The days of students filling out worksheets at their desks for
hours on end are long gone. Educators are exploring new and
innovative ways to engage students and make learning an exciting
"For us the material itself does not qualify as less engaging or
more engaging. We have students as enthused and engaged with
English grammar and Latin vocabulary as they are with physics or
art," says Phillip Jackson, founder of the Chicago Grammar School.
One key to engaging students, he says, is turning activities into
Classroom games can be simple yet effective. For example, at
Chicago Grammar School, students use charades to learn Latin
vocabulary words. "Everyone gets a chance to act, everyone gets to
write down an answer, everyone can get points for correct answers,
and they end up truly understanding the vocabulary we are working
Any topic area can be made into a game, including the Black
Plague. When third-graders at Chicago Grammar School studied the
plague, their teacher used a variety of techniques. First, students
visualized living in the Middle Ages, then they played a game
called "They Didn't Know" to cover facts unknown to people of that
time, such as hand washing, followed the "Logical or Illogical"
game to allow students to evaluate Middle Ages beliefs. "This could
have been a dull lesson, yet by positing the thinking, connecting
with past knowledge, and creating new knowledge through the premise
of a game, the teacher ended up with a group of very engaged
thinkers," Jackson says.
One way to make classrooms innovative is to let the students be
inventors. At Quest Academy, a STEAM (Science, Technology,
Engineering, Art and Math) program allows middle school students to
create through discovery. They are encouraged to invent something.
Some students are creating clothes with lights and exploring
circuitry. Other interested in plants are inventing a new watering
system for trees.
Beth Blaetz, director of teaching and learning at Quest Academy,
says that giving students the freedom to embark on a project that
they have selected electrifies the classroom. "It's an amazing
atmosphere to walk into because they are so engaged because they
have choice. They need to have that choice to get engaged," she
Educators seek to balance technology with helping students
experience history first hand through simulations that have nothing
to do with technology. For example, fourth-graders learn about the
Pilgrims and that involves the entire class sitting in a small
cardboard Mayflower replica. "It's cramped and crowded. They eat
dry, crusty bread and then they start to understand the pilgrimage
and just how difficult it was," explains Blaetz. When students
arrived in the New World, they were sent outside to find
She says teachers believe it is so essential for students to
find history interesting. "Just reading in a book, you don't feel
Some schools are moving beyond the four walls of the classroom
to appeal to a variety of learners and help students see how what
they are learning fits in with the world beyond school grounds.
Geoffrey Jones, head of school at GEMS Academy, says the school
location right in the Loop will give students access to the heart
of Chicago when it opens in the fall. The Loop is not the limit,
though, as students attending 60 GEM schools around the world Skype
with each other. The schools also have international teacher
exchanges in the lower grades. Students in upper grades travel
abroad. "By the time students are in high school, the students have
shifted to a more independent model of pursuing a project. It is
not just visiting another school but really making a connection to
that community in another country."
The best way to determine whether students are engaged and
interested or not is to ask them. "Our classrooms are designed to
be places where students are active in their own learning. Teachers
will be engaging kids by asking students at the start of the day
where they can study and grow that day, both individually and
together as a class," Jones says.
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