by Darla Hays
At a recent faculty meeting, the teachers were asked to share what they would love to have more of in their classrooms. We were to choose one area that we would always want to know more about and improve upon. What was the one topic that was overwhelmingly expressed? Student engagement and curiosity!
What do all teachers and students want? Active, engaged, and curious moments during lessons. Easily requested, but just how do we get there? Today’s fast paced world and even faster moving classrooms mean that to reach students above the din of demands on their attention we need to present information in ways that are inventive. It is no small feat to reach a point of pure curiosity growing in the minds of students.
We can all recall times when it seemed like the students were certainly somewhere far away from the classroom in their minds. One time I saw this happening and I immediately thought of the classic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I could see the teacher in that movie scribbling cluelessly on the chalkboard and calling out in his now classic monotone voice, “Bueller, Bueller?” Well, I know that if I see those signs—the thousand yard blank stare, the figurative drool running down their chin—within the first few minutes of a lesson, I have to make a change to find the energy and passion in the students in order to hit that “sweet spot” between passions and abilities that Sir Ken Robinson speaks of in The Element.
After all, what good is education if students feel completely disinterested? I have always wanted to be the type of teacher that creates FUN in lessons. I don’t want to be known as ‘Lady Blah, Blah’ or become famous as the teacher version of ‘Be – yawn- say’!
Although we know that it isn’t a perfect science to instill in children a thirst, a full curiosity to know, we still want to hit it more often than not. Over the years in the classroom setting, I have striven to be equal to this challenge.
So, what has 17 years in education taught me about student curiosity and engagement? What gems of observation have shown me the way? What have I learned from fellow teachers and students?
These teacher tricks produce students who are genuinely curious and are practically bursting out of their skin to learn. I-M-A-G-I-N-E!I have learned to set the tone right at the start using a curious question. Either I give the essential question and students write or discuss their thoughts or I have asked them to write their curious question on a sticky note or in their journals. Having a place of curiosity to begin with is a sure fire way to get the thinking going from all brains in the room! It gives the message to kids that to ask, to be a part of the investigation is OK, and is welcome and important! Taking it a step further is to have the students compare their notes after the lesson and discuss their thoughts.
The element of surprise is a great way to keep the energy and pace going! I have been known to suddenly take a stuffed animal off the classroom shelf and use it to pretend to bite a cactus when teaching about plant adaptations. The students didn’t plan on it and they remembered it long afterward. Mission accomplished.
Humor goes a long way in a classroom. Research shows that when students are stressed their mind is blocked to learning and their brain cannot make new dendrites of knowledge. Humor allows the stress or pressure to escape. Just a dose of it is enough and students will relax and open their minds thus allowing them to think creatively and curiously. I have been seen purposely making a mistake and then students will love to correct me and suddenly all ears and eyes are watching! Kids will tell you that I am the teacher that will suddenly start talking in a foreign accent to get their attention and a bit of a laugh. Students will learn the boundaries of having moments of fun and enjoyment mixed with the seriousness of high rigor in lessons.
Making it true to life for students is vital. If they can see their part in the learning and how it will be applied to their lives, if they can make a connection, they will value it and make a true investment. I often use my own family (sorry family members but you are great examples) to give students a real life example of the learning being used in every day scenarios. This is fun and gets them interested in the daily ups and downs of life and how education supports people each day. Besides this, they love hearing funny stories about my family. I will mention a popular TV show or character that relates to their own lives and it not only shows my ‘with-it-ness’ to care about their world but it helps them to also make those connections and CARE about the lesson.
We all know that technology and being constantly plugged in is now a woven thread in our daily lives. The generations growing up in our world are technology immersed in many ways and we can see how much it draws them in! Embracing this fact and using it to our advantage when teaching is a modern day golden path to engagement and curiosity along with an avenue to higher thinking. It doesn’t have to be the ONLY tool in a lesson but it is a piece of the puzzle that students really like.
Students crave being involved and having a voice in the classroom. Allowing them to discuss and share even just with a partner gives them access to aligning with the topics we want them to deeply know. If you were to visit my classroom you would see that there is always a buzz about something. I have learned to ebb and flow with the curiosity of the students. Kind of like going with the current. Sometimes, the driving force is the student and it can often take us there faster and more productively. I have seen how honoring their risk taking builds them all up higher.
Student creativity is like a turbo boost to a lesson. When I see how students interpret information and when I watch them pull their talents together to create, I know how much of the material they are really tapping into. We are really doing them a favor when we invite them to show what they know through creative expression. They will be better prepared for the work world of their future if they can synthesize information and connect a thought to many more thoughts and show it in unique ways. This doesn’t always have to be a big project. In fact, it develops creativity more if it is done in small ways consistently. I love it when I see a student write in the margins of their composition new and fun thoughts. I enjoy stretching them sometimes by just asking them to write 2 questions on the bottom of the paper or challenging them to make a new game or quiz for the class. Even just allowing them to make a word web out to the side of their paper builds their ability to make several connections quickly. I even allow them to doodle on their page in those small moments of wait time only if what they doodle connects to the learning topic.
Letting students create when our time is crunched and we have testing coming up, eep! Is that really possible? Yes!
So, there you have it, my seven wonders of the world of curiosity and engagement. I don’t know how education will look over the next decade. One thing is for sure, I will continue to strive for curious kids in the classroom and take joy in seeing them light up with an honest love of learning.