I am currently a student teacher this semester and I really want to make an impact on my students even though they are not actually mine. I have to teach The Great Gatsby and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I am having difficulty coming up with lessons that will really engage students, and get them excited about the material. I want them to listen to me and care about what it is I’m saying. Would you please give me some advice?
Eager Student Teacher
Dear Eager Student Teacher,
I hope this finds your first weeks of student teaching filled with all kinds of exhilaration, surprises and illuminations. I remember that stark difference between the idea of the classroom — what I imagined it would be like — and the reality of it. There’s a gap between the two. There always is. I used to be afraid of the in-between spaces, treating them like valleys of insecurity. Now, I clamor for them, recognizing that without the gaps, the spaces, we don’t have room to grow. This is all to say, the wider the space between what you envision and where you’re at, the more possibility there is.
That’s what I hear in your question. Mountains of possibility fueled by the promise of the impact you’ll make on students. I also hope you know that student teachers can give the rest of us this fantastic model of how to think about our students. When you walk into that school, into that classroom, they aren’t your cooperating teachers’ students, they’re your shared learners. The sooner we veteran teachers can take that model and apply it to our schools, letting go of “your students” and “my students,” only seeing our students, the better off we’ll be. In that spirit of our learners, let me help you think through the second part of your question, wanting students to listen and care about what you’re saying.
They will listen to you when they know you care. It’s both an intuitive and overt premise. Intuitively, we know we listen to the people we trust and we trust the people we know care about us. It’s also an overt premise because we have to put in the time to develop that trust. I remember writing my very first syllabus and talking about trust and caring and how important it was to the community in our classroom. 18 years later I look back at that wistfully, knowing writing about it (no matter how beautifully written that syllabus was) is like imagining it, not living it. Starting to live that culture of trust which leads to listening means you learn the kids’ names as quickly as possible, make eye contact with them as often as possible, physically get on their level, and start asking questions. Ask about her weekend, ask about the band being promoted on his t-shirt, ask if she’s okay when you see lethargy and ask about their activities whenever you can.
They will care when it’s more about them than you. This is especially tough when you’re just starting as a teacher because you’re worried about everything. You’re worried if the handout makes sense, you’re worried about taking attendance, you’re worried about not making mistakes or teaching something wrong. And while this is all perfectly normal and a phase of the craft that everyone goes through, it’s also the phase that’s more about you than them. But even while you’re working to cross over to the other, more student-centered, side of teaching, there are ways you can start to release the learning process over to them now. Think about creating productive group work instead of having them take notes on what you say. Create a problem for them to solve and have them come up with their own questions whenever you can. They will care when they own their learning. And even though I’m sure you’re nervous about turning that learning over to them, if it’s engagement you want, then it’s empowerment you have to give.
Engaging lessons don’t have to be huge projects. It’s true that project-based learning can certainly help engage students, but the reality is you may not be there long enough to really follow-through on a plan that requires longer implementation. Not to worry! You can make lessons engaging by creating context with short texts and by making your lessons relevant to them. Think about starting your lesson with a song that connects to the part of the novel you’re reading today. Or ask them to compare a passage in the book with a visual text (a piece of art, an advertisement, a commercial). Ask them to create a mock Instagram account for one of the characters or take a nod from Twitter and give them quotes from the book and ask them to create hashtags to show their interpretation of the lines.
But most of all, remember to enjoy the students and this experience. There’s nothing like learning any text alongside your students for the first time, so enjoy the discovery that’s awaiting you!