How to find The Grail: Creating the Path to Student Engagement (Part One)

By Ross Peters, Managing Partner, EXPLO Elevate

We are distractible.

We say this about students all the time. And students have been making a game out of trying to distract teachers for millennia – ”mention his dog/car/horse/chariot/time he met Caesar/time he killed a menacing mastodon, and he’ll talk about it all class!” If we look back into Arthurian legends or Homer’s epics, distractions from central goals make up most of the narrative – without distractions, The Odyssey might be a haiku. We forget why we are where we are, where we are going, and what is important. Schools may be the worst in the realm of forgetting, and as a result, we fall into a sort of school year rhythm Groundhog Day. We don’t necessarily like exactly where we are, but we can’t quite figure out how to break the cycle. This is the first of several posts designed to help us remember how to find the grail we seek – ENGAGEMENT. The answer is in us, and the route to it was in us all the time.

We want kids to have the opportunity to live within and contribute to an extraordinary community of learners, artists, musicians, and athletes. In order to have this chance, students need three things from the school: Place, Connection, and Expectation. The success of a school in creating and maintaining a Progress Culture is rooted in these areas at least as much as it is rooted in the execution of specific innovations in curriculum or program.  In fact, the ability of a school to excel in creating place, connection, and expectation for students exists symbiotically with its ability to execute on strategic innovation.

We can represent this in an equation:

PLACE + CONNECTION + EXPECTATION = ENGAGEMENT (The Grail – the elusive thing of central importance we seek).

  • Place: Students need to feel that the school is theirs, and they should graduate placing a value on stewardship.
  • Connection: Students need connections with peers and with adults that in turn attach them to the school and permit them to see their role in it.
  • Expectation: Often what students need is not what they ask for in the moment. Generally, however, students want to be in a school environment where there are expectations for their character, for their behavior, and for their achievement. When we hold students to high expectations, we demonstrate our faith that they can meet and even exceed them. High expectations then are a way of demonstrating our commitment to them.

As I think about these factors working together to best serve students, I am reminded of the importance of building partnerships with students, with faculty, and with families, particularly in a moment in history that is hyper-charged with challenges. In order to create the place, connection, and expectation our kids need, families and school leadership must seek to connect through honest dialogue as well. As a result, school leaders should never shy away from setting up conversations with groups of parents where they engage tough and relevant questions such as:

  • What is easier for kids today than it was for you at the same age?
  • What is harder?
  • What excites you most about the experience your child is having at this moment in their lives?
  • What scares you most as a parent?
  • How should we (faculty, administration, and parents) work together to help kids navigate the difficulty of being in high school in this time?
  • What things do we need to prepare your children for that have not been covered in the traditional academic classes?  How should we do it?

While these questions do not address place, connection, and expectation directly, they do allow for us to have a conversation relevant to what students most need from the adults in their lives. Thus, the questions help adults reflect on the world kids are experiencing and then strive to create the conditions that will produce place, connection, and expectation.

Keep an eye out on our blog for more on engagement. It is the grail – that elusive thing all schools seek.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on finding the path to student engagement. Read part 2: Beware the False Flag of Rigor.