What is it that you do to really engage and bring kids to life in a classroom?
Actually, let’s pause there because there’s something you should know – learning doesn’t just have to be in the classroom. Something I’ve continued to discover over and over and over again (with both students and staff) is in the power of not sticking to what has always been done.
It’s these little decisions and actions teachers around our schools, universities, networks or companies make to actually connect with their learners that we need to share more of.
Me? One of my go to philosophies for engaging any learner is simple: be the teacher I wish I had.
You got this!
It’s not to say I had terrible teachers (matter of fact I am incredibly lucky to have had five stand out teachers who heavily inspired in different ways during high school).
The one thing I remember at school was wanting to explore things, being sick of worksheets and wishing we would just do things that were actually fun, made me wonder and were very much unlike the majority of my time at school.
Then I became the teacher and realised we can do that.
In any subject, in any learning area, in any year level we want.
Yep, that’s quite a statement to make.
But, here’s the thing. I have continually seen and experienced, over the last ten years, that when it comes to engaging kids: if learning is connected to our students, they can’t help but become learners wanting to discover more.
The hardest part with this is in making time to stop being yourself, stop being that teacher worrying about covering the curriculum and stop being swayed by people who may be telling you “This is how we do it here”.
Because getting caught up in all of those things won’t make learning real and relevant to your students (unless you are already at a school with every team being full of teachers focused around creating authentic learning experiences connected to students…if so, please drop me a line and I’ll be there in a heartbeat!).
The secret to engaging kids is to be willing to take a risk and say, “What is it they are interested in and how could I use that to unleash some real learning on, in and around them?”
A few years ago the answer to that question was “throwing water bombs”.
Wait. Hear me out.
This led to an amazingly rich maths unit and experience I couldn’t have predicted. To summarise the multi-week unit- called “Capacity Carnage” – students had to test and experiment with ways to fill up balloons to the maximum size and weight that would still allow them to successfully launch and hit a designated target – me. (Don’t worry, it was completely safe; goggles were worn!).
Needless to say, some fun was had. Maybe a bit more than some.
Let’s say, throughout the week of setting it up, outlining expectations, trialling, testing, engaging in the task, creating and analysing the data, a smile or 100 emerged.
And do you know what?
If I put on my Curriculum Leader Hat on for a second, so too did accurate measuring, converting and making connections between probabilities and decimals, converting metric units of measurement, recognising the place value system goes beyond hundredths (thank you highly sensitive scales!), selecting appropriate ways to represent data, finding the mean, mode and median, interpreting multiple datasets as well as converting or identifying equivalent decimals, fractions and percentages.
…that was just the maths within this unit.
Let’s not forget the fact that students were constructing informational and persuasive texts for specific audiences, analysing and selecting appropriate text and language features, proofreading and editing their writing (and the writing of peers), explaining tables, figures and data, and making carefully considered choices of words used to describe the successes and failures of their experiments.
Oh, and there was of course some collaboration, personal organisation, self-reflection on their learning and problem solving attempts, exploring ways we resolve conflict and even a little bit of resilience thrown in (hey, if we give up we can never achieve anything, right?).
Plus, they got to throw water bombs… at a teacher!
I’m not saying you have to go create huge units of learning that go for weeks on end. Or to be on the end of a water bomb.
Just start by selecting one little thing you know your class or staff are really interested in and consider how you might use it within a learning experience.
(Just the other week, even including the word ‘Fortnite’ into a phonics discussion around the “silent e’s” connection to a long vowel sound had the class suddenly enraptured and involved in the conversation).
If you aren’t sure of what your students or staff are into, and how you could use it to hook them into some learning, you’ve found your first step: find out one thing about your learners.
Then take a positive risk and talk to a colleague or friend (or email some educational blog that’s obsessed with helping engage and connect with kids!) about what might be possible.
Finally, connect with a person you know and trust that is confident with the learning curriculum – they will help connect the dots and make links across so many areas within your learning experience.
I find connecting dots and making links often leads to high fives
Doing this part not only helps you see just how amazing the learning you’re creating is, it also can legitimise it to any doubters or naysayers out there.
If we are willing to take a chance on using things like fidget spinners, bottle tossing or flossing (the dance…or actual flossing if that’s your students’ thing) in our learning times, we’re really able to get our kids thinking and wondering.
If they’re doing that, they can’t help but learn or want to find out more about the world around them – and that’s a core part of what we’re aiming for as educators, right?