What we Mean by “Engages the Learner” – Thoughts on our New Mission Statement

Cannon Headshots Aug 2016-5

by Dr. Kellen Graham, Upper School Academic Dean

The following was excerpted from a recent edition of Upper School News.

Peter Drucker, “The Father of Modern Management,” famously pointed out that an institution’s mission is its “purpose and very reason for being.” The mission, Drucker noted, “is what you want your organization to be remembered for.” On October 12, Cannon School proudly unveiled our new mission statement for our entire student body in a series of division-specific assemblies. In case you missed it, here is our new mission:

Cannon School nurtures relationships at the heart of learning and engages the learner in a journey of growth.

My heart swells each time I write or speak our mission. And I am not alone. Our faculty played an important role in the mission-design process. Our teachers believe that our new mission reflects why we exist and that it captures what we aspire to do every day for our kids. Now, our collective focus shifts from what should our mission be to how do we live our mission? Defining the new mission is the first step to living it. With that in mind, I write to you today to reflect on one slice of our mission statement: the phrase “engages the learner.”

What does it mean to “engage” a learner? What does student engagement at school look like?

mission1At our recent Homecoming pep rally, the entire school “acted out” the new mission statement through a series of hand gestures. 

Both as Academic Dean and English teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking about, and looking for engaged student learners. Engagement is perhaps best understood by first acknowledging what it is not. Engagement is not the same thing as involvement, which typically suggests little more than one’s physical presence or cursory participation. A student may dutifully take notes during a lecture, in which case she may be involved without necessarily being engaged. When we talk about engagement in the upper school, we refer to a deeply personal connection between the learner and the material being learned. Such connections often transform students’ lives. Students engage when they draw connections between their new and old learning and between disparate subjects, say, between the theme in a novel they read in English III and a root cause of the Civil War they study in United States History. If the student sitting in the lecture wrestles for an evening or a week or a month with an idea or an argument posited by the teacher, then that student is engaged. Furthermore, an engaged learner feels passionate about whatever it is they are learning. The engaged learner pursues his work for the exhilaration and love of gaining new knowledge, not simply for a grade or a line on a transcript.

Our teachers engage students in learning each day. I know this is true because I visit classrooms each day, observing our students and teachers in action together. While I could recount hundreds of stories, let me share a few recent, memorable examples of student engagement:

jenny2Ninth-grade students in Mrs. Weakland’s class tackle a problem as a team.

When I walked into Mrs. Reulbach, Ms. Finneyfrock, and Mrs. Weakland’s Algebra II classes recently, I saw math instruction that bore little resemblance to the “drill-and-kill” math classes I grew up with. Instead, I noticed student teams grouped at tables. These teams collaborated to solve math experiments and real-world problems; team members discussed complex math concepts, generated questions for their teacher, and taught and retaught material to one another. Without being disruptive, these students talked more during the period than the teacher did. They cracked math-related jokes (I’m serious), they smiled, and they were encouraged to discover new ways to find solutions. They engaged. They learned.

When I walked into Ms. Sherry Harley’s AP United States History class last week, I saw students engaged in a Market Revolution-themed simulation of the popular TV show, “Shark Tank.” The activity cast students as 19th century innovators and entrepreneurs, tasked with pitching their inventions to a panel of hilariously skeptical, tough “sharks.” Later, Ms. Harley wrote to me, explaining that the “Shark Tank” activity “requires students to develop an understanding of life and work in the United States before the invention, assess the potential impact of the invention, and to effectively convey that understanding to their peers.” Had you walked into that classroom, you might have felt transported back to Antebellum America. Ms. Harley’s students took the information they had read about and applied it in spirited, dramatic ways. They engaged. They learned.

cheerOur varsity and middle school cheer teams joined forces at Homecoming to root on our Dream Kid, Maggie

When I attended a home varsity football game last month, I was amazed by our cheerleading team. The team’s cohesion and enthusiasm for their sport was infectious, and their collective athleticism was an awesome sight to behold. I caught up with Ms. Erin Banks, our cheerleading coach and upper school science teacher the following week. I congratulated her on her team’s performance and asked her how she has managed to engage her girls so effectively in her first year on the job. She told me that the girls are excited to learn new dance routines and tumbling techniques. According to Ms. Banks, “The girls know that we have to work hard to get where we want to be as a team, and I see the girls every day ready to work hard and better themselves.” Come out to a game, and you will see Ms. Bank’s student-athletes focused and seeking feedback from their coach. They engaged. They learned.

Cannon School creates an environment in which kids can fully engage, can find what they love to do and can work towards becoming the person they want to be. This is exactly what we want to be known and remembered for. Which is to say engaging the learner.

Best Wishes,

Dr. Kellen Graham

Upper School Academic Dean