George Lucas Educational Foundation
Interest-Based Learning

Creating a Geek Culture in the Classroom

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I always hated Smurfs. I know, I know, hate is a strong word for something so benign as a blue troll in white overalls, but my disinterest made me an outlier in my fourth grade class. I was a girl who chose to watch Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday morning rather than Strawberry Shortcake. In other words, I was a geek.

But the times they have changed. Some of this shift came about because of the embrace of technology and those who built its networks. Some, I believe, came about through the era of Oprah-esque talk shows and the reality show boom that brought to light many different kinds of people -- right in our living rooms.

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No longer is "geek" associated with chicken heads and sideshows or taped glasses and suspenders. Nope. For just as my t-shirt from this year's Comic Con stated, "Science is the new rock n' roll" -- as is geek the new cool.

However, this new era does not mean that it's the geeks' turn to rise up and give wedgies to anyone not interested in Battlebots. Instead, it's about creating a culture where displaying an unabashed passion for one's interests, sharing what "geeks you out," is hip.

Cultivating "Geekdom" -- Vital to Classroom Culture

Every school year, I begin the first semester with the following quote from actor/director Simon Pegg:

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It's basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.

I share this quote because while being a geek used to mean that you were only into comic books and science, the new definition is broader, and that can be leveraged to benefit your students' learning. It's vital for the good of your classroom community -- and, ultimately, for the achievement of your students -- to let those kids know that your room is a safe harbor for their geekdom, whatever it may be.

A great classroom environment is about a group of students wanting to function in order to move forward in their understanding. Rules help, sure, but it also comes with honoring students as people, where respect for each other is the most frequent classroom management strategy being used. And it all starts with modeling from the teacher.

The teacher has to bring his or her own interests into the classroom, to an uber nerdy level, in order to allow students the feeling that they too can shed their masks.

You'll be amazed at what you find. For me, when I began talking freely about my love for comic books, I found that I learned more about my students and could openly celebrate their differences in a greater way.

I learned that David, the skateboarder who was suspended for tagging the school over the weekend, really longed to go to culinary school. We talked Top Chef nonstop for an entire school year.

I learned that Melanie spoke four languages, and that she wanted to use her facility with language to work with the United Nations.

I learned that Eduardo did the crossword puzzle with his abuela every Sunday morning, and despite the laughs he got when he first admitted it, he became the go-to guy to have on the classroom Jeopardy team.

Bringing Out the Geek in Our Students

So how do you do it? How do you bring out the inner geek in all students?

1. Make sure that your metaphors and comparisons bring in many interests. For me, this means not always referencing Star Wars and superheroes.

2. Give them outlets to share their interests in ways that relate to your content area. Have students bring in examples of how your content applies to the real world. You might find someone bringing in an example of an arch from local architecture, but you also might see an example of a trajectory from a football toss. Celebrating the geeks before you provides differentiation opportunities.

3. Celebrate uniqueness and passion as an ongoing theme in your classroom. Read A Bad Case of Stripes to your elementary students. Analyze Apple's "Think Different" ads through a persuasive lens. Bring in biographies of people who thought a little off-center and brought change to the world.

4. Give students the opportunity to teach others about their passions. Allow students a rigorous outlet of teaching others about what really interests them.

5. Administer a multiple intelligences test -- to yourself. Analyze what makes yourself tick, and then deliberately embed other themes with your references and the modalities in which you teach.

In the end, it's not merely about creating an open makerspace. It's about creating an open-minded space. Create a classroom culture that celebrates geekdom, and you'll be advancing tolerance, empathy, and -- yes -- achievement.