A Classroom Visit May Be Worth a Thousand Weblinks

As part of ED’s Secondary School Working Group, I’ve heard many speakers, read reams of research, and visited countless web sites to learn about student engagement — what is it that makes a student want to learn and stay in high school?

Rayna Aylward and a group of students

Rayna Aylward, far left, with Mr. Hipkins' class

But I never really understood the concept until I saw it in action at the Capital City Charter Upper School in Washington, D.C.  As part of National Teacher Appreciation Week, more than 50 ED staffers around the country went “Back to School” for a day to shadow teachers.  It was my luck to shadow Julian Hipkins III, an 11th grade U.S. History teacher giving a lesson on the Vietnam War.

But “giving” may not be the operative verb. Class began with a rapid-fire session to define “war.” Students came up with words and phrases and Mr. Hipkins circled back with prompts and questions.  Next, the students talked in small groups about what they knew of the Vietnam War; summaries were posted on the walls, and then the students walked around and added comments to one another’s ideas.

After a short reading/reflection time, the students rotated through a fishbowl-style role play, with half the inner circle playing “French government/business leaders” and the other half “Viet Minh supporters.”  The goal was to persuade President Truman (played by Mr. Hipkins) to support their respective cause.  The crisscrossing dialogue went so fast that no one wanted to stop when the buzzer sounded.  The students switched between inner circle and observers, and the next round whipped by.   At the end, there were more questions than conclusions, and the air seemed electric.

For a solid 75 minutes, every student had been on task and animated.  If I had to calculate, I’d say the voice ratio was about 20/80 teacher/student.  The lesson was a constant flow of ideas and discoveries, guided by the teacher but powered by the learners.

The bell rang for the next class.  Mr. Hipkins handed out a homework assignment – a Venn diagram on the Vietnam and Iraq Wars – and the students filed out trailing word clouds of McNamara and the Gulf of Tonkin.  I myself am still buzzed, and I just filled out the diagram.

Now that’s engagement!

Rayna Aylward is a special assistant in the Office of the Secretary


  1. Thanks for sharing this great story from a D.C. teacher’s classroom. For other teachers interested in using the lesson that Mr. Julian Hipkins III was teaching, it is called “Rethinking the Teaching of the Vietnam War” and can be accessed for free at the Zinn Education Project (www.zinnedproject.org) website, coordinated by two non-profit organizations. Here is the URL for the lesson: http://zinnedproject.org/posts/1506

  2. I have been a teacher in PANAMA FOR 12 YEARS. Here, in IBEROAMERICA, it is very difficult to get the participants to learnas you have teache this lesson. I wish there will be more education for teachers so that more educators can make their students learn as easy and as fun. TEACHING AND LEARNING IN IBEROAMERICA IS NOT AS FUN as it is in the USA. It is not due to the lack of resources it is ue to the lack of very great training for teachers.

  3. Excellent! This is a great story because it demonstrates how a teacher takes charge of student engagement and, apparently, is not looking to blame a parent for student disengagement.

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