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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Inspiring a passion for learning

Inspiring a passion for learning

Related Tags: 6-8 Middle School
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We've all faced it: the uniquely "tween" attempt at pulling off what they consider a chic variety of disinterest. So how do we hook them? What makes them jump out of their chairs and get excited? I will admit, some groups are harder to engage than others. This year, I face a group of students who embody the idea of "too cool for school." The phenomenon has reached epidemic levels. I am the first to admit, that I find myself frustrated on a daily basis. However, I do have my strategies and they are working (albeit slowly). Here's my toolbox: 1. Time Use: Be thoughtful about time use in the classroom. (Samantha Bennett's Workshop Model or the CREATE model espoused by Dr. Rajagopal here on Edutopia are great starting points). 2. Active problem solving: Sometimes you just have to let kids play in the sandbox. In my science class, I let kids tackle issues like "How do I simulate groundwater erosion?" We have a sandbox out back and kids made all kinds of elaborate attempts to simulate this process. They had a blast and realized how difficult it is to simulate real-world phenomena in a lab setting. Some attempts were successful and some were not, but it opened up discussion about this particular process, the strengths and weaknesses of scientific models, and got kids thinking of science as an open-ended process that requires constant adaptation as we discover things that don't work. 3. Inquiry: There are levels to inquiry and some activities (like the above) can be fairly formless, while others require a lot more guidance. In social studies, students might interact with an artifact and have to figure out what it is used for. In this case there might be rules about how they "test" the artifact and an answer might be more structured: "This artifact is used for....because of...." This is similar to a structured science lab where I provide them with a scientific question and procedure and their job is to record data and synthesize it. What we need to keep in mind is that we're not just doing "activities" - we're synthesizing our answers based on a set of observations, data, or facts. Sometimes, as teachers, we think a fun activity will hook kids (but guess what - some kids won't find it fun). 4. Student-driven learning: We often say kids need choices in their learning but how often do we really let kids direct their own learning? In the sandbox activity above, students entirely directed the course of their model building (and I let them bring in materials for enrichment points - definition to come below). Some filled beakers with soil and used straws, pipets, funnels and all sorts of other materials to insert a flowing water source into their model. Other students were digging large scale models in the sandbox itself (one student brought a shovel, others used our classroom set of rock hammers). They creatively used tools like soil samplers to create tunnels they could let their water flow into. Another time I let them vote: do a jigsaw in which they taught each other, or let me teach. We also have a white-board COVERED in student-generated questions they asked about geologic processes (or whatever we are currently studying)...we cross out questions as we answer them. These range from "Why is the Earth not a firey ball of doom?" to more focused questions. My point is, choice shouldn't be something you plan into a lesson, it should be an organic component of your daily practice. I often change course based on student interest in science. Yes, I have standards-based goals we need to tackle, but I find my students usually help me come up with better ways to address these (like when they invented new investment opportunities during our economic simulation in social studies leading to better discussions related to the investment component of our economic standards). 5. No extra credit and no participation grades. Grades should be a direct reflection of student skills and knowledge, not a pat on the head for completing work. Extra credit causes grade inflation and is a crutch for students who don't do their best work every day. Students who know they can do extra credit check-out on their daily work because they have this great fail-safe mechanism. When students are applauded with "participation" some may feel that they no longer need to "waste effort" on their best work. Every assignment should be a direct evaluation of standards-based skills and knowledge. If it is not, don't waste your time grading it, and don't waste your students' time having them do it. Here's an alternative: 6. Enrichment Points: Enrichment points are extra optional assignments. Students must do their best on them or they don't count. For example, if a student is failing and they do an enrichment assignment they are going to get a scored assignment, not bonus points to pull them out of the hole they dug themselves. In social studies, I allow 2 current event reports a quarter as an enrichment assignment. They are worth 25 points and students get graded just like they would on any assignment. If a student gets a 22/25 and it pulls their grade up, I put it in the grade book. If they get a low score, say a 10/25 (due to a poor quality job), chances are it pulls their grade down, and I don't put it in the grade book. When I did give extra credit, I got a lot of sloppy assignments from students hoping for a point or two. With enrichment points, kids learn quickly that if they want to improve their grade, they're going to have to work hard for it. Sometimes, I create these organically based on student questions. For example, a student asked what the difference was between water-rich granite and "regular" granite. I had no idea - so I sent them home to answer the question and cite their source(s). When asked how much it would be worth, I said, that depends on how much work it takes to answer it. If you have to write a lot to explain, I will give you more points. If it is straight-forward, then no more than 5. Be flexible - this goes back to student-driven learning. 7. Connect the dots: Students need teacher help in explicitly connecting their learning. If I use the word "factor" in science or social studies, we might talk about it as something influencing an outcome and relate it to the math concept of factors which "influence" a mathematical product. We could draw a factor tree for math and for an outcome in one of these other content classes. In science, I don't teach geologic processes separately, but they are part of a spiraling curriculum in which I frequently refer back to old information and may briefly mention future connections. The rock cycle, weathering, erosion, tectonic plates, etc. are all part of one large interconnected process. Density, convection currents, and others might be concepts that rear their heads as we study geology, weather, and energy transfer. Of course, as a science and social studies teacher, I make a lot of science references in social studies and vice versa. Recently, my students had to explain why only Mayans in the highlands region had access to jade and obsidian (they had to figure out what type of rock these two were and why they formed at this location). Then we related that to the need for trading with groups of people who had different resources (lowlands having cotton and cacao as resources to trade). Thus we look at the social studies concept of human-environment interaction. My students are given explicit connections between different lessons and different classes almost daily. Thus, they can build a conceptual framework in their brains to remember all this madness I throw at them. When I put these strategies together, over an extended period of time, I see an improvement in their level of engagement. Not to say there aren't some classroom management strategies I am using at the same time, but these are my tools for getting students to commit to their learning long-term (versus committing to one exciting activity and checking out again, later). Good luck!

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