George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Boosting Student Engagement... With Rubber Ducks?

Using a funny object to monitor participation or as a writing prompt can help high school students relax and share their creativity.

March 25, 2020
Teacher's collection of rubber duck toys
Lindsay Mitchell
The author’s rubber duck collection.

If you walked into my high school world language classroom, you’d probably think I have a concerning obsession with rubber ducks—125 of them overflow from two baskets. All of the ducks have names and personalities: A glow-in-the-dark duck is a vampire named Miguel, for example, and his best friend, Maverick, has a yellow mohawk and loves to surf.

Years ago, I bought 25 ducks to use as a tool for dividing students into groups, and over time they have become a “thing” in my classes, with students adding to the collection and bringing me to my current ridiculously high number.

I recognize that every teacher’s personality is different and that not every teacher will want baskets upon baskets of ducks in their classroom. But I hope my experience will inspire you to consider how embracing something different might spark curiosity and creativity in your classroom.

How I Use Them

Over the years, I’ve found that these are the most consistently successful ways to incorporate the ducks into my classroom:

Participation: Sometimes I lose track of which student last spoke. To address this, once a student answers a question, I give them a duck. This is a simple, quick way to tell who has spoken.

Writing: Sometimes my students do free-writes in Spanish. If I ask them to write about their weekend, classes, etc., the responses are typically pretty boring. If students have an opportunity to write about a duck with a particular personality, though, they get more imaginative.

Prompts such as “Describe what your duck did over the weekend” or “Tell me about your duck’s family” become avenues for creativity. A duck giving advice, providing an opinion, or retelling a story makes assignments feel less personal for students. While this approach may appear childish, I’ve found that it brings an aspect of fun to an otherwise ordinary task.

Projects and videos: Are your students terrified to be in videos? Mine usually are. The ducks can be used as characters in videos to reduce the pressure and increase the creativity. As with writing, using the duck makes the presentation less about the students, who don’t need to show themselves, which reduces anxiety. My students have used the ducks in all sorts of projects: In some, the ducks are moved around campus to create video storybooks about their day; in others they’re used to reenact historical and fictional events, with students creating voice-overs.

The Benefits

Relaxing the culture: Let’s face it, our students often don’t find what we teach very interesting. Utilizing a fun object as part of your instruction transforms your classroom into a place where unexpected things happen—and does a lot to counter apathy. If nothing else, the students begin to wonder what you’ll do next.

Serving as a visual cue: Tracking student participation with objects can be an easy way to see who is dominating the conversation. For example, I may pose a question or prompt for discussion. As students answer, I hand each a duck. As I look around the room, the goal is for everyone to have a duck.

For students with anxiety, the duck becomes a tangible cue to both you and them. At the beginning of the year, students learn that when I pull out the ducks, they are all going to need to participate. Those with anxiety know that they’re going to need to participate, but they also know that they can choose when they do it—they won’t be called on randomly and can prepare themselves for speaking to the class.

Shifting the focus: In the case of projects and free-writes, writing and/or presenting about oneself can be terrifying. Focusing on an inanimate object can be less anxiety-provoking. Students are often terrified of looking foolish in front of their peers. Talking about their personal lives can be hard, and they may not want to share. Using a creative or fun object shifts the focus away from themselves.

Some Suggested Guidelines

Find your thing: Rubber ducks are not for everyone. Find something that makes you and your students laugh—it could be sunglasses, plastic leis, or finger puppets.

Beware of “borrowing”: Attempts will happen. Just make sure you collect the objects and keep them stored away when not in use. If you introduce them at the start of the year, they become part of the class and will generally not be taken by students; the bigger risk is random students who pass by your classroom.

Forbid projectiles: Students will be tempted to throw small objects. Set your class expectations. As I say to my students, “We can’t play with our toys if we don’t treat them nicely.”

One of the best suggestions I can give, though, is to enjoy the hilarity. Silly tools such as rubber ducks work because they channel positive associations from childhood—for bout our students and ourselves. If you let students embrace their silliness, they’ll be more free to express their creativity. This gives you an opportunity to learn more about their personalities. One of the best parts of teaching is the opportunity to connect with our students, and tools like rubber ducks can make these connections even more authentic.

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  • Classroom Management
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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