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Engage! Ignite!

photo of Ellin Keene

If you ever get a chance to witness Ellin Keene working with children, you’ll want to leap at the opportunity. Keene is a Kent Intermediate School District Early Literacy Coach, researcher, and author. Teachers at Breton Downs have written Foundation grant applications to work with Keene to increase motivation in classrooms, and this year Breton Downs is serving as a lab school for teachers in other districts who want to learn from Keene. 

The third graders in Jenny Bergstrom’s class at Breton Downs aren’t aware of any of that though. They’re too busy on this Tuesday afternoon learning about new ways to read and engage with what they’re learning.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to learn a word I didn’t learn until I was in graduate school,” Keene tells the kids. “Graduate school is a school that comes after college and it’s a school that your parents don’t pay for. So I was twenty-five or twenty-six years old when I learned it and you’re eight or nine years old, but I think you’re ready. The word is metacognitive.”

Keene has the students repeat the word a few times, explains the prefix and the root word, and guides the students to understanding that being metacognitive means thinking about your thinking. It’s a challenging concept, but with Keene’s help, the students get it.

Minutes later, Keene has the students put their new metacognitive skills to work as she reads them a picture book, Lubna and the Pebble. It’s a spare, evocative story that hints at fear and war and strife, without explicitly mentioning the dangers. 

Keene pulls the students along with her as she looks for clues in the text and illustrations to help read between the lines of the story. The third graders are active, enthusiastic participants when Keene offers them opportunities to share what they’re thinking about their thinking, their metacognition. 

By the time the class reaches the end of Lubna and the Pebble, it’s as if every student in the class has lived the story, not just listened to it. They’ve learned how to think not only about their own thoughts, but also their feelings, for which Keene teaches the students a new word, metaemotive. 

Thanks to the grant from the Foundation, the other teachers in the room will be able to share Keene’s process with their own students. It’s a different way for teachers to engage with their students, Keene says. “We need to rethink the notion that we are wholly responsible for student motivation and engagement,” she says, “and instead focus on modeling and discussing engagement with students so that they can, gradually, become more and more responsible for their own engagement.” 

It’s incredibly powerful to see it in action. Thank you, Foundation donors, for making it possible!