Different methods engage different students

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From left, seniors Owen Hess and Julia Hart create a circuit board for a lab during physics class. —Ali Barlett

By Willa Vigneault

When it comes to teaching, many techniques in today’s classrooms were also prevalent in classrooms a hundred years ago. According to students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, the traditional form of teaching–lectures, note-taking, reading and writing–is still preferred by many teachers.

According to many education experts, there are a number of major styles of learning including visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary, all of which are based on the strongest parts of an individual’s brain. Unfortunately, the most common forms of instruction cater to only a small portion of students, and those who learn best through less traditional teaching methods often find themselves either struggling to retain the material or becoming easily disengaged.

Principal Sara Dingledy thinks student engagement should be a priority at the high school. She identifies two types of engagement–visible and cognitive. She said, “The problem with evaluating engagement is that students can look engaged and be succeeding academically, but that doesn’t mean they understand the material or that they are cognitively engaged. From an administrative standpoint, it looks like students are engaged because generally they are succeeding. This makes it difficult to create urgency around the subject.”

Assistant principal Elliott Bennett was a Biology teacher for 22 years, 14 of those at the high school, before making the transition to administration. As a teacher, she always made an effort to connect with her students and build relationships with each one, and she continues to connect with them as an administrator. “Engagement is a two-way street. Both the teacher and the student have to communicate and look at the other person as a whole human being. If I was having a bad day, I would tell my students. Similarly, I would read the room before each class and decide whether or not it was a good day to push a specific student,” she said.

History department chair Elaine Weintraub has a similar approach to teaching. She said, “I interact personally with every student in the room and I know their learning style and challenges and triumphs. I vary instructional approaches, assign projects that call on students’ individual interests, and present information in several modalities. I think the personal connection and the differentiation does engage students and empower them.”

As a social studies teacher for eight years in New York City before becoming an administrator, Ms. Dingledy approached classroom engagement a bit differently. “I focused on pushing the work onto the students and challenging them. For me, teaching wasn’t about telling the students what to learn for a test, it was about teaching them how to figure out what to learn.”

Senior Emma Baldino said, “I personally learn best with visuals and project-based materials. It’s really difficult for me to learn from listening to a lecture. They confuse and overwhelm me instead of engaging me and making me think.”

“I definitely do better when we do a lab after taking notes, or when we do a big project,” said freshman Bella Giordano. “I like more hands-on material.”

For some students, however, there is no right or wrong way to learn. Senior Ben Nadelstein said, “For me, it depends on the class and the teacher. For math, it’s easiest when we take notes and then practice the problems. But for history, I like doing projects because you can take a subject like World War II and focus on one topic that interests you.”

A successful approach to a class period seems to be teaching content in many different ways. Ben said, “It’s great when a teacher can come at it from many different angles. Too many teachers only teach from one direction. I think it’s great when the classes are smaller, because then the teacher can really work with each individual student to help them understand the material in the best way for them.”

The 85-minute block provides an opportunity for teachers to break up a class period into different chunks that meet different learning needs. Chemistry teacher Natalie Munn said, “I try to break the period up into different blocks so students aren’t doing the same thing the entire time. We do homework review, then a quiz and some notes, and I always try to finish with an activity, usually a lab, and that way there is something for everyone.”