George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Recently, we heard from a teacher who decided to create a more dynamic approach to his history class . . . by teaching it backward, starting with the present day. "Here's the world around you and how it feels to live in it. What happened over the last 20 years to get where we are? What happened in the decade before that?" Unsurprisingly, he met resistance from parents, who thought his approach was crazy.

From a neurological perspective, though, starting a history class from the present makes perfect sense. Scientists from Adriaan De Groot to Anders Ericsson report that human brains are very particular about how they like to take in information and about what information actually sticks.

Drawing Out the Story

Our brains love to make connections. We learn best when we can relate new information to something that we already know.

That's not news -- most teachers know that providing context is helpful when introducing new material. "Last week, we learned about the sun, the moon, and Earth's rotation. Today, let's see how that results in day and night and the seasons." Creating lesson-­to-­lesson connections is a great start. But that's not enough. When it comes to learning, not all context is created equal.

What the human brain loves most of all is story -- logic and emotion tied together to bring meaning to a set of ideas. That's why students don't need flashcards to remember the plot of their favorite movie or every detail of their most embarrassing gym class moment. Too often, students treat subjects such as history as a never-ending onslaught of unrelated facts that happened to people in pantaloons or togas -- people who are nothing like them. If you can take the facts that you're teaching and relate them in an emotional way to what your students already understand, you'll make the material more memorable than ever before.

This issue goes beyond one teacher's idea for his classroom and is at the heart of why so many students say they don't care about school. While it's easy to assume that student apathy is related to laziness or an attitude problem, it actually makes perfect sense that so many students don't care about what they're learning because they’ve never been taught how to care.

Teenagers' lives are driven almost entirely by emotions, from panicking and blanking during a test, to avoiding mistakes because of shame, to the drama of junior prom. It's common for emotions to derail students' learning, but it's rare that teachers show students how to use emotion to their advantage in the classroom. Emotions drive attention and forge lasting memories. If you want your students to be engaged, and to remember what they've learned, then you need to put emotional context first in your class.

Activating the Understanding

But how do you make that change? Don't be afraid to get creative or to get back to basics. In English class, we discuss theme and symbolism, but we don't always draw out the most accessible emotional starting point for our students. "Look, there are big words in here, and there is symbolism and an intricate plot, but let's start from the fact that The Great Gatsby is about being in love with someone who will never date you! That's the toughest feeling ever!" Similarly, Katie still remembers being handed a poem to introduce To Kill a Mockingbird in freshman English. The poem was actually the lyric to the song "I'm Just a Girl" by No Doubt. Instantly, the class was 1) excited that this "assignment" was a song they loved, 2) blown away that their teacher, Mr. Macomber, knew who No Doubt was, and 3) poised to read the novel from an emotional perspective -- about a girl whose environment keeps her from being all that she really wants to be. One song lyric gave the class a jumping-off point that made them relate and made them excited to dig into the novel.

Because teenagers have so little context, it can be hard for them to see the real-life resonance in their material. They don't realize that the imaginary numbers they learn about in math class help make their smartphones and laptops possible, or that mitosis is why you don't bleed out when you skin your knee falling off your skateboard. By making simple connections, you're starting your students from a place of understanding, appreciation, and curiosity. Neuroscientifically speaking, teaching humans isn't about giving them new information -- it's about activating the understanding they already have. In other words, we should worry less about what our students don't know, and focus first on what they already do know, including all of the knowledge that doesn't come from school.

With a set amount of material to cover and limited class time to drive it home, it's easy to view No Doubt lyrics or skateboarding injuries as "extra" information. But that extra information provides emotional relevance that makes the information stick through the quiz, the test, and beyond. Students might have minimal prior knowledge of your subject, but they all understand fear, anger, love, excitement, and self-doubt. So let's shift the conversation from the Common Core to the common context and make student apathy a thing of the past.

What are your examples of providing emotional context to your students? How can you make the concepts that you teach more memorable?

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


About fifteen seconds into today's vocabulary test Lamar slammed his pencil on his desk and announced that he was giving up because he couldn't remember any of the words he studied real hard last night.

I urged Lamar, in my most encouraging voice, to give it one more try.

As a grade for the test, Lamar asked if I would use the mock quiz his mother made for him last night on some Internet computer program. He said he made a good grade on it.

I said no, but still with a teacherly tone of encouragement. I almost made myself gag.

Lamar asked me if he could use my phone to call his mother and maybe she could fax the quiz to me to prove that he did a quiz already.

I said no, but thanks for the offer. Plus, there's not a fax machine in here. I waved both arms around.

Lamar started to rip the test up until he saw the look on my face.

Then he asked me if he could draw his feelings.

I gave him a new look this time that basically emoted...What the heck. Draw your feelings.

Lamar took out a piece of paper and began to draw his feelings. After he finished, Lamar gave me the piece of paper. The result of Lamar drawing his feelings was a picture of a helicopter-looking contraption floating above the ground. On the nose of the helicopter was a nozzle which was sucking up students and placing them into the helicopter's "Punishment Rooms." There were twelve Punishment Rooms. Lamar had labeled the helicopter's blades "Punishment Blades." In the bottom, right-hand corner of the paper was what looked like a porpoise with an urgent expression on its face and it was swimming in some waves. Lamar had labeled that uplifting scene "Random Dolfin."

I asked Lamar what was the meaning of the random dolfin (misspelling his) on a feelings drawing of students being sucked into helicopter punishment rooms.

Lamar said he just likes dolfins and since they all look alike, like Chinese people, he figured it was a random one.

I went back to fiddling around on my computer while the rest of them were still taking the vocabulary test. A few moments later I looked at Lamar. He had snuck into his backpack and now he was looking at me through a pair of binoculars. I asked Lamar why he was looking at me through a pair of binoculars, you know, when we were six feet away from each other.

Lamar said that he was looking at me so closely that he could see what I was thinking.

I asked Lamar to look real close and tell me what I was thinking.

He said to probably put the binoculars away.

I went back to fiddling around on my computer. A few moments later I looked at Lamar again.

Lamar had curled his tongue up and was poking it out of his mouth. And then he asked me how small I could make my tongue.

I curled my tongue up and poked it out.

Lamar was extremely complimentary.

Earlier that day Lamar came up to me during Lord of the Flies and gave me a trinket he said he made just for me last night. Hanging off of a metallic blue carabiner was a white rope and it was intertwined to form an odd shape. The closest thing to nature I could come up with was the shape of a walrus without hind flippers.

Lamar saw the gratitude and innocent fascination on my face, and said it was a "Dragonskin." He asked me to keep it with me for the rest of my life.

I asked him was it for keeping demons away from me.

Lamar said yes...except for him.

As Lamar was poking his tongue at me, I pulled the trinket out of my pocket and wiggled it at him. Lamar was right. It didn't work on him.

Mario Gomez's picture

I really enjoyed this article because I am currently struggling with a freshmen class that I just described to the principal as apathetic. To put it into perspective, we are currently reading Night by Elie Wiesel and have read some very emotional passages from the first two parts (chapters) and zero response. I have tried a number of activities and plans to get them to connect to the protagonist, and aside from the "good" students,very few of them are excited to read the rest of the novel and take charge of the learning. I began the unit by showing them an ASPCA with the "Arms of an Angel" type music in the background and got nothing but yawns and "why should I care" looks. I don't know how other teachers would have reacted by I was blown away by desensitization and even angered by it. I enjoyed your article plenty and will continue to look for ideas to stir up emotions, perhaps more recent.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

Teenagers may not always care about what happened in the distant past (=anything they can't personally remember!), but they care about who they are and who they want to become. Have they experienced or witnessed racism, discrimination, or intolerance in their own lives? Would they be interested to talk about it? Do they wonder why people do evil things? What theories do they have about that? For me, this article suggests that it's important to create a personal and immediate emotional context with students first; then the texts (like Night) can become evidence that students use to explore their own questions and concerns. You might find some ideas that might resonate with you and your students at the Facing History and Ourselves web site:
Good luck with your class!

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

In my work, I use theatre to help students make connections with the feelings in a story or historic event. Basically, students imagine the world we're studying from the point of view of one of the characters. Write a diary entry for Boo Radley. Debate the constitution in character as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Student complete a character worksheet so they understand the character's background, then they use empathy to understand their character's perspective. It asks them to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. It's really important they represent the character honestly, not as the student may wish it would be. Everything the students do or say in character must be supported by the text(s); they must provide textual evidence. I find the students take great ownership over their character. I have them write diary entries in character and, later, when they're familiar with the content, I have them interact with each other in character. I create a setting where all the characters could be at the same time. Sometimes they have a goal to complete; other times, they just talk with each other. It's great fun and I find it increases retention and engagement.

Brent Warner's picture
Brent Warner
Proprietor of

Great post. This is one of the points I think often gets left behind in teacher training, but it's so huge.

I work with international students at the college level studying English as a Second Language, so I will often start the class by talking about my struggles learning a second language, and bring back the memory of how great it feels when someone understands what you're trying to say, or the first time you tell a joke that people laugh at in your L2.

Most students with some language ability can relate to those situations, so when I bring up a new grammar point or introduce writing themes, I infer that it will lead to an expansion of that experience.

I love the idea of introducing emotional context. I think I'll put that idea at the top of my lesson plans to encourage me to think about emotionally relevant introductions.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Nearly all teachers say they care about their students. But findings are sometimes discouraging to teachers and that is understandable. The discrepancy lies in how teachers define caring about their students. I may view planning lessons and getting tests and papers back on time as caring but my students describe these efforts as teachers doing their job. Students today have fewer adults in their lives who take a personal interest in them than in the past. If we the teachers took as much personal interest in our student as a good neighbor used to, that would fulfill many of the needs revealed by the study. Our students need adults as heroes, as guides and as role models.

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