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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

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?

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Andrea Morris's picture

I loved reading your post! I am a third grade teacher and I am currently getting my masters. Our assignment this week was to read a blog that deals with improving student learning. Last week I wrote a paper on differentiated instruction. I have always found this to be an important aspect to my teaching method. I enjoyed your thoughts on engaging learners in the things that are currently popular...no matter what they are. My students become obsessed every year with a new toy or gadget. I have never thought about incorporating the very thing that can drive me crazy in class into a lesson.
I like the idea of letting the students express their interests and individuality, while also "tweaking" that interest into something educational. Let's face it, students love hands-on, fast paced material. So in my opinion if they are engaged and inspired by something, use it! Their world is constantly changing. If we do not keep up and stay up to date, we begin to lose our connection with them. And I feel that if we lose that connection, we can lose our effectiveness.
I love your thoughts on letting the students tweak their own learning to make it applicable to themselves. From elementary age, all the way up students are going to connect with lessons and ideas that connect with their interests.
Your post has given me some great ideas for the upcoming school year. Oh, and about the pen spinning, I would definitely apply it in some way to show your students that you are keeping up with their ever changing world.

Linda Martin's picture
Linda Martin
Advanced Academics Resource Teacher from Reston, VA

What a great idea! So many times, teachers try to squelch fads, but in the end, the students find ways to sneak it back in. Why fight it? After Michael Jackson died, the students in one second grade class were constantly trying to practice all his signature moves. The teacher capitalized on that momemtum and declared a dance off during a future recess. The kids then started practicing during recess and really had even more "sanctioned" fun with it. After the dance off, the whole crazy died down, but it brought a lot of energy and fun and positive feelings between the teacher and students.

Dana Goetz's picture

Why do student fads drive some teachers crazy? In my school, a few years ago, it was Pokeman cards. After innumerable teacher complaints, the principal 'outlawed' the cards, and students who brought them to school after the decree were given detention.

I was aghast and alone in my thinking. I supported students and their Pokeman cards interest. For one thing, there was a teachable moment. Teachers and students could discuss appropriate and inappropriate times to play with the cards. Also, teachers could reward students with Pokemon time in class. Lessons about sharing and fair trading and following rules and determining value of cards are endless.

I noticed that Pokeman gave some students entry into a social world they had been left out of in the past. For example, the boy who had a hard time navigating his way through the social maze stood out as a master Pokeman dealer.

Perhaps if teachers had formal and scheduled opportunities to meet and discuss issues, they would be able to determine effective ways to handle distractions like Pokeman cards, Rubik cubes, and silly bandz. Students are just finding ways to stand out as individuals. Not every child can be the star athlete or student government president. We must encourage students to pursue their interests and their dreams, even when those ambitions are outside of the curriculum.

M-Brog's picture

I'm truly impressed as I read through your blog entry because it reminds me of the exact reason why I entered the teaching profession. To me, a truly great teacher is one whose passion for students exceeds their passion for their content. Students do not want to know how much we know until they know how much we care. What better way to show them how much we care than to use the current trends and things that interest them as motivators during our lessons?

A great teacher is not defined by how much they know about a subject but by how well they can communicate that knowledge to their students. By using some of the things mentioned in other comments such as the Michael Jackson dance moves, or the silly bandz, or pokemon cards, etc. we are making an attempt to connect what we want them to know to what they do know. Students may actually be able to make stronger connections and perhaps even begin to like our content! Imagine that! Practices that actually make our students WANT to come to class rather than avoid it. In the end, teachers who stay on top of current events and student trends are more likely to build the kinds of relationships with students that foster a stronger learning environment.

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