As humans, we are innately curious and seek out the unexpected. That sense of curiosity does not only belong to adults. It also inhabits the minds of children—if you can find a way to tap into it.
Let’s be honest . . . reading and writing is hard. Teaching reading and writing is even harder. We’ve all had those students who like to throw in your face that they like math more (these are my favorite kids to convert). You can’t get them to pick up a single book unless it’s the same graphic novel series they’ve read 10 times over. Forget about expecting them to read for those magical 20 minutes every night for homework. It’s an uphill battle, and the hill just seems to get steeper and steeper as you go.
The good news is that their flame is but an ember waiting to be ignited, and you can design meaningful lessons that captivate their attention, activate their imaginations, and fuel their sense of curiosity. But you don’t want to hear me ramble off strategies—you want to know what those lessons look and sound like in the classroom. Here are some easy-to-implement ideas for igniting those flames.
Keep ‘Em Guessing
I’ve jumped from Grade 2 to Grade 3, and now I’ve landed on my favorite grade level—Grade 5. Regardless of age, all students love the unexpected! We were beginning a unit on comparing and contrasting texts on the same topic. I know . . . yikes! I can promise you none of my students shouted with excitement. Most would be immediately turned off if they knew they had to read not one but two texts.
When my students enter my classroom, I always have pop hits playing. Basic routine . . . right? Well, they were shocked when “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus was replaced with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Immediately a group of students started to hum, or even sing, to the song. Perched eyebrows populated the room. “Mr. J., why are you playing this?” they asked. My students immediately started asking why we were listening to a song from 1940. Little did they know that was my segue into our unit on The Great Depression. The power of music coupled with natural curiosity turned an “unrelatable topic” into one of insane interest. Once their curiosity was piqued, my students were ready to dive into texts that would be daunting to most.
This same principle can be applied using what a teacher at my school calls “Guess That Picture!” She will place a blurred image on the projector, and students have two minutes to write down what they think the picture is portraying. Afterward, they discuss it with their partners. Finally, the teacher unblurs the picture and uses it as a hook into her lesson. Brilliant! I have used this strategy many times, and it always results in student buy-in.
Change It Up
As teachers, we can jolt ourselves back into a rhythm with a cup of coffee. However, our students don’t have that luxury. They need to get their burst of energy from a different source. I love to “surprise” my students in the middle of our lesson, especially if I notice their heads starting to succumb to the force of gravity. That’s my cue to ask them to pack up and line up so we can move our lesson to a different location! One time we were practicing descriptive writing techniques so we could “beef” up our writing. A classroom with white walls, identical desks, and uniformed students didn’t seem like a stimulating environment for descriptive writing. I called the front office and told them we would be outside in the grassy field. We walked out with our pencils, paper, and clipboards, and I directed my students to use their senses to describe their environment. Not only did the walk outside wake them up, but it also motivated them to tackle the writing task at hand. “The dull blades of rustling emerald grass against my worn, leather sneakers” sounded a lot better than, “The brick walls are white and old.” This simple change made a world of difference!
Of course, not all schools have the luxury of a field full of trees, picnic tables, and shaded areas to sit underneath. If that’s the case, virtual field trips can be your next best friend—there are thousands of them online. I could have easily adapted my descriptive writing lesson to focus on the Amalfi Coast or the Cliffs of Moher. Students could even choose a location they’re interested in to increase motivation even more.
Tap In to Your Own Imagination
Students, just like teachers, get bored with the mundane, expected routine of reading an anchor text, asking the pre-determined discussion questions, completing monotonous workbook pages—all while redirecting students to get back on task. You can easily incorporate a sense of novelty into your classroom with a simple change in routine, surprise, or thought-provoking hooks to engage your students. It will ignite the flame of motivation inside them to tackle their learning opportunity with vigor and determination.
To learn more, check out our Science of Reading webinar series.