It was just another day in Mallory Beatty’s kindergarten classroom. Well, yes and no. Yes, it was lessons as usual. But Beatty had six observers in her classroom. Their focus was principally on the students’ reaction to the lesson, whether they were engaged or not. And if not, they turned their attention to Beatty: What are you going to do about it?

Beatty’s school, Washington Elementary in the Mount Vernon Community School District, is in its second year of a pilot project called Social-Emotional Engagement - Knowledge and Skills, which is known for its acronym SEE-KS. SEE-KS’ principal focus is on student engagement, with the thinking going that if the students are engaged, they are learning.

View highlights from the Washington Elementary in the Mount Vernon Community School District on visit on Flickr

SEE-KS is not the newest shiny object du jour. It is, in fact, science and evidence based.

“Social neuroscience shows that social connections, engagement and relationships stimulate endorphins that build brain matter and enable students to learn,” said Wendy Trotter, a consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “Teachers are like brain architects: We are not just providing information but we’re building brains. So if we don’t have social engagement, it negatively impacts learning.”

In essence, SEE-KS is a professional learning approach that focuses on classroom observations and then peer-to-peer feedback. The feedback is tightly scripted – again, based on scientific principles – to ensure the maximum and most successful outcomes.

SEE-KS helps teachers measure student engagement by looking at the three “I’s” of engagement: investment, independence, and initiation.

“With investment, we want learners to be hooked in learning,” Trotter said. “What is the students’ motivation? What is it that gets students invested in this activity?”

Independence is where students know what to do and understand what is being taught.

And initiation, Trotter said, is where “the learners are interacting with others with what they know. They share what they know. This enables the students to actively participate. If you are just sitting passively, how engaged are you?”

Jen Townsend, co-author of SEE-KS and an expert in social emotional learning differences, was in Mount Vernon to train staff.

Townsend explained that there are four engagement levels:

  • One: Emerging engaged
  • Two: Partially engaged
  • Three: Mostly engaged
  • Four: Fully engaged

“Throughout the day, students will fluctuate with their engagement,” Townsend said. “It would be impossible to maintain an engagement level of four, but our goal is to have an average engagement level of 2.75.”

Washington Elementary Principal Kate Stanton has seen a documented increase in engagement among students. During the first year, the October 2021 engagement was 2.58. By the following May, it had moved up to 2.8.

“That’s really good,” Stanton said. “The teachers are excited about it.”

Just ask fourth grade teacher Emily Stamp.

“It’s been a great addition to my learning and how I can be the most effective teacher that I can be,” she said. “My takeaway is that in order to engage students, it doesn’t have to be a big production. It involves tweaks, small changes.

“Initially, it was a little overwhelming when we began to learn the science-driven information. Once we went through a cycle, we could see the benefit. One benefit is you collaborate with your peers. This made us sit down, work together to come up with better ideas. We’re also able to observe one another and see great things. I always wonder, ‘How can I take this back and put it in my classroom?’”

Stanton said SEE-KS has created a mindshift among her team.

“Our teachers are understanding that the core opportunity for instruction is when students are highly engaged – with each other, the materials, the teacher,” she said. “In that moment, when students are highly engaged, they don’t want to be anywhere but right there in the classroom.”

Though the pilot ends at the end of this school year, the Department of Education’s Trotter is hoping to extend opportunities to other districts. Moreover, she hopes that the Area Education Agencies can take over training.

“Our hope is that we can coach the AEA folks,” she said. “We would love to bring the AEAs into this initiative.”

Returning to Beatty’s kindergarten class with the six visitors observing, it’s clear that most students sat enraptured with the book she was flipping through. The book focused on what is in the sky – sun, stars, clouds, etc. – and she frequently asked them what else is in the sky. All seemed engaged, with the exception of one girl, who wasn’t actively participating.

Beatty noted that, and switched up her lesson. Now students were asked to stand in a line and ascertain how to end this sentence: “We can see…” For every answer, the students took one step forward. They were engaged – including the one little girl who previously sat quietly. It turns out that she doesn’t speak English yet, and so she couldn’t contribute to the earlier part of the lesson.

“She all of a sudden had that look of ‘I’ve got this,’” Townsend said.

And she did.

Engaging your colleagues to ensure a more engaging classroom

A few hours after Mallory Beatty’s class in which visitors observed the engagement level of students, it was time for peer-to-peer mentorship. The six observers sat around the table with Beatty.

First, they looked at the video taken on the phone of that morning’s session with the kindergartners. And then the briefing started.

As the session started, the initiatives co-author and trainer Jen Townsend voiced instructions.

“Remember we are not liking or disliking things you see,” she said. “Instead, we open sentences with ‘I noticed when,’ ‘I see,’ ‘I heard.’ We focus on what is working, not what is not working.”

The conversation is scripted – ensuring that the science-based inquiries don’t stray and, subsequently, be ineffective. In essence, the session breaks down like this:

  • Watch the video, remarking on things that are working in student engagement.
  • It’s also about discovery. Ask the teacher what her learning goals were for that particular lesson.
  • Then the mentor asks the mentee permission to suggest anything. If she says yes, you offer some tweaks.
  • The mentor then asks the mentee where she wants to go next with this information. “Don’t get stuck on resources,” Townsend advises. “This is where you can dream big, imagine what might be.”
  • After ideas have been thrown about, the mentee picks one – and only one – idea that she is going to pursue.

In the end, Megan Hach, a second grade teacher at the school and Beatty’s peer mentor, asks which “i” – investment, independence or initiation – she wants to pursue. Beatty chose investment.

“We are starting to work on writing sentences,” she said. I have an interesting mix of kids. Like with reading, I would like to start partner writing. I would have the higher academic students help the lower level kids generate some writing.”

How could that be a partnership?  Some brainstorming ensued. It was resolved that students would be paired up and that higher-level students would write the beginning of a sentence, such as “We can see…” while lower-level students fill in the blank. The pairings would be based on strengths and weaknesses of each student.

“They are comfortable talking to each other,” Beatty said. “I want to pay more attention to pairing students up intentionally.”

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