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 adventure.
"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 games.
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 on."
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 says.
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 food.
She says teachers believe it is so essential for students to find history interesting. "Just reading in a book, you don't feel it."
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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