Are students compliant or engaged?
Madeline Meets Curious George
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. . . .
The smallest one was Madeline.
So begins the story of Madeline, a beloved 1939 children’s book by Ludwig Bemelmans. Madeline lives in an orphanage and is watched over by her nurse and teacher, Miss Clavel (You thought Miss Clavel was a nun, didn’t you? It turns out she’s a nurse. Who knew?). In the first of her many adventures, Madeline and her fellow orphans follow a strict daily routine (“In two straight lines/ they broke their bread/ and brushed their teeth/ and went to bed.”), Madeline has an emergency appendectomy, and everyone cries a lot.
Two years later, H. A. Rey created the story of an equally popular character, Curious George:
This is George.
He lived in Africa.
He was a good little monkey
and always very curious.
In the initial book in the series, George is abducted from his homeland by the unnamed man with the yellow hat. True to the story’s title, George’s abundant curiosity gets him into trouble repeatedly, upsetting sailors, firemen, and a balloon man. Eventually, the man with the yellow hat realizes he is ill-equipped to take care of a monkey in urban America, so George finds himself happily residing in a zoo at the story’s end.
Which of the two would you rather have in your class: Madeline or Curious George?
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I suspect that many teachers’ initial response is that Madeline would be a whole lot easier to teach and would thus be the more desirable student. Though we don’t see anything about Madeline’s behavior in school in the book, we observe all kinds of cooperative obedience in her daily routine. I’m sure Madeline would never turn in work late, forget to bring supplies to class, nor get in trouble for chatting with her neighbor during instructional time. Many teachers would view Madeline as the ideal student.
George, on the other hand, is a less predictable option. Aside from the fact that he’s a non-linguistic, non-human pupil, George could either be a delight or a terror in the classroom. The book tells us he’s “a good little monkey,” but, in the story at least, George’s curiosity leads him into some situations that would drive most teachers crazy. In some classroom environments, George would be off-task and non-compliant. With the right teacher, however, Curious George would be completely engaged in his learning.
Unfortunately, some teacher’s classes resemble a scene from Where the Wild Things Are. The “wild rumpus” prevents any learning from occurring, creating an environment that would be frustrating to compliant Madeline and that would encourage Curious George to jump into the middle of the mayhem.
If you’ve let your classes spiral out of control, you may have to become like Max in Maurice Sendak’s story:
And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed them with the magic trick
of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once
and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all
and made him king of all wild things.
Whatever “magic trick” you have to employ to get your classes under control is a necessary first step to creating an environment conducive to learning.
Once you’ve maintained order, your students could be learning in one of two states: compliant or engaged.
Compliant students are doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re behaving. They are following directions. They are completing their work. Compliant classrooms look a lot like Madeline’s orphanage with all the students in straight lines going through the motions without much excitement. The motivation for student compliance may be fear and coercion, a desire for an extrinsic outcome like a grade or reward, or simply a “cooperate and graduate” mentality. There’s rarely any passion or excitement in a compliant classroom, but there’s no chaos either. It’s preferable to the world of the wild things. It’s not, however, a place where Curious George is going to thrive. In fact, George will likely be pigeonholed as a troublemaker and will be singled out for his off-task behavior.
Engaged students are excited about what they’re learning. Their motivation is likely more intrinsic; they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing because they are involved in learning that is interesting, worthwhile, authentic, and valuable. External rewards are not required because the students want to be doing what they are doing. There is an entirely different vibe from a compliant classroom. It’s probably a little noisier and more energetic than Miss Clavel’s roomful of dutiful girls, but the noise and energy are focused and purposeful. Curious George, whose curiosity would be a detriment in other classroom environments, would learn most successfully in this scenario. So would most students.
I invite you to take a moment to observe your students during class. Where do they fall on the continuum between compliant and engaged? What steps can you take to move them closer to a state of engagement? Here are a few suggestions:
- Open-ended rather than closed-ended questioning and learning tasks
- Authentic work about authentic content rather than “fake” activities that don’t transfer to the real world
- Structured collaboration rather than individual work or unstructured “group work”
- Student-driven inquiry rather than teacher-determined outcomes
- Creativity rather than rote learning
- Honoring student voices and opinions rather than rewarding students who do exactly what you’ve predetermined they’re supposed to do
- Opportunities to take risks safely rather than suffer the “gotcha” repercussions of being incorrect
- Emphasis on the intrinsic rewards of inquiry-based learning rather than insistence that everything be graded
- “Fun” activities that are directly linked to the learning outcomes rather than unrelated, fluffy fun and games
- A playful atmosphere rather than joyless conformity
By fostering George’s natural curiosity and making Madeline feel safe to be herself, take chances, explore, and immerse herself in authentic learning, teachers can win with every student.
English Language Arts Instructional Specialist