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The following excerpt comes from What Do I Do About the Kid Who…? 50 Ways to Turn Teaching Into Learning, by Kathleen Gould Lundy (Stenhouse Publishers, 2004). The book retails for $22 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.
With this article, learn how to draw in the hard-to-engage student, and how to establish relevant contexts for learning. Read about two simple, free techniques for connecting the curriculum to students’ lives.
Describe the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About
There are a myriad of ways to open up the curriculum so that it can be mined for all sorts of possibilities. Think of new ways to introduce subjects, themes, topics, and events to students. I always read my student teachers Richard Van Camp’s book, What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? I ask them to name one of the topics that they are going to teach. Then, in a game format, I tell them to approach as many students in the class as they can and ask them to identify the most beautiful thing about the topic.
One student asked another, “What’s the most beautiful thing you know about fractions?” The student replied that the most beautiful thing that she knew about them was that they are about mystery and possibilities, that fractions are incomplete and when something is incomplete, it opens us up to possibilities.
Another student asked, “What’s the most beautiful thing you know about ancient civilizations?” A student answered, “The most beautiful thing that I know about ancient civilizations is that when archaeologists excavate material, they consider that everything—even the most day-to-day artifacts like bowls and combs and fragments of pottery—is precious and full of memories and dreams.”
Here is a menu to introduce a theme or a topic to students so that they can think in new ways and ask further questions. If students are working in groups on a topic, I ask them to identify their topic at the top of the page. I ask the students to go around the room and interview as many of their peers as they can about their topic. I encourage people to “wax poetic” about the topic under consideration. I then call everyone together and ask them to share what they found out.
What’s the most beautiful thing you know about __________________?
What’s the most interesting thing you know about __________________?
What’s the most boring thing you know about _____________________?
What’s the most troubling thing you know about ___________________?
What’s the most mysterious thing you know about _________________?
What’s the most difficult thing you know about ____________________?
What’s the most exciting thing you know about ____________________?
What’s the most dangerous thing you know about __________________?
What’s the most tragic thing you know about ______________________?
What’s the most compelling thing you know about _________________?
What’s the most fascinating thing you know about _________________?
What’s the most devastating thing you know about _________________?
What’s the most precious thing you know about ____________________?
What’s the most important thing for us all to know about ____________?
Who Am I? Who Are You? The "Teacher in Role" Technique
I often use a strategy called “teacher in role” to intrigue students and bring them into the learning environment using their imaginations and listening skills. I tell the students that I am going to be someone else and that they are going to be people who are connected to the role that I am playing. I ask them to listen carefully for clues that will help them to understand who they are and who I am. Usually, students are intrigued by this activity and settle down to listen. Here is a good way to begin:
“When I turn around, I am going to pretend to be someone other than who I am. I will carefully introduce myself and give you clues as to what my role is. I also will be letting you know in subtle ways who you are. Listen carefully for the clues that I am going to give to you. You do not have to say anything at all, but let your minds and imaginations be open to the possibilities of this dramatic encounter. When I turn back around I will be myself again, and we will talk as ourselves about who we were, where we were, what was going on in the story, and what can happen next.”
I am careful to prepare for this and always keep in mind that I have to give a clear definition of who I am, where I am, and what is happening so that the class can begin to understand the context. I am careful to take my time and not give too much information away too early. In this way, I am introducing nuance and subtlety and helping students understand that an author spends a great deal of time leading readers into a story—leading them on so that they will want to read more.
I have used this technique hundreds of times in classrooms as I introduce themes, novels, and historical events. What appeals to students and surprises them is that the teacher is willing to shift the classroom dynamic and to give over power to them for a period of time. The role-playing unlocks new avenues of understanding and allows students to relate to the characters they are meeting with an immediacy that is enjoyable and memorable. It also lets students practice different language registers as they speak as adults who have some authority or experience. Their roles allow them to speak in sophisticated and heightened language and to see themselves with the competencies of those roles.
On one occasion, I played the role of Ruby Bridges’ mother, as presented in Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges and Margo Lundell. It was the day before I sent my black six-year-old daughter to an all-white school. As the students listened to my teacher-in-role monologue, they began to understand that they were being drawn into a story of civil rights and social justice. I chose my words carefully as I spoke in role and imposed the role of Church leaders on the class.
I stopped, went out of role, and asked the students if they had any ideas about who I was and who they were. Some felt that they were “advisers” in some way. Some said they felt that they were “important,” but they were not sure why. I went back into role and gave further information. The subsequent discussion about the racism that the students were facing in school and in their community was a surprise to the teacher. The role-playing had unlocked new avenues of understanding and had allowed these students to relate Mrs. Bridges’ situation to their own lives and to talk about what was important to them.
Why does this strategy work? It works for many reasons. In the example above, students were placed in a position of power. I, in role as Ruby’s mother, was ill at ease, worried, unsupported by my husband. I had turned to them for support and was eager to hear what they had to say. They, in role, as community leaders, were able to advise, delegate, give support, listen with empathy and concern, and have a chance to see what it feels like to be an adviser.
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