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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Student Trends to Engage Learners and Differentiate Instruction

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

For those of you not in the pen spinning loop, I'm talking about a craze that's preoccupying tween fingers all over the known universe, or at least in my district.

Of pen spinning, or object manipulation, as a sport, Wikipedia says:

"Called 'ronin mawashi' in Japan, where it is popular among the pre-collegiate community, pen twirling has its stars, as does any other performance or skill. Accomplished masters of the art form that are well-known -- at least among those who follow the sport -- have developed a reputation for creation of certain signature 'moves'. David Weis is credited with creating numerous 'back' style moves, such as the 'BackAround.' Hideaki Kondoh is generally credited with giving the pen trick 'Sonic' its name, because of the way the pen would blur in his fingers."

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Pen spinning only recently saw a rapid increase in recognition due to the emergence of Internet media Web sites such as YouTube. From 2006 onwards, the art of pen spinning has developed subcultures in many countries of the world, including the Asiatic regions and Europe.

And as the school year closed, I noticed an increase in modified pen spinning. So naturally if there's an obsession in my class that has little to do with our content, I look to my own practice and what the addition may say about my level of engagement (or lack thereof.)

I wonder if I feel the same way that teachers must have felt about the Rubik's Cube or the Hacky Sack when those items came on the scene -- that feeling of, "what's going on around me? When did this start? And why didn't I get the memo?"

In the past, when trends like these occur, I normally become somewhat efficient in the activity so I can join in on the conversation. (I've gotten a lot of play out of my own World of Warcraft obsession, after all.)

But in this case, my fingers just can't do the darn tricks. My dad has always said he can't press the little buttons on the iPhone because of his Eastern European immigrant fingers. I'll chalk it up to that with my inability to do the pen-spinning thing, too.

Engagement and Lesson Ideas

But even though I can't do it, at least I can learn about it. And I can touch base with those kids who I may not have reached yet, and when I ask them to put it away ("If you're spinning your mods, you clearly don't have pen to paper") I get more smiles and buy-in because the kids know I'm not after them personally.

I hear of teachers practically having conniption fits when the propelling blurs begin. But I'm pretty calm about it. I mean, I have to ask the bigger questions when the whirring begins:

  • The students claim that they are merely thinking, but really are they just bored?
  • Are more of them kinesthetic learners than I thought, and this is a true visual indication of just how many students are antsy in their seats each day?
  • Are they desirous of a shop class back on the schedule, something that is about creating, supping it up, in this case, pimping their pen? Or are they just struggling to find individuality in a standardized prison, actually showing their own desire for differentiation by modifying anything that they can get their hands on?
  • It's also kind of a boy thing, right? And we're all looking to reach out to those tween boys. Girls have been showing their individuality for a while now: stickers on binders when they are younger, and magazine collages inserted into the binder plastic by middle school. But this pen craze seems more like a boy-centric version of the same thing: the need for attention, the need to create their own machine, the need to show off the variables that they changed to accomplish something better than the other guys sitting next to them.

    So when I see a tween obsession, my most important question is how can I harness it? Do I have them do a step-by-step assignment on how to modify your pen for ultimate spinning possibilities? Do I have them write a guide with links to pages for further resources?

    Differentiation

    Students will find ways to differentiate themselves. While we all know that tweens desire to be part of a group, they also desire individuality, and the knowledge that they are being evaluated as individuals. So whether it's whole group or small group work, I need to make sure there are outlets and evaluations for the individuals as well. And even when I have the students working alone, I ask myself how I can allow them the opportunities to tweak their own learning to make it applicable for themselves.

    So many teachers are intimidated at the thought of individualizing the curriculum for each student, but maybe the students need to take ownership of that job; let's call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation, and then it is really up to us, the teachers, to give students the opportunities to modify for themselves.

    Back to pen spinning: What do you think, dear reader? Since I don't want to fight something that should be exploited, how do we tap into a current obsession of students and make it something applicable in the classroom?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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Amy's picture

Many of our students have a wide range of interests; ranging from sports and dance to comic books and fads. When I was growing up, we had coil shoe laces and cabbage patch dolls. This fall I plan on passing out silly bands as rewards and incentives for hard work and good behavior.

I really believe in understanding the students we interact with on a daily basis. My fifth grade teacher did her best to understand us. She displayed many little figures and toys on her desk. I remember that when we finished our work and she was done with instruction, we'd be allowed to go to her desk and "hang out." She would talk with us and we'd play with the small trinkets. This small act made us feel important and special. I personally felt like she got to know me and cared about each of us because of the conversations we had at her desk.

These fads and gimmicks that drive a lot of teachers crazy are often simple and harmless. They really can give us an opportunity to tune in to our students and get to know them just a little bit better. And isn't that what it's all about? When we get to know our students, we're able to understand their needs. What a perfect segue into designing lessons for the kids needs.

Megan Darlington's picture

I truly enjoyed this post. I remember my first year of teaching, I was a stickler about certain things happening in the classroom - annoying trends being one of them. By the end of that year, I was so frustrated and several kids would intentionally do things just to irritate me. After that, I sat back and tried to think of how to make my life easier. I have learned that embracing trends and activities that the students love while still maintaining boundaries has solved so many problems in my room. I try to keep up on what's cool and have side conversations with them or bring up examples to make connections to what we are learning. It really gets them going.

Also, the part where you discuss differentiation or modification really caught my interest. So often we are focused on just getting the lesson taught that we forget about how individual each student is. Once again, after that first year learning experience, I have started letting my students interests develop what we learn and what they do on an independent level. Thank you for sharing.

Mrs. Beachy's picture

It sounds like many of the students in my master's class have landed here in this blog, probably for the same reason I did: this post was fun, interesting and informative.

I have not personally experienced the pen-spinning phenomenon, but I have seen how trends can quickly become our competition when it comes to grasping the students' attention. I do agree that it is easier to embrace these trends than it is to fight them, and as long as no one is harmed, the more the merrier! Not to mention the trends tend to identify with the generation and may be the legacy they experience. Kids are fascinating if you just give them the chance to express themselves once in a while, it really benefits the feeling of community in the classroom and builds rapport with the students.

It is interesting as well that certain trends do seem to be divided by gender. Tween boys are extremely difficult to reach in general and anything that is positive and can build a bridge to engage them is welcome in my room!

Mrs. Beachy's picture

It sounds like we are probably in the same master's class because you described the same assignments that I am working on ... hello again!

cheryl berry's picture

One of the biggest challenges we face as educators is connecting with our students and making learning relevant to their culture. It's a great idea to use this as a tool to your advantage. You have already started thinking about how you can use this to engage your students into learning by linking to their knowledge and experiences on "pen spinning". We are already behind in utilizing technology interests: 3D; Virtual gaming; etc... I like that you are willing to take risks and be creative in your classroom. Good luck with this. I might consider safety goggles to avoid any pen spinning accidents.

Curtrina Jones's picture

Wow! I had no idea there was such a wealth of educational information in blogging. I found this site through my instructor and am very impressed. There is a lot of educational "wisdom" to be honed in on . It is an interesting concept, one which we educators hear all the time. Teach to the interest of the student in order to engage them. What better way than to use what excites them such as the current trend. I had an experience with this on last year. I teach a third grade class and a few of my students were introduced to the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series. This was the best thing I had seen since Dr. Seuss. My students were so motivated to read; even the ones who were struggling readers. What began with a few students turned into the entire class by the end of the school year. I decided to invest in the series of books and was able to use them as part of a reward system for some of my students. We even took a field trip at the end of the year to the theater to see the actual movie. My students were so excited, they were on their best behavior for over a month. LOL!!! I even had one student who took the authors idea and began journaling his own diary to the same format as the original book, which motivated others students to do the same. Once a class filled with boys who were unmotivated to read or write, turned into a publishing house and library of excited readers. This is one of the best things we can do for our students. Take a moment to find out about their interest, and use that to motivate and teach them.

Trista's picture

Your blog is extremely refreshing! As several of your fellow bloggers mentioned, I am working on my master's degree, and our assignment was to blog on an issue we struggle with in our classrooms and see if other teachers were struggling with the same issue. Your blog addresses two issues I face: managing current student "trends" that sneak into the classroom and differentiation. I teach special education and often my students feel a little on the outside of most social circles because of their learning disabilities and challenges. Your insight on including current trends in the classroom environment is excellent! The stretchy bands are big right now. I think the girls would like to have a chance to earn them as a reward or perhaps use them as a topic starter for conversation or a writing piece. Several of the boys are into Bakugan. I do not really know what Bakugan is all about, but your blog has inspired me to check it out so that I may incorporate it into my lessons for the boys as well. I know there is a Bakugan cartoon and character merchandise available. Perhaps the boys could write about their favorite character. It would open up a lot of venues for writing such as character traits, plot, sequencing, etc. I will have to thoroughly check out this cartoon to see if it is appropriate. I always do a getting to know you activity with my students at the beginning of each year. This year I will ask them what trends they are currently following so that I can find fun and engaging ways to use these trends to get my students involved and to get to know my students better. To comment on what one of the other bloggers said. Students need to know that we care! Yes! If we can talk their "talk" and really know what we are talking about, they will get that sense that we truly care about them. I also differentiate for each of my students based on their individual needs. But, I love the idea of using the trends to let students have some ownership in their own differentiation. You have an excellent idea to call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation. Thank you for the inspiration!

Trista's picture

Your blog is extremely refreshing! As several of your fellow bloggers mentioned, I am working on my master's degree, and our assignment was to blog on an issue we struggle with in our classrooms and see if other teachers were struggling with the same issue. Your blog addresses two issues I face: managing current student "trends" that sneak into the classroom and differentiation. I teach special education and often my students feel a little on the outside of most social circles because of their learning disabilities and challenges. Your insight on including current trends in the classroom environment is excellent! The stretchy bands are big right now. I think the girls would like to have a chance to earn them as a reward or perhaps use them as a topic starter for conversation or a writing piece. Several of the boys are into Bakugan. I do not really know what Bakugan is all about, but your blog has inspired me to check it out so that I may incorporate it into my lessons for the boys as well. I know there is a Bakugan cartoon and character merchandise available. Perhaps the boys could write about their favorite character. It would open up a lot of venues for writing such as character traits, plot, sequencing, etc. I will have to thoroughly check out this cartoon to see if it is appropriate. I always do a getting to know you activity with my students at the beginning of each year. This year I will ask them what trends they are currently following so that I can find fun and engaging ways to use these trends to get my students involved and to get to know my students better. To comment on what one of the other bloggers said. Students need to know that we care! Yes! If we can talk their "talk" and really know what we are talking about, they will get that sense that we truly care about them. I also differentiate for each of my students based on their individual needs. But, I love the idea of using the trends to let students have some ownership in their own differentiation. You have an excellent idea to call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation. Thank you for the inspiration!

Trista's picture

Your blog is extremely refreshing! As several of your fellow bloggers mentioned, I am working on my master's degree, and our assignment was to blog on an issue we struggle with in our classrooms and see if other teachers were struggling with the same issue. Your blog addresses two issues I face: managing current student "trends" that sneak into the classroom and differentiation. I teach special education and often my students feel a little on the outside of most social circles because of their learning disabilities and challenges. Your insight on including current trends in the classroom environment is excellent! The stretchy bands are big right now. I think the girls would like to have a chance to earn them as a reward or perhaps use them as a topic starter for conversation or a writing piece. Several of the boys are into Bakugan. I do not really know what Bakugan is all about, but your blog has inspired me to check it out so that I may incorporate it into my lessons for the boys as well. I know there is a Bakugan cartoon and character merchandise available. Perhaps the boys could write about their favorite character. It would open up a lot of venues for writing such as character traits, plot, sequencing, etc. I will have to thoroughly check out this cartoon to see if it is appropriate. I always do a getting to know you activity with my students at the beginning of each year. This year I will ask them what trends they are currently following so that I can find fun and engaging ways to use these trends to get my students involved and to get to know my students better. To comment on what one of the other bloggers said. Students need to know that we care! Yes! If we can talk their "talk" and really know what we are talking about, they will get that sense that we truly care about them. I also differentiate for each of my students based on their individual needs. But, I love the idea of using the trends to let students have some ownership in their own differentiation. You have an excellent idea to call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation. Thank you for the inspiration!

Kalai Rhodes's picture

Your post reminds me so much of being in high school and having a teacher that really connected with you through something that you loved to do. I am a first year teacher and completing my master's and I just found your blog to be inspiring. It let's me know that there are still teachers out there that do care about reaching students, no matter the way.

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