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Engage Your Learners the National Park Way

Consider for a moment the following question; what is the most important element of a successful classroom? Is it rigor? Strong norms and routines? Is it strong teacher/learner relationships? There are many possible answers but for me, if I had to choose one, I would probably choose student engagement, and there is a fair body of evidence to support this choice.

Studies have shown that effective engagement strategies that keep learners involved in the learning process increase focus, motivation, and support higher-level critical thinking. It is the result of best practices such as strong, supportive relationships, helps students to excel academically, persist through academic struggles, and perform better on standardized assessments. And what’s more, this is true of all ages K-12, making it one of the few strategies that holds up regardless of age.

It makes sense when you think about it; if students aren’t paying attention or actively involved, then you might as well be teaching in an empty room. As educator Pedro Norguera said, “Achievement is the outcome. The means to get there is through student engagement.”

In looking for new and effective means of engaging students in learning, looking to National Park educators makes a lot of sense because in parks, engagement is everything. A big difference between classroom and parks is that unlike a classroom, learning opportunities in parks are not compulsory. Nobody is tracking truancy, giving out grades, or calling with makeup work if guests don’t participate, so effective engagement is the foundation for all park-based learning. It is an interesting situation to reflect on as a teacher - if your students didn’t have to show up for your class, would they? What would you do differently to make sure they did? Rangers ask themselves this question frequently and have refined their engagement strategies accordingly.

Here are 4 ways that rangers engage learners in educational experiences;

Pop-Ups: Temporary spots in high-traffic areas where visitors frequent or next to “teachable moments” that rangers use to entice guests to become learners. For example, in Redwood Nat’l Park, when a huge 300+ year old tree toppled, rangers set up a pop-up next to it to use it as an opportunity to engage the public in learning about the role fallen trees play in the forest ecosystem.

In The Classroom: Utilize what is going on “in the now” with your students and integrate those things into your lesson. Is there a popular movie, song, or TV show that you can use as a bridge into a lesson? Is there a current event that connects to the science/history topic you are discussing? Connecting learning to current happenings is a responsive and effective engagement strategy.

Feeder Programs: Short, succinct, engaging programs, no more than 10 minutes in length, which help to provide a foundation for further learning or connect guests with more in-depth opportunities while avoiding the drop-off that affects longer programs as learners lose interest and move back into the role of visitor. At Alcatraz Island in the Golden Gate Nat’l Recreation Area when guests arrive on the island they begin with a short orientation program that shares just one part of the island's history. This serves to “prime” visitors for more learning and gets them curious about what other stories they might uncover.

In The Classroom: Provide short opportunities for students to score some “quick learning wins” as a way to get them engaged early on. Use protocols or thinking routines that help them quickly see that while there are things they might not know about a subject, they already do know some things. Have them reflect at the end of the day on one or two things they learned. “Bookend” your lesson by starting the day with a focus question they respond to with a quick write, then end the day with the same question in an exit ticket so students can see their growth in real-time, not just when they take tests or receive grades.

Grabbers: Flyers, installations, or tactile objects are used to grab visitor attention and provoke curiosity. The idea is whatever they employ “grabs” someone's attention and turns them from a guest to a learner. San Francisco Maritime Nat’l Historic Site interpreters display objects like sextants and when people come over inquire, “what is that?” Or “oh, how do you use that?” it provides an opportunity for rangers to begin their interpretive programs.

In The Classroom: What can you do to be provocative and gets students interested in learning a little more? Something as simple as asking questions and getting them to brainstorm responses might work. Showing a shocking/remarkable image or a short video of a historic figure or phenomenon might be a grabber. The key is creating a need to know. Looking at the image of the 101st Airborne in front of Little Rock Central High School for example makes students wonder, “Why did the army show up at that school?” and set them on a path to uncover the story of the Little Rock Nine.

Invitations or Space Placement: Rangers think strategically about where they set themselves up to take full advantage of assets that might lead visitors to a learning opportunity. Visitors who just spent hours hiking might attend a program for no other reason than there is a chair and AC. Folks who are walking along a path in the Mississippi River Nat’l Recreation Area may want to stop by St. Anthony Falls so they can listen to the roar of the water, and when they see the ranger they might then go over and ask a question that leads to a learning opportunity.

In The Classroom: Does all the learning that goes on in your classroom only happen according to the student schedule? Why? Invite your students in for lunch with a teacher, or to watch a scene from a movie that you didn’t have time in class to watch but you know would engage students. Bring in snacks and invite your students to come, but make sure they eat it there (say you want feedback on your baking) then engage them about the day’s lessons or the night's homework.


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