Hopscotch courtI can still recall my first sociology course in college. The first seven lectures were called: 7 Ways Human Beings Deceive Themselves. I never missed a class!

I didn’t even care about the grade. I went because I felt that I could “fail” life if I didn’t learn those seven things. The professor also made it intriguing, He started each class with a story that seemed unrelated to the concepts, but by the end of the lecture he connected them together. I ended up getting a good grade in the course. It would have been hard not to get one; the professor didn’t just keep us in our seats, he kept us on the edge of our seats.

Positive and engaging learning experiences do not require mandatory audience attendance; they draw people in and keep them coming back willingly. It is not surprising that the research confirms what we know from experience: When we choose to learn something we learn more, integrate it and retain it much more than when are learning it because we have to. The best teachers transform something that we might not initially want to learn into something we value and end up choosing and wanting to learn.

Teachers don’t have to be entertainers — nor should they be — but how they organize and structure the time, the pace and the flow of information makes a huge difference in how much those in the class learn. We have all had very positive learning experiences, so when we reflect on them, we can discover and “unpack” the elements that create the conditions for meaningful and memorable teaching and learning.

With this in mind, I thought that all teachers might want to try this challenge: Teach your students as if they did not have to be in your classroom. Pretend to teach without the net of mandatory attendance. Design your instruction to pull them into the content and help them discover the value and the meaning of every lesson.

The summer can provide a great opportunity to plan instruction, as if it were the summer all year through and the students didn’t have to go to school. Why not? Act on the assumption that students want to learn and will be drawn to content that is meaningful, purposeful and intriguing. The competition — video games, social events, TV, etc. — vying for attention would be tough, but accepting the challenge –even if it were only pretend — would stretch any teacher’s skills. It might be very difficult to make every class, every lesson so engaging that students would show up voluntarily, but the challenge of trying to do so would stretch and enhance the skills of even the strongest and most effective teacher.

Here are some ideas that teachers could use to help them beat the competition and keep their audience coming back for more:

Treat each lesson like a good story. Focus on the beginning and the end — the middle usually can take care of itself. Make sure it has a good lead sentence. Sometimes the first 30 seconds delivered the right way is enough to get students engaged; a statement out of left field or a visual prop can be enough to make the students wonder what is coming next. Make sure that the end of the lesson provides a sneak peek of what is to come, like the coming attractions at the end of a television show. There is a radio show called Mike and Mike in the Morning and the host is a master of posing a question right before each commercial, it never fails to keep me listening through the break because I want to hear the answer on the other side.

Inject a little humor in your lessons every day. One of our parish priests always shares a joke right before he gives his homily. I always look forward to it because it gives me something to tell my friends and family later in the day. If I have to choose what mass to attend I try to go to his. Not all of the jokes are good but enough of them are to make me look forward to the next one.

Learn from Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers might have been boring to adults, but adults weren’t his audience. His show was designed for the developmental level of the children watching it. Here is why the show worked so well for them:

  • He spoke slowly because he knew that children had just learned to talk.
  • He communicated in a variety of ways: puppets, videos and interesting characters stopping by to visit.
  • He was also a master of blending novelty and predictability. He entered his house every day in the same way but was always carrying something new or different. He knew that too much novelty could disorient children, but too much predictability could bore them.
  • He connected new learning to the familiar. He would show a video about how crayons were made in the factory. Children knew about crayons but they didn’t know where they came from.
  • Even though he was broadcasting to millions, each child felt he was talking to him or her personally.

Use video to pique interest to introduce a topic or idea. It is so much easier to use video clips than when I was a teacher! A brief video clip never fails to gain initial interest, so a well-timed question immediately following an interesting clip can stimulate a lot of thinking. It is also so much easier to make your own video or ask the students to make one relevant to the lesson. They can add a little humor into the mix too!

Find an intriguing hook for the lesson and put it in the lead. It might be hiding somewhere else. I observed a high-school science teacher present a lesson on barometric pressure and during the lesson she mentioned how it affected the temperature needed for baking a cake. I suggested to her that if she started the lesson using a lead question, such as, “Why is it that you have to set a different temperature for baking a cake in Denver than in New York?” the students would have been even more engaged throughout the lesson.

Find a way to make it in the students’ best interest to learn what you are offering them and/or help them see how learning it will help them help others. Almost any concept or skill can have some connection to a person’s life even when it is not readily apparent. It could even be a fun for students to figure out this connection.

Use the analogy of each lesson being like a trip and talk about it that way with the students. If the students start to think of learning as a journey with a different place go to every day, they can look forward to each lesson with the mindset of “where are we going today?” The explicit instruction embedded in the lesson can become like giving directions on how to get to the desired destination. Students can use this information from instruction and still be active participants in their own learning.

Involve students in their own instruction by learning about learning together with them. If students shift their role from being passive recipients of learning to co-creators of it with their teachers, the process of learning itself can draw the students’ interest. Ask student for feedback on how to make the lesson work better for them.

If it is hard to come up with ideas to make lessons “summer proof,” get help from colleagues — what better reason to collaborate? This way of teaching transforms lessons that “bomb” into opportunities for getting better next time. This is really how collective professional expertise can develop and teaching becomes a creative act in addition to a science. Learn with colleagues on how to make “failure” productive for future lessons.

Remember that students — the audience — love audience participation. When I was trained in cooperative learning, my teacher made a statement that always stuck with me, “The person who talks the most, learns the most.” Getting students to talk to eachother meaningfully based on ideas and concepts that you presented lets students teach and learn from each other.

Ask the students to help you to help them. I would tell students that teaching was hard and that I needed their help. I would list the things that I agreed to do for them and asked them to offer what they agreed to do for me. “Agreements” rather than “rules” changes the situation from the teacher using power over the students to the teacher using power with the students. Remember no one, students included, likes to be forced to do anything!

Take the opportunity that the summer offers to prepare to teach like it was summertime during the school year! You really have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Who knows on a cold winter’s day next year a little bit of summer injected into your teaching could be just what everyone needs!

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.

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