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Harnessing Classroom Engagement for Humane Education

By Liz Walch

Humane education and classroom engagement go hand in hand. First, bringing humane education into the classroom increases student engagement and empowerment. Second, strengthening student engagement during humane education lessons increases the students’ interest, knowledge, creativity, and caring for the topics at hand. Here are three recommendations to increase classroom engagement while practicing humane education.

Creating an Emotionally and Intellectually Safe Classroom

In Tristan de Fondeville’s article “Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement” (http://www.edutopia.org/project-learning-teaching-strategies), he cites creating an emotionally and intellectually safe classroom as the first two steps for increasing student activity and involvement in the classroom. By allowing and encouraging student/teacher and student/student dialogues to be open, questions to be asked, and all viewpoints discussed, a teacher can ensure that students have the safe space to think and learn about humane education topics.

The University of Wisconsin Whitewater’s LEARN Center published steps for creating a safe classroom as part of their curriculum on teaching diversity (http://www.ode.state.or.us/opportunities/grants/nclb/title_iii/11creating-a-safe-and-engaging-classroom-climate.pdf). These suggestions were written for higher education, but many can be applied to primary and secondary classrooms. Tips such as encouraging the development of mutual respect and understanding the perspectives of others should be brought into all classrooms and perfectly fit the tenants of humane education.

Creating a safe classroom is particularly important for humane education because sometimes the topics covered in a humane education lesson can be upsetting or controversial. A safe classroom means students can feel secure voicing differing opinions or upset feelings as well as supported while working through an issue. I have had students become upset during lessons about puppy mills or even voice concern or guilt that their companion animal was purchased from a pet store instead of rescued from a shelter. I believe it is the openness and approachability I model as a humane educator that allowed those students to bring up their feelings. It is also what allowed the students, and me, to turn those negative emotions into a positive because those feelings actually meant the students cared and were empathetic. Now, they have the tools and knowledge to make good choices in the future to help animals.

Meaningful Content

Bringing meaningful content into classroom lessons is another fantastic way to increase student engagement. Incorporating topics students care about will increase their curiosity, passion, and excitement to learn. There is nothing more meaningful to a student than learning about real-world problems, taught during a humane education lesson, as well as the solutions to help solve those problems.

Adora Svitak, a younger person herself, advocates for education reform and youth empowerment. In her article “5 Ways to Empower Students” (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/empower-students-adora-svitak), she writes that involving students in real-world issues is key to helping students stay motivated. Nicolás Pino James also cites making content meaningful as his first “golden rule” for creating classroom engagement in his article “Golden Rules for Engaging Students in Learning Activities” (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/golden-rules-for-engaging-students-nicolas-pino-james). James notes that new topics should be connected “…with students’ previous knowledge and experiences, highlighting the value of an assigned activity in personally relevant ways.” For example, in the 5th grade classes I teach, my lesson about oppressive child labor on farms in the United States often corresponds with the students’ English classes, where they read a fictional book about a young migrant farm worker during the Great Depression. The students are excited to talk about the parallels between the experiences of the book’s protagonist and the humane education lesson, adding a depth to their understanding and appreciation of the book because of their better understanding of real-world, modern children working as migrant farm workers.

Project-based Learning

One particularly intriguing tip from Mark Barnes’s article “Five Steps to Create a Progressive, Student-Centered Classroom” (http://inservice.ascd.org/five-steps-to-create-a-progressive-student-centered-classroom/), is creating ongoing class projects to develop student mastery. Ongoing class projects are a great way to practice humane education’s concept of interconnectedness of issues in the world. Students benefit greatly from an opportunity to continually apply their ever-developing knowledge and skills to a meaningful project by following it through the month, semester, or entire school year. This encourages students to become more engaged in the content and develop a sense of responsibility in addition to allowing them to make connections between what they are learning in multiple units or classes through application to a real-world project.

Getting students engaged in a lesson’s activity doesn’t have to look a particular way. What is important is getting students involved in moving, talking, doing, and thinking during a humane education lesson in whatever way makes sense for the students and the educators. Luckily there are many resources out there! Facing History and Ourselves is an organization that works with educators around the world to develop students’ feelings of responsibility and empowerment to create a better world. This organization’s website (https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategies) is filled with teaching strategies for student-centered activities. By using any of these strategies, a teacher can increase the level of student involvement, critical thinking, and understanding of the lesson content.

On many occasions, I have seen students who are either very quiet or, extremely disruptive during a lesson become focused and create stellar work during an activity. For example, during the first few minutes of a poster-making activity, a student who never raised her hand in class sat staring at her blank piece of paper. When I asked her to tell me about what ideas she had for her poster, she was able to easily explain, in her own words, the complex relationships between dog and cat overpopulation, animal homelessness, spaying and neutering companion animals, puppy mills, pet stores, animal shelters, and animal adoption. She went on to create a great educational poster that I could tell she was proud of.

Classroom engagement is vital for strengthening students’ education. By creating a safe space for students to learn and by challenging them with meaningful lesson content and activity-based projects, educators can harness the traits of curiosity, compassion, and reverence that students naturally possess to further develop their change-making abilities.

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