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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Liven Up Your Lessons by Giving Students Choices

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Last summer, I went to the Fourth of July celebration at a lake in San Antonio, Texas. While my family and I waited on the shore for the darkness to signal the start of the fireworks displays, we were intrigued by an enterprising young man working his way through the people sitting in folding chairs and on picnic blankets.

He was a balloon artist, and his simple business plan was proving to be very effective. He would ask a child what he wanted, and he would create it for him. We watched, amazed, as he made flowers, swords, poodles, Spider-Man (it was awesome), scepters, and crowns. There seemed no limit to what he could create with simple balloons.

He had no want for customers, as they flocked to him rather than the other way around. He probably made enough money that night to cover much of his monthly living expenses!

Same Old Same Old

This experience got me thinking about another balloon artist I saw on television. On an episode of the sitcom My Name is Earl, the main character, dressed up as a balloon-making clown, is gruffly asking all the boys and girls at the party, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

It's clear that Earl was either unwilling to tie the balloons into the typical dogs, giraffes, and butterflies, or perhaps he didn't want to expend the effort, or maybe he didn't know how to create the shapes. So, instead, he just made long, straight balloons in a lame effort to give the children a choice.

In differentiating our instruction and student learning in our own classes, do we sometimes play the same trick? Rather than provide a rich variety of learning activities, do we simply stick with our favorite -- a tried-and-true strategy -- and maybe dress it up a bit by having students answer the odd-numbered questions in the book rather than the even-numbered ones?

If we do that, in essence, we aren't even asking students, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

Could it be that we don't know how to tie the balloons, or that perhaps we just don't have the energy to make them interesting? Heaven forbid that we might be reluctant to make the attempt, yet in many cases, I am afraid that some teachers praise the virtues of snakes, eels, and worms far too much.

The truth is that bookwork, copying notes, listening to lectures, filling in the blanks on worksheets, and coloring between the lines make up a large portion of the schoolwork in our classrooms. No wonder students are unimpressed when teachers try to engage them in these passive, uninteresting activities. Snakes, eels, and worms are boring!

Engage with Variety and Choice

Recently, I asked a 14-year-old student why he was struggling in school. He explained that it's because school is boring. To be blunt here, when I took five days recently and followed one student each in first grade, third grade, sixth grade, eighth grade, and ninth grade all day long through each of their classes, I was bored most of the time. I found it hard to sit still for so long, and I wondered how the students got through it.

I think you get the picture. As teachers, we need to start creating more elephants, giraffes, and swords -- and that awesome Spider-Man.

Let's say it's Monday, and the goal is to get students to read a textbook chapter for content and understanding. As a resource, textbooks have lots of information, but they are not the only source for information and learning.

I'd like to suggest that you offer something like the following selection for your students to choose from:

  • Create a slide show presentation to illustrate the major points of the chapter as if they were teachers teaching younger students.
  • Develop a newspaper article or a journalistic TV report about the chapter as if it were breaking news.
  • Prepare a debate on the chapter's main points and pose as either politicians or lawyers presenting their persuasive arguments.
  • Write a drama about the contents of the chapter and perform it to their peers and parents.
  • Construct an encyclopedic database of vocabulary, terms, and concepts included in the chapter, as well as prior knowledge that needs to be understood, and questions that are yet to be answered.
  • Design a virtual field trip to study topics and concepts to be learned based on the content of the chapter.
  • Invite experts to visit their classroom and ask them questions about their expertise based on the content of the chapter.
  • Use the contents of the chapter to devise an experiment to prove or disprove the assertions made in the chapter.
  • Fill the walls of the classroom with essential questions gleaned from the chapter and challenge the teacher and other classes to a content quiz show.

In each of these options, not once is it necessary for the teacher to say, "Open your books to page 37 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter." We want the students to love the content as much as we do, not to hate it. If we can get them to love it, then they will continue to learn.

Just as I saw the children's faces light up on the Fourth of July when they saw the balloons transformed into flowers or Spider-Man, I have seen students light up when the teacher takes a passive activity and makes it an active one.

Please share some ideas that you have found effective in transforming boring activities into energetic learning adventures.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jenny Wooten's picture

I have to agree with you. So many of our students are inundated with constantly changing images, whether through movies, game stations (big and small), etc. that coming to school does seem "boring" when students are made to sit and listen. I think what students need is a dose of reality. How are they going to function in society with what they are being taught now? Are they allowed to collaborate with each other just as we want our teachers to? Yes, sitting and listening is sometimes appropriate, but they need to learn how to communicate their ideas and disagreements with each other appropriately.

Pam Langley's picture

I have an idea. Why not get teacher to listen to their own teaching. Someone could video the teachers and then they could act as the student and see how they like what is happening. I believe we couldn't sit and listen to some of our videos. Our world reacts on a fast pace and the students probably want their teacher to be a video game, so they can make what's happening fast forward or disappear. I like hands on learning. I definitely believe each child needs the right teaching strategy used. Maybe the teacher could be given a little more time to observe each student and its learning style. The teacher could possibly reach that student in a more speedy fashion. I know we as a group/school system don't have all the answers, but I believe we can make a better effort to know the student and maybe find that answer to his/her learning.

Nicole F's picture
Nicole F
Teacher

Interesting point about staff meetings Dwight - I find so often we as teachers do not take what we know and learn in the classroom and apply it to our own professional learning. How often have you gone to a PD day that was an all day lecture, telling you to have the kids up and moving, giving them choice, etc., yet you have been sitting idle, listening for the last 3 hours?

Nancee Gormley's picture
Nancee Gormley
8&9th grade Family Consumer Sciences teacher from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

I don't think we should see ourselves as entertainers but rather as engaging presenters. At the very least we should grab our students attention on a subject with something relevant to their lives, even if we then proceed with a lecture. I don't have access to much technology in my classroom so I resort to old fashioned games to force even reluctant students out of their seats and up to the board to arrange and classify large cards bearing information. Any left over time and my classes really enjoy tossing a soft stuffed animal or small beach ball where the tosser gets to ask the tossee a vocabulary question. With or without notes- it's a great way to review.

De'Aundrea Moore's picture
De'Aundrea Moore
New Teacher

One area in which teachers definitely should liven up lessons would be in math. Many students have asked me, "When am I going to use this?" To help my students learn how to use data to create graphs,my co-teacher and I took the students outside so hey could throw a football. We had each of them throw a football three times and how far they threw the football was recorded. After this was completed, we went back inside and I showed them how the data could be used to create different graphs. After I modeled how to create graphs, I had each of the students create graphs using their data and the data of another student. My co-teacher explained to the students how they use data to create statistics for football players. My students learned how math can be useful in a real world application and I learned that if I want to get and keep my students attention, I need to plan lessons that in which they can actively participate.

De'Aundrea Moore's picture
De'Aundrea Moore
New Teacher

Giving students choices definitely works. I had a classroom full of boys in one of my classed and they wanted to go outside and I had a lesson that I wanted to teach on graphs and data such as mean, median, and mode. I had all the boys throw the football and how far the football was thrown was recorded. After returning to class, I showed the boys how I could use the information to create graphs and to show them how I could use their information to compute mean, median, and mode. I was able to keep their attention because they wanted to learn more. My co-teacher explained to them how this type of information is used in creating statistics for football players. By giving students a choice, we not only send students the message that we care about what they think, but they can learn first hand that what we're teaching them can be used in the real world.

Brett Amos's picture

I am new to the Edutopia Community! I love this blog and have always thought it boring to just sit and hear the same song and dance over and over. I remember sitting in a classroom in the mid to late 1980's and having to read a certain chapter in the textbook and answer the questions at the end. I longed for more excitement in my learning, which I did not recieve until I was in middle to high school.
When I graduated college and entered my first teaching assignment, I was determined to teach creatively and with excitement! My fist real "leap" was when I taught a lesson on fractions to my third graders. Instead of just standing at the board and teaching that this circle is divided into parts and so on, the class and I performed a skit called The Pizza Delivery Man. I went to Pizza Hut and got some pizzas donated and we performed a skit based on fractions. The kids got to write the script and I helped them to edit it to fit the lesson. In the skit, the delivery man delieved the pizza and went into a description of parts of a pizza. It went really well! The kids enjoyed it and they never had a problem learning fractions from that day forth!

In looking back on that lesson and many others that I have created since then, I see growth. If you are a new teacher, you can start small. Using puppetry is a good way to start off. I have a puppet I use in my classroon when I introdcuce a new topic. The goal is keeping their attention and allowing them to learn the concepts that they need to learn!
Please respond with questions or comments if you have them! Thanks!

Nancee Gormley's picture
Nancee Gormley
8&9th grade Family Consumer Sciences teacher from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

You sound like a great, devoted teacher. Keep up the good work- it's encouraging!

Michele M's picture

Giving students a choice is important. I do think that teachers are in some form entertainers. We need to present the material in an exciting and interesting way so that the students will see that what you are teaching is important. Being a newer teacher, I have had to observe many teachers and have also had a hard time sitting through the observation. If my mind wandered then I know that most of the 4th graders sitting in that class were also thinking of something else. I have found that incorporating technology by using SmartBoards, Wikis for research, using discussion blogs for reading comprehension instead of them just answering questions from a textbook have all been effective. My students also really enjoy being able to choose the topic that they want to write about, especially struggling writers that have a difficult time writing to a prompt. I also agree with others who have responded that younger students do need a lot more guidance and structure but modeling how to make choices is also a lesson in itself.

Jen M's picture

Thanks for some of the great ideas! I teach math and often find it difficult to cover all the necessary material in 53 minutes. It seems "easier" to lecture, assign homework and give work time. However, the reality is, everytime we do an engaging or choice filled assignment, participation and work completion increase! We've done some great assignments and projects - we've built paper frogs and graphed the distances of jumps, we've participated in the metric olympics and studied common multiples by looking at videos and demonstrations of ferris wheels and the speed of their rotations. My questions would be - do you think these type of activities should happen every day? If so, how do you manage to get all the required curriculum covered because these activities take time? Thanks for your input!

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