Motivating With Real World Experiences

First, I taught high school English for 18 years.  My first year was a real experience, one that I do not want to do again — talk about having your teacher for lunch!!  I was a non-traditional college student, meaning that I was old when I went back to school to earn a degree in education.  The college students were always nice and respectful to me, so I thought all young people were the same (I had small children at this time).  This was my belief when I began my first year.  Boy did I learn a lot about students.  They knew a lot more about teaching than I did.

My first misconception was that students would respect me just because I was the teacher, an older teacher at that.  Wrong.  Because I made A’s in school, I thought that all students could do the same if they tried hard enough.  Wrong.  I thought that the students who did make good grades would not cheat.  Wrong. I also thought I knew English, especially grammar.  Quickly, I learned that knowing something and teaching it are two completely different things.

This is me (“I” to be grammatically correct) during my first year.

On the first day of school, I walked into the classroom, wearing my pumps (dating myself) and books in hand.  I began on page one of the grammar book and continued in numerical order.  I assigned sentences from the textbook and ended the day on a successful note, I thought.  The next day, things went down hill.  I was determined that each student would learn, but I soon discovered that many did not want to learn; at least that’s what I thought.  This too was a misconception.  It wasn’t that they did not want to learn; I had not provided them any reason to learn what I was teaching.  Oh yes, that’s another term to discuss – teaching.  I was teaching with all my might, but what were the students doing?

Many afternoons during this first year, I went home crying; and I do believe I would have quit if it had not been for the parents in my little community.  They were wonderfully encouraging.  They understood that the students were just being kids.  Unlike me, they knew the students’ behavior was not personal.

As I struggled forward, I began to see that students were much more motivated to complete assignments when they were given activities that required student ownership and more active engagement; were relevant to students’ lives and community; and required less lecture and less rote homework assignments (sentences from grammar book and questions from literature book).  I also began to notice a reduction in discipline referrals.

Although this first year was the most difficult year of my teaching career, it proved to be a solid foundation on which to build all the other years. These young adults taught me many things.  They taught me that a student’s respect for the teacher must be earned and returned.  They taught me that problems in the classroom may not be student problems, but rather teacher inadequacies.  They taught me that lack of student motivation did not rest solely  on the student. They taught me that if students were not learning, I need to adjust my methodology.  They also taught me that students have a voice, and I should listen.  My first year students taught me that respect and motivation walk hand and hand through the isles of the effective classroom.

Eight years after this first, very enlightening year, the school in which I was teaching introduced me to the National Board Certified Teachers program.  This program taught me what I call the 3 Rs of effective teaching.

3 Rs of Effective Teaching
3 Rs of Effective Teaching

The NBCT program taught me to ask Why? about everything I did and taught in the classroom.  Why do I teach the eight parts of speech?  Why do I teach Poe and Shakespeare? Outside of educational careers, how many employers ask employees about nouns, adjectives, verbs, or Poe or Shakespear?  I am not advocating foregoing the teaching of these important subjects.  However, I do believe that all teachers should have a clear understanding of why they teach them.  If teachers are able to impart to students a logical reason why they need to learn objectives, the students are more likely to be motivated to learn them.

I taught my students that educated people need to be familiar with Poe’s works, but that is not why we are studying Poe.  I told my students that we are studying Poe because if we can critically analyze Poe’s work, we can critical analyze real-world documents such as home mortgage documents, contracts, divorce papers, etc.  It is the strategies we use to take Poe’s works apart in order to come to our own supported conclusions that are important, not so much that the students can recite “Annabel Lee” when they turn thirty years old.  Relevancy can be highly motivating.

Also, the NBCTs program showed me that providing students with activities that were relevant to their lives and community provided opportunities for deep learning.  Could this be done with Poe and his works.  Of course it could.  A student in a class that was assigned a project-based activity proved that indeed Poe’s works could be relevant to a student’s professional interest.

This project was based on a senior project that a neighboring school used.  It was an occupational project in which students chose a career to research.  They had to find an employer to shadow, write a resume and letter of application to deliver to the employer for assessment, research a topic relative to the career, create a product, create a trifold board and a PowerPoint, make a portfolio of their work on the project, and present their work to a panel of judges.  For this project, students had much autonomy. One particular student, shadowed an engineer, and her product was the construction of the gardens found in Poe’s works.  Her project was awesome, and she proved that Poe’s work could be relevant to her chosen career.

The third R in the 3 Rs of effective teaching is reflection.  Again, the NBCTs program taught me the importance of reflection.  It taught me that reflection provides an avenue for growth.  Have you tried to write one or two full pages on why you teach the eight parts of speech, or why an activity did not work for a particular student?  Have you written a two page reflection on why a certain student misbehaved in class or what you could have done differently for that student? If you have done any of these, you know how difficult it is and, yet, how important it is.  Reflection requires a great deal of thought and can help you see things you otherwise may not have noticed.  I also required my students to write reflections. Reflection is an avenue for growth.

In the words of Dr. Donald Norman,

We expert teachers know that motivation and emotional impact are what matter.


Multiple Dicipline Cross Curriculum with One Book

How often have you heard students complaining that they did not have time to read all the books their various teachers were assigning within the same grading period?  How many students actually read the assigned reading?  I venture to say that SparksNotes, CliffNotes, and Shmoop experienced a serious workout during that term.  If one book could provide a path down which the English, science, art, math, social studies, history, geography, economic, and health classes could travel within the same academic term, would you be interested?  If so, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone is a book worth reading.  It is probably the scariest nonfiction book that I have read.  The back cover boasts Stephen King’s opinion as “One of the most horrifying thing I’ve ever read.  What a remarkable piece of work.”  Within the “Praise for” section, Science News claims The Hot Zone to be “more chilling than fiction,”  and Kirkus Reviews states that it is “A bone-chilling encounter with a lethal virus . . . a total convincing page-turner, proving that truth is scarier than fiction.”  Of course, I am not advocating less reading; I am suggesting more student-engaged reading.

During their journey through The Hot Zone, students will encounter specialized experts such as Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, Veterinary Pathologist at USAMRIID (U. S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases); Colonel Gerald Jaax, Chief of the veterinary division at USAMRIID; Eugene Johnson, Civilian virus hunter for the Army; and Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, Chief of the Special Pathogens Branch of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.  As they travel from America to the rain forest of Africa and back to America, the students will also be introduced to the horrific characters Ebola and Marburg.  Preston creates a vivid image of the effects of these viruses through syntax and vocabulary that are straightforwardly accessible to students.  Teachers in conservative classrooms may need to prepare students and parents for Preston’s use of mature language.  Though this may take the extra effort of sending an approval letter to parents, the book and lesson opportunities it provides are well worth the effort.

How can this book cross the curriculum of nine difference courses?

  • The English class can combine the reading of Shakespeare with the reading of The Hot Zone.  Some compare the plague in Shakespeare’s London to Ebola.  This can lead to cross-curricular projects or research among the English, biology, history, health, economics, geography, and social studies classes.
  •  Art classes can contribute to the project by contributing drawings of various virus strains and cells.
  • Geography and social studies can contribute by examining the effects of the destruction of the earth’s rain forests.  Preston treats Ebola as a survivor; when one home is destroyed, it jumps to another.
  • Math classes can contribute by providing probability and statistic charts.
  • Economics classes can provide discussions on the cost of treatment or lack thereof.
  • History classes can provide research on the militaristic aspects of viruses from past to present.
  • The English class could also treat this book as a literary work of its own.  It is loaded with literary elements such as metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, and conflicts such as man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self, and man vs. society.
A True Scientific Horror Story
A True Scientific Horror Story