In a scene from the 1978 film of Superman, Marlon Brando and Susannah York put their infant son on board a tiny space capsule destined for earth. While in the capsule, the boy is inundated with a variety of stimuli—films, instructional audiotapes of various foreign languages, music, books, and a litany of artifacts—so that by the time his spaceship crashes on planet earth, the infant has already become an acculturated genius.
When I tried to teach English to
sixteen-year-olds who read on the third grade level in a barren classroom in
which the highest tech tool available was a transparency machine that had not
worked for years, I used to obsess over that episode from Superman.
I worked long, hard hours before, during, and after school, to try to
get my students up to speed, but they rarely made any substantive progress in
attitude or achievement. Certainly, no one transformed
Instead, many of my students were openly defiant; others were resolutely apathetic. They believed, often rightfully so, that they lacked basic academic skills, so they “checked out” of school, at least intellectually. I often wonder what it could have meant for my students if they could have hitched a ride with the infant Superman in that space capsule. Even today, I am haunted by my abject failure to have an impact on the intellectual lives of those kids. So, for the past decade, I have been playing around with ways to spur quantum leaps in the quality of student writing by creating a supercharged learning environment. By supercharged, I mean full of energy, emotion, and tension.
One place to begin is to consider the physical space of a classroom. Not only should the classroom be a stimulating and safe place for students, it should also serve as a reflection of who you are and what you value. Classroom walls can serve as powerful teaching aids. I have tried supercharging classrooms in a variety of settings—rural, urban, and suburban--and with a variety of students—remedial, regular, gifted and talented, and LEP (limited English proficient) students. These techniques have been organically developed over years of trial-and-error in public school classrooms. Individually, these techniques may not represent anything radically new. But, used collectively, these techniques have significantly enhanced the quality of students’ writing.
Below, I list the seven techniques, each of which will be discussed individually.
1. Romance the topic
2. Elicit an emotional response
3. Foster engagement, build towards complexity over time
4. Saturate the learning environment with relevant sensory input
5. Strive to make student goals challenging and individualized (Task/ability=1)
6. Be charismatic
7. Imbue a sense of fun in daily interactions
Years ago, psychologist David Ausubel (1960) became renowned when he promoted the idea of the advanced organizer, a strategy which helps contextualize learning so that students can connect what is to be learned with what they already know. In the 1970s, Madeline Hunter extolled the virtues of the anticipatory set, which like the advanced organizer, helped provide students with a framework for new learning.
Both Ausubel and Hunter (1995) favored direct, teacher-centered instruction and suggested that the advanced organizer and anticipatory set be relatively brief, abstract statements about new material to be learned. If you take the ideas of Ausubel and Hunter, shake them up, add flexibility with regard to time and instructional style, then you have an idea of what I mean by “romancing the topic.” Unlike Ausubel and Hunter who are precise and purposeful in their interactions with students, romancing the topic in the supercharged environment means allowing students to “run with” ideas for a while, even if they want to run in directions you had never anticipated.
For example, I recently worked with an English teacher who wanted her students to read and analyze A.E. Houseman’s poem, “To an Athlete Dying Young” (“The time you won your town the race/We chaired you through the market-place; Man and boy stood cheering by, And home we brought you shoulder-high”) and other, serious, often difficult poetry of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Rather than jump immediately into teaching the Houseman poem or delving into a lecture on the characteristics of late nineteenth century poets, she asked the class, “What happens to you after you die?”
After a few moments of thought, students began describing their conceptions of heaven and hell. One student in the classroom mentioned that three members of her family had technically “died,” and been brought back to life. She said that all three of her relatives had described death as a falling away from streaks of light into utter darkness, followed by a rush of serene contentment. Whether or not the student was accurate in her descriptions of the near-death experiences of family members is beside the point. In the romance stage, the purpose is to engage students in the topic at-hand, to stimulate their minds and hearts. And, when the students began to run with the idea of the mysterious realms between life and death, the entire class suddenly became engrossed in trying to figure out what poets had to say about heaven, hell, and the spaces in-between.
Teaching is anything but an affect-free profession. Many teachers are discouraged from using the power of affective appeals and are bewildered when they encounter a roomful of bored or hostile students. In a middle grades classroom, a teacher decided that she wanted her students to use more vivid language, especially in light of the state’s requirement that students write a descriptive essay for the year-end exam. Rather than bring out a poster on adjectives, she decided to tell a story about what happened when she was a sixteen-year-old in high school.
One day, her father, a quiet, unassuming and hard-working man came to pick her up in the family car after school. As she came out the front door of the school, her father motioned vigorously for her to hurry up and get into the car. But, being sixteen and a little rebellious, she took her sweet time. When she arrived at the car, the father told her, “Quick! We need to rush your mother to the hospital. While preparing dinner, she sliced off four of her fingers!” Her mother lay in the back seat, her hand wrapped in a bloody dishtowel.
Most of our most vivid memories are emotionally-charged—full of joy or laced with sorrow. As Goleman (2000) and others (Buckingham & Coffman 1999) have noted, denying that emotion plays a crucial role in the development of a human being is pure folly. Although coaches routinely use motivational devices, most teachers seem to shy away from such appeals. Recently on a visit to a local middle school, I noticed a sign posted next to the door of the classroom. In large, block letters, the sign stated, “CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS. NO EMOTIONS WILL BE TOLERATED.”
Banishing emotions is an absurd mandate for a student whose hormones ebb and flow like perpetual tsunami throughout the day, whose frontal cortex (the seat of emotions in the brain) is still developing. In the absence of emotion, sterility and callousness may fill the vacuum, neither of which is particularly conducive to learning.
Some teachers begin a unit of study by telling students what they want them to eventually be able to do. While this tactic may be useful for some lessons, such an approach may not be optimal for maximizing student engagement and achievement in all learning situations. Sometimes class gets more interesting when the teacher reveals the final destination only after the journey has begun.
Imagine that you want your students to appreciate some classic verse and that you want them to gain the ability to select the precise word to fit an idea or thought. Some teachers might begin such an endeavor by asking students to start writing poetry on the spot. Instead of thrusting an abstract assignment on students, you might want to consider trying to engage students first, then build towards the activity you want them to complete. For example, recently I asked students to complete the following assignments.
1. Create a drawing based upon a piece of music (Etude in C Minor, Op10, No. 12 Revolutionary)
2. Read aloud some favorite lines from several poems about war and peace
3. Rewrite in your own words a few lines of poetry that resonated with you
4. Analyze a painting by a symbolist and make up a story behind it.
Finally, I asked participants to spread these pieces (the drawing, favorite lines, the rewritten favorite lines, and the story based upon the painting) on the floor in front of them and to write a poem about the relationship about love and life. All the poems produced were interesting; many were remarkable. One participant (whose primary language was not English) wrote,
Love is like the silence between two notes
Without its nothingness there’d be no music
Maybe all that happens between one experience in our lives and the next is this silence
Or maybe all that happens between one moment of love and the next is the
Nothingness of Life.
Such nuance and power would likely not have occurred if I had simply asked participants to get out a sheet of paper at the beginning of class and write something poetic about life. However, by allowing participants to work off of several activities, each a little more complex than the previous one, most participants had more than enough material for writing. In total, the build-up activities lasted only 30 minutes.
A great advantage of saturating the environment with sensory stimuli is that you offer students multiple entry points for learning. A sensory-enriched classroom meshes well with the conceptions of multiple aptitudes (or intelligences) and student learning styles. A second advantage is that the senses take learning out of the realm of the abstract and into the real. Thus, students who might have some problems with language can work off of concrete inputs rather than be confined to the abstract box of language, where they may have difficulty. A useful exercise is to ask students to write a composition, then adapt their compositions for a medium that requires visual, aural, and (possibly) other sensory appeals—a film, play, multi-media presentation, or bit of performance art. When students finish their adaptations, then they revise their original composition by translating the sensory inputs into words, then incorporating them into a new paper.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to teach
for a few months in a high school English class in a school in
I began by asking students about where they were born. After some open discussion about their hometowns, students quoted some lyrics of contemporary rap artists who vividly characterized life in urban settings (unbelievably, students managed this without uttering any profane language!). I got out a book of poetry and quoted some lines from Walt Whitman that concurred with the rap lyrics. Then, I asked students to write out a “gut-level” response to a series of prompts. One prompt was, “Write out a phrase that you heard over and over growing up, such as ‘Look both ways before you cross the street’ or ‘Don’t you look at me like that.’” After a few more short assignments students turned their responses into prose, then a Powerpoint performance (students read aloud into an amplifier while images they selected were projected on the wall to some accompanying music). Finally, I asked students to write a poem based upon all the previous inputs—our discussion about hometowns, rap lyrics, Walt Whitman, their responses to my prompts, and the Powerpoint performance.
During the writing of the poems, I was struck by the range of abilities and life experiences in the class. No two students had the same problems or talents. For example, Derek was a gifted athlete, but had grave difficulties spelling any word longer than three letters correctly. Cheryl had an impressive vocabulary and spelled flawlessly, but mispronounced words and tended to stutter.
To maximize the quality of the learning experience for each student, I had to work with each individually. Correspondingly, my expectations for each student were unique, based upon my knowledge of the student’s abilities and limitations. If the students perceived my expectations as too easy, they became bored almost immediately. If they perceived my expectations as too difficult, they became frustrated and gave up. Because the unit engaged their interest and allowed them to be challenged at an appropriate level of difficulty, students participated fully.
Derek’s final revision of his “hometown poem” was pretty good for a student who had twice failed the writing portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test.
Camper searches for the seven hills
Twang of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes in the a.m.
Nimbleness of cars on the highway out
Fastidious and pleasant, a token of remembrance
Carrying pigskin for the Seminoles
Hard worker, the desire to win
When people talk, I listen
To pick up stanzas
Hot sun, outstanding looking women
The good news is that Derek passed the GHSGT the next month.
While some historians act as if charisma were an inalterable genetic gift—you either have it or you don’t, Hitler and FDR had it; Gerald Ford didn’t—a teacher can do much to increase his/her charisma, even while possessing a natural inclination for being a wallflower. A little audacity and spontaneity are all it takes to become charismatic.
Once a shy, young English teacher
was leading a discussion of “Paradise Lost” when several students wondered
The next day, the teacher began with a brief, lively lecture about the characteristics of snakes. Then, he brought out three small, garden snakes and asked students to pass them around to one another while he noted more physical characteristics. As soon as students began holding the snakes, questions began popping up—“Where are their ears?” “Do snakes have teeth?” “How do snakes digest all the stuff that they eat?”
After the students handled the snakes, he
placed them in cages at the front of the room. Then, he
read a few excerpts from literary critics regarding what snakes might
symbolize in the works of
An English teacher in
The winning group for the week received the privilege of drinking a soft drink or box of juice in class on the Friday of the exam. Once the game was launched, student performance on the vocabulary tests soared and vocabulary lists were being passed around the school as a kind of currency. Students even began dropping by the classroom well before the morning bell to try to see if they could pry from him a list of the words, so that they could start their study well before class. Once, the teacher caught a student trying to break into his room before he arrived to try to get a look at the week’s vocabulary words.
The legal ramifications of breaking and entering aside (ha!), the complete transformation in student attitudes was incredible. By deciding to make learning vocabulary a fun game, the teacher transformed an obligatory assignment into a participatory, intellectual sport that students absolutely loved.
The supercharged classroom costs nothing. No rewiring, no external funds, and no elaborate curricular gyrations are necessary. By utilizing the seven principles of the supercharged classroom in concert, a teacher can transform the teaching of writing from a dull, paint-by-the-numbers exercise into a thrilling, energizing, and satisfying experience. While it is not yet on a par with riding in the multi-sensory space capsule with Superman, at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Allen, J. (2001, October). Eliminating a yes, but curriculum. Principal Leadership 2(2). Available: http://www.principals.org/news/pl_yes_but1001.html.
Ausubel, D. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.
Baines, L., &
Kunkel, A. (2003). Teaching Adolescents to
Write: The Unsubtle Art of Naked Teaching,
Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, Break all the Rules, York: Simon & Schuster.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Whalen, S.,
& Rathunde, K. (1993).
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson,
R. (1984). Being Adolescent.
Goleman, D. (2000).
Hunter, M. (1995).
Kunkel, A. (2000)
“ Vocab War.”
In L. Baines & A. Kunkel (Eds.), Going Bohemian,
Raffini, J. (1988).
Student Apathy : The Protection of
Self-Worth (What Research Says to the Teacher),
Springston, G. (2002, February). Thoughtful School Restructuring. Principal Leadership 2(6). Available: http://www.principals.org/news/pl_thougtful_sr0202.htm.