Campus News

Ice Fishing and Engagement, Some Lessons from Classrooms.

Story posted January 29, 2001

If Nancy Jennings can gain insight into academic engagement by recalling her own experiences as a member of a carpool, it\0x92s not so strange to suggest Bowdoin students and professors could learn something about the subject from second and third graders.

At the first Common Hour of the new semester, Assistant Professor of Education Jennings talked about "Ice Fishing and Engagement, Some Lesson from Classrooms."

Jennings taught "real school" for 15 years before coming to Bowdoin, and carpooled to work with two "classic Minnesotans": Steve, the outdoorsman who hunted and fished, and Tom, the Minneapolis man who had converted to Buddhism and held season tickets to the Guthrie.

One day they were discussing their plans for the school break. Steve was going snowshoeing and ice fishing, and Tom would be attending a Buddhist retreat. When Steve asked Tom to explain what he\0x92d be doing, Tom said he would stare at the white walls and clear his mind of everything.

Steve replied, "It sounds like ice fishing."

Years later, Jennings was trying to determine what created academic engagement in classrooms, and she thought of those hours in the car with Tom and Steve. She decided that she had, in that carpool, an academically engaged community: they conversed constantly about ideas and experiences, and they learned a great deal from each other during the years they shared their drive to and from work.

But what made a carpool an engaged community, when so many classrooms are not?

She and Tom and Steve had time; they had uninterrupted time in which to discuss ideas, some of the time even came at the end of the day, when their heads were full of ideas from the classroom. Their car rides gave them an intellectual outlet.

They also had acceptance and respect. "We thought one other were pretty good, pretty smart," Jennings said. They trusted one another enough to be able to expose their ideas without feeling stupid.

Elementary school classrooms in which she found academic engagement shared these traits, Jennings said, and Bowdoin students and professors could learn some lessons from these seven-year-olds and their teachers.

To demonstrate engagement (and provide plenty to smile at) Jennings showed three video clips from second and third grade classrooms.

The first clip showed a teacher listening to student read a story he\0x92d written. The story began as a tale of three sheep but soon morphed into the familiar story of the three little pigs. After listening, the teacher discussed the similarities with the boy, and told him it was okay to have changed his story to one that was familiar to him. "Authors do that all the time, she said, they just change the names."

Once laughter in the audience died down, Jennings said, "This shows a teacher taking a student\0x92s work as an authentic effort."

Teachers gifted at creating an environment in which students take an active part in learning, look at the work of the classroom as real work, with a sense of importance, not just the completion of a task, Jennings said.

The Common Hour audience also watched a second-grader reading a story to a group of her classmates, then leading a discussion about the story. Though the girl stumbled through the reading, mispronouncing several words, she took charge of the situation. Engaged students are willing to take up the reigns of learning and to distinguish themselves, Jennings said. The student also demonstrated that she was in a classroom where she didn\0x92t think she had to know everything before saying anything.

Jennings\0x92s third tape showed a classroom in which the students were comfortable voicing their opinions, to the point of taking over a class discussion and challenging each other.

When the teacher asked the class if they had any comments about a meeting they\0x92d had, one boy announced that he had no questions, but wished to discuss the number six. He asserted that six could be both odd and even, and a lively discussion, including many members of the class, ensued. In the face of all challengers, he persisted. The Common Hour audience erupted in applause when one girl finally asked the teacher\0x92s permission to approach the chalkboard and demonstrate the error of his thinking.

Some of the features of these classrooms exist at Bowdoin, Jennings said, but she urged students embrace conflict for what it can teach, to be brave enough to assert authority over their ideas, and to have a "shared sense of stewardship for an academically engaged culture."

"One of the things that stops short academic engagement is fear," Jennings said, "Nothing stops engagement like the feeling that you don\0x92t measure up." Students and professors need to work together at Bowdoin to create a space where risk taking is acceptable, recognizing that everyone in the Bowdoin community is one of the "honorable society of ancient scholars."

Common Hour is each Friday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

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