compared to multi-tasking while learning.

An interesting book was  recommended to me by  @royanlee on Twitter:  Now You See It:  How Technology Will Transform Schools and Business in the 21st Century.  This book was said to give a nuanced look at multi-tasking/ task-switching.  I intend to buy the book soon.

My own bias about multi-tasking is felt quite strongly.  Still there is a time and a place for everything.

If we asked a group of educators today what student engagement looked like, I am certain the responses would be much different from what they would have been just two decades ago.  The phrase probably wasn’t used much, until recently.  Expectations have also changed.  Goals have changed.

Times are a changing.

If we are focused on the learner, we too will change.  I see no other options.  They want to be engaged. This means something different now than it did in the past.

What does it mean to you?

Thinking Visibly with Building Effective Relationships

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My partner and I facilitated the thinking and learning of nearly 50 teachers at Building Effective Relationships with Students.  This is a favorite session of mine because of the topic:  student engagement.  The challenge for us was to inject some new learning about facilitation into the lesson plan for adult learners.  Having just been to several sessions of Harvard’s Project Zero and Cultures of Thinking, we had some new tools in our belt.  Specifically, we would be using some of their thinking routines.   Our goal:  deeper learning; more engagement; richer assessment.  We were hopeful that the day would be valuable for everyone and that they would walk away with a slightly different mental paradigm regarding students who are reluctant to bond with everything “school”.

The morning conversations hovered around motivation, engagement and relationships.  The afternoon was spent unpacking Robyn Jackson’s book How to Motivate  Reluctant Learners.  They left with plenty of tools to use on Monday.

The Thinking/Learning

We created the lesson plan with outcomes in mind.  The main goal was that teachers would move to a more internal locus of control around student engagement.  While many factors lie outside of us, there is plenty we can do to increase the likelihood of students engaging in their learning, their school and their classes.   The routines we used from Making Thinking Visible were from the Understanding thread.To assess progress toward that goal, we decided to do the 3-2-1 Bridge Routine.  The outcomes of this activity would reveal both pre and post thinking so that we could see if there was a shift in how they viewed students who failed to engage.  The results from the bridge portion of this activity were awesome!

We used several other routines to assist at different parts of the day:  the headlinecolor, symbol, image; and chalk talk.  These routines can be used with any age group and any content area!  There are also routines around creativity, truth, and fairness.

The Engagement

What struck me most was how engaged the learners were throughout the day.  We created many opportunities for people to digest and synthesize concepts through thinking ,  discussion and application.    The beauty here was that the learning was collaborative in nature.  People thought carefully about what they already knew and felt, synthesized new concepts,  then shared with one another.  Discussion happened often.  People incorporated the thinking of other’s into their own learning.  There was reading, drawing, movement.

Additionally, we were able to weave texting polls and back channeling with  When relevant, we lead them to websites, blogs, and other resources (twitter, Additionally, five people joined twitter and three now are curating their own!

We are using Edmodo for implementation support.    Our space there is loaded with resources and will be updated regularly.  Fifteen participants have joined.  The handouts were not given to participants but are on Edmodo electronically.  We hope more people will join.

Preparing for this event was exhausting because the routines were newly learned.  But I am quite certain the outcome for most everyone was what we had hoped.  I can’t wait to try more routines soon.  Hoping the days of “sit and get” professional learning will be over for everyone, including the facilitator!

Engagement Made Visible

What surprised me most was the level of engagement with the teacher, the learning and with their  peers.  This was a bonded tribe.

Today I was fortunate to observe a class of seniors at Clarkston High while they worked on an assignment in their IB Theory of Knowledge course.  The teacher was a master (and a funny one, too, which was a delightful bonus).  During the entire session, all kids were engaged in thinking, learning and collaborating.  The discussions  were collaborative.  They pushed the thinking of their peers.  They developed consensus.  They were truly thinking deeply and completely engaged.  They laughed and wrote.  Wrote and talked.  This was real collaborative learning.  

The observation  was part of the classroom walk through( pre-conference) for  Project Zero Michigan’s professional learning  in Clarkston.  People attending had come from  Singapore, Brazil and many  US states.  All were here to learn how to make thinking visible for their students.  

The purpose and goals of Visible Thinking:

“Visible Thinking is a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters. An extensive and adaptable collection of practices, Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them”.  

As Donna Roman states in her blog entry  Making Thinking Visible:  “This is an incredible way to use fairly simple classroom teaching routines to help us become better teachers and to promote deeper thinking, and creative, independent, problem-solving in our K-12 students.”

A significant story emerged during the adult reflection period after observations.    One biology teacher, who was among the last to buy-in to Cultures of Thinking at the high school,  told how the first routine she tried allowed her to understand one of her learning disabled students better.  The student typically scored low on all tests in the past.  One of the “routines” used in Cultures of Thinking allowed students to set the stage for deeper inquiry by essentially helping them formulate questions about new concepts.  The teacher was astounded by the deep thinking this routine exposed in her student.  She remarked how her assessment will need to change because current methods fail to paint an accurate picture of her students.   Visible thinking helped her see who this student really was as a learner and thinker.  

I am at the ground level of understanding of Visible Thinking and the Cultures of Thinking, but the vivid picture painted today leaves me hopeful and curious.  I want more time to see this in action with kids.  I want to participate in the county  labs.  I can see application in every class, including  the learning experiences I have with adults.  

Moving from traditional teaching styles to those that are more progressive, student-centered will certainly change the dynamics of engagement.  My learning continues to evolve.  


Starting with Routines  The ways in which students go about the process of learning

Starting With Ideals collection of routines designed to develop appreciation for important ideals

  • Thinking Ideals  Help students gain deeper understanding of content (using the four ideals)

Starting with Documentation  How to  capture, record, and reflect on the thinking students are doing in your classroom.

Study Group Materials Set of protocols—that is, structures for conversation—to keep the group clearly focused

Looking At Opportunities   A tool for assessing Culture of Thinking

Making Thinking Visible (blog entry by @donnaroman


Being True

A wonderful conversation this afternoon kept me thinking about the many false dichotomies we create for ourselves with “either/or” thinking in education:  

  • constructivist vs.  objectivist
  • whole language vs. phonics
  • direct Instruction vs. reader’s workshop
  • Reading Recovery vs  ____
  • DIBELS vs _____
  • testing vs____
  • cream and sugar vs black

  The list goes on in education, politics, and life in general.   Why do we create these false dilemmas? Why are we so self-righteous?

I listened to a  wonderful TED Talk last week by Jonathan Haidt called “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives” .  The talk is quite fascinating.  In the end, Haidt challenges listeners to overcome their self-righteousness to embrace the notion that we need both liberals and conservatives to function well as a tribe!  

And so it is………the truth is probably somewhere in between.  Maybe both sides are right and choosing is not necessary.  We need both.  As Clinton said:  “nobody is right all the time and a clock is right twice per day”.  

Which leads me to a truth I am partially stealing from a mentor:  teachers MUST be true to themselves.

As a natural constructivist, I would make a really lousy objectivist teacher.  I don’t need a detailed script to teach.  A framework, yes.  But a script?    I find them too constrictive and suffocating for the minds in the room.  As a learner, I have always needed to muck around in the mess to make sense of it.  When the questions arise (and they will) I appreciate having the tools and  a skilled facilitator  to help me construct my understanding.   As a teacher I prefer to let learners do the same and this isn’t by chance.  I also know that this approach could frustrate a portion of learners.  In my class, they may need different support.

Knowing ourselves; being true to ourselves…..these two things are necessary for good teaching.  After that, though, we must know our learners.  One size does not fit all.  Being who we are means we will likely do a disservice to more than one student in front of us now,  unless we are committed to an objective balance.

  • Maybe differentiating and personalizing  is more about filling the gaps we create  between who WE are and the environment we create  AND specifics about what each  learner needs   
  • Maybe instead of choosing between two ideologies we need to ask:  “Under which circumstances will this option optimize learning for the individual?”  

Being true to ourselves is the first step.  We must then be open to believing  that there will likely be  implications for those learners who “think differently”.  Creating a good match, when there is a gap,  is the ART part of teaching.  It is our work.  

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond
the dividing line we have drawn for it.
Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists,
new insights begin.”
~Herman Hesse