Remember that one professor you had?
Mine was a German professor. Two of them, actually. (And yes. I studied German before becoming a Spanish teacher. We all have to find our own paths. Don’t judge.)
The first German professor was a nervous wreck. Literally. The year after I left he took a leave of absence due to a nervous breakdown. (I, for one, thought people stopped having nervous breakdowns after the turn of the century, or so. I also somehow associate them with Victorian lace and pale women in massive skirts waving themselves with fans, not mousey German professors with an obsessive affection for sweater vests.)
While sweet enough, he taught pronunciation by endlessly repeating the alphabet, (repeating – not singing,) he read all our literary texts out loud, and he cut every class fifteen minutes short because he couldn’t make it through a ninety-minute class without a cigarette break.
The second German professor in question actually stopped my intermediate level course in the middle of a lesson to tell us, “If I ever don’t show up for class one day, you’ll probably find me facedown in a rowboat on the lake, with a bottle of Jack Daniels and slit wrists from having to live in the hellhole that is this town.”
The moral of the story?
Don’t be that professor. Oh, and you’re going to want to avoid my alma mater if you’re studying German.
Fact: Teenagers (all children, for that matter) are energy-suckers. Meaning, whatever energy you’re giving off in class that day, they will suck out and mimic back at you. If you’re not excited about what you’re teaching, heaven help you, neither are they.
The catch, and I totally get it, is that we all have to teach boring crap. Adjective vs. adverbial clauses in the subjunctive mood? Hold me back, folks. I think I just wet myself from excitement. Oh…wait. No, I didn’t.
So why should we expect our kids to?
Still, if you want your kids to be engaged, they have to know you love what you do. Even when it’s ugly. Or adverbial. So you are just going to have to get excited about those clauses. Or sentence diagramming. Or whatever it is that all you math and science people do that’s boring. (Insert obvious humanities-lover snark comment about math and science here.)
And this is why we pick up on the 4 Ways to Make Second Semester Better That Don’t Involve Boring Crap Like Reviewing Standards and Benchmarks or Analyzing Data list with Getting Excited.
1. Simplest Way to Get Excited Second Semester: I’m going to blow your mind with the obvious, kiddos.
Start with the most exciting aspect of the upcoming unit.
That’s right. Throw calendars, curriculum maps and caution to the wind. Begin your new semester with something that might, maybe actually capture their attention. It’ll be well worth the small amount of content juggling it requires.
There are limitations. Obviously you can’t be doing labs if you haven’t covered the safety regulations. But within the realm of what is teachable in that unit, pick the most fun. If I absolutely, undoubtedly, obligatorily have to begin with vocabulary, then I’m going to pick the most interesting chunk of vocabulary from that unit to teach first. And then, knowing me, I’m going to…
2. Do Something Bizarre With the Content: Since I frequently taunt math and science classes due to a series of unfortunately boring childhood experiences in and a completely inexcusable yet deeply rooted aversion to those areas, I’ll reign in my bias and give a shout out. I spent my math career (all three seconds of it) working problems at my desk or, if my teacher was in a scandalous mood, I might get to go up to the board and write with real, live chalk!
Perhaps this is why I was overcome by jealous rage when one of my math colleagues sent a flash mob to my class. A math class did a flash mob. With music and dancing and stuff. I want to be in that math class, dammit! Why did I get stuck with chalk dust and textbooks half my weight?
The short story is that this particular teacher somehow had students convert formulas they were working on into dance steps. The long story is…well, I don’t know the long story because it wasn’t my class. But should the opportunity ever present itself, I will happily thieve the lesson plan for all you math teachers out there so you can figure it out for yourselves.
That’s some pretty heavy-handed getting excited. But I’m sure you can think of something outside the box, too. Get creative. However, if you’re being pathetically lazy and waiting for me to do the work for you…okaaaaay. Two strategies for doing something a little bizarre:
A. Make them sing it.
In my department, we have standard songs we use to teach irregular verbs. But when my kids are being boring bums, I’ll randomly make them sing anything. “Here’s 10 words of vocab. In groups, set to a melody everyone will know. Perform.” We’ll often make the singing into a competition where each group performs, the class votes on the best, and then we use that song to memorize/review the material covered in it for the rest of the that unit. Lady Gaga does the verbs with prepositions? Now your kids are paying attention. Plus, there’s a crapton of research out there on how setting words to music help you remember things better. I would cite it, but don’t really feel like going to all that work. So case in point – how many cheesy eighties songs can you still (embarassingly) belt out from memory?
See? Told you so. You creepy, closet Wham! lover, you.
B. Write personal ads for it.
Works great for the mind-numbingly boring. “If ________ had to write a personal ad for its/him/her self, what would that ad look like?” (Insert a minimum requirement of content relationships they must cover, if you wish.) You’ll pee yourself reading these. Besides the obvious connections to some subject areas (think proton, electron) the most fun can be had giving the kiddos something you really don’t see the”datable” side of. The Louisiana Purchase? Federalist Paper #10? Try them. Students will come up with nonsense you wouldn’t believe. That’s actually quite good. I might, however, recommend skipping this little activity if you teach health. A sincere piece of advice from a small mishap involving a version of this activity where I had students create characters who then wrote personal ads. Clappy the Clown “preferred geographic regions of the moist and damp variety. he’s a more big-city kind of guy, (often hanging out in San Francisco) but doesn’t mind spending time with small-town girls with no real means of entertainment, or even the occasional farm animal…”
I’ll leave the discipline referral on that one to your imagination.
But truly, if you have nothing, absolutely nothing that you can think of to get excited about…
3. Ask your kids
Throw them all index cards. Say “Here’s what we have to cover. What is the most insanely fun, exciting, if-I-really-stinkin’-have-to-learn-this-I-would-prefer-fun way you can think of that we could cover this material?” If you want, let them brainstorm with partners. Ask every kid, every class, of every section you teach. Collect the notecards. Read. Most probably won’t be all that good (the kids, after all aren’t trained in teaching or learning strategies) but every time you do it, you’ll get a handful of ideas that might actually work. Or at least enough of a prompt that your creative brain will take over, and next thing you know, you’ll be doing your own version of #2. (Aaaaand, I just said #2. Which made me think of poop, then snicker.)
And after you do #2, you will neatly package up your idea (the activity, not the poop) and send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), so that I may then steal it for my own nefarious purposes. I mean, seriously, folks. How long do you think I can keep coming up with ideas for you without a little help? What do you think I am, your performing monkey?
Why, actually, yes I am. And I’m riding a donkey with a Chihuahua on my head.
So get excited.