A memory of middle and high school is being stuck in class and daydreaming my time away, full aware that my inability to focus on the droning lesson in front of me would cost me dearly when I had to figure out later how to answer the homework problems. Maybe this is why I made educational films in college and more recently worked with a team to launch Elevated Math, an iPad app that teaches middle school math. Teachers need to do something to engage our kids. We have infinite ways to do this, but for now I’ll touch on four.
1. Passion. Teachers must not only love the subjects they teach, they must be passionate about them. In college, I took a class on existentialism. The instructor would talk an hour in the lecture hall and then, when the hour was over, would invite us to join him in the sculpture garden outside where he would lecture another hour. Everyone followed him. He would speak about each philosopher as if this person held the ultimate truth of life that we each needed to know. No doubt this professor passionately loved his subject. Can we approach our class in the same way, as if we hold a sacred gift of knowledge that we must pass on?
2. Real-world problems. I remember my earth science class when the first photographs of the moon were released. My teacher drove to Washington D.C. (we lived in northern Virginia) and acquired large prints of these maps. Each of us got a different one and then we worked to figure out the size and depth of the craters by using the cast shadows.
The introduction in Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got To Do With It, describes a class where students are working out the time it would take a skateboarder to crash into a wall after holding onto a spinning merry-go-round and letting go at a certain point. The students were completely engaged.
How can we create the same invigorating atmosphere in our own classes?
3. Humor. You say you don’t have a sense of humor? You’re not funny? Then bring something to class that you think IS funny. A simple joke such as “why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9.” can put a smile on your kids’ faces and get their attention so they will listen to your instruction. With Elevated Math we begin each lesson with a cartoon. This not only establishes the characters who continue the lesson but puts the students at ease and gets them involved. Here is one of my favorite cartoons for a lesson that teaches the subtraction of integers:
The cartoon precedes the Elevated Math lesson entitled, “Subtracting Integers.” Subtraction of integers is modeled using two-colored counters. Following these exercises students add integers using a number line, and learn the rules for subtracting integers. They learn that subtraction does not always make a number smaller. Find this lesson in the iPad app Elevated Math.
4. Caring. Ever watch how kids react to their teachers? Sit in a lunchroom or go to a school sports event and watch the students as their teachers pass by. With some teachers they will turn their heads away or look down. For others, their faces brighten; they wave and call out the teachers’ names. The teachers acknowledge their students, say hello, make comments. For these teachers the kids are OUR kids, not THESE kids. For them engaging students begins before the class starts and continues after class ends.
Winning your kids’ attention isn’t such a chore once you decide to do it. Be willing to take a chance, make a mistake, tell a joke, and try something new. It might be as simple as a new way of grading or finding a real-world problem to share. And how do you let your kids know you care? It’s simple. By actually caring and letting your actions reflect that.
Oh heck, here is one more cartoon from Elevated Math. This one precedes an algebra lesson on radicals. Enjoy!
The cartoon precedes an algebra lesson entitled, “Solving Multi-Step Radical Equations.” Solving multi-step radical equations and determining whether a radical equation has a solution by checking is the focus with this lesson. It can be found in the iPad app Elevated Math.