Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Body in Motion Should Stay in Motion!

One of the most noticeable aspects of teaching middle school students, and one of the most frequent gripes of middle school teachers is that many of the students just don't seem to be able to sit still.   We want them to be thinking at a higher level and attending to complex tasks, however their teenage attention spans often prevent them from doing so.  When asked to focus for an extended period of time or to tackle a monstrous task in one sitting, they get wiggly, tip back in their chairs, or become suddenly and unceasingly interested in the strange clicking sound the heating system is making. The "ants in the pants" issue is one I've certainly noticed in my own classroom, so I decided to try and rework some of my lessons to incorporate more movement.  

1. Speed Research

We are currently reading the novel, The Book Thief, which is about World War 2 and the Holocaust.  Since many students hadn't studied the Holocaust before, I knew some exploration of background knowledge needed to be done.  So, I gave students a document with 8 terms on the page, and divided them into 8 groups.  At each table, I placed a piece of paper face down.  The paper contained a term as well as 2 or 3 guiding questions for their research.  I stood at the front of the room, and started the timer for 5 minutes.  Students had 5 minutes to research the term in their small groups, and find and record the answers to their questions.  Once the timer was up, they had to move on to the next term in the 8 term rotation.  

I know five minutes seems sort of short, but that's the point! Because we were just beginning to build background knowledge, in depth study of each term was not necessary at this stage. The short time constraint was certainly long enough to find the answers to the questions online and to spark their interest in the topic, but short enough that they HAD to stay focused the whole time in order to complete the entire task. The satisfaction of finishing each term by the time the timer buzzed  allowed them to accomplish small goals, instead of being overwhelmed by the entire page at once.   

2. Digital Museum

For this activity, I asked students in advance to download a QR reader onto their personal devices.  My homework was to create the QR codes for them to read the next day.  You can easily create QR codes online through a variety of websites. In my classroom the night before, I essentially plastered my walls with these QR codes, which were linked to videos and websites students could use to answer the essential questions presented about three historical context categories: the Hitler Youth, Communism, and Jesse Owens.  Each station also had a question which asked students to connect the historical context category with the section of the novel we read the night before. In essence, I created a "digital museum" in my classroom.  When students entered the room, they were immediately hooked and curious about "all those things on the walls," so I knew the anticipation of the lesson alone would contribute to its success. 

Students were quickly divided into partnerships for this activity, and I was careful to copy and post enough of each QR code to ensure that no code had more than one group scanning at a time.  Because research was a little bit more in depth this time around, I gave students 8 minutes at each of the 3 stations in which to research their topic.  

Once the students scanned their code, they used the resource linked to the code to develop responses to the essential question.  Again, when time was up, they were provided with a natural movement break in order to move to the next station. I found they were both excited by the mystery and novelty of the QR codes, and motivated by the timer to stay on task and focused. 

3. Poetry Analysis/The Writing on the Wall

Last week, we took a look at poetry that was written by Holocaust survivors in an effort to explore the historical context from a more personal perspective. For this activity, I took the kids to the multipurpose room in our building; a large, open space where students were really able to spread out.  Around the room, I taped up large pieces of colored paper each with a different poem on it.  I decided that in order for students to be truly reflective, and for the poems to have the maximum emotional impact, I was going to use the "chalk talk" approach to discussion, where no verbal discussion happens at all, and the only conversation that occurs is through building on the written comments of others. 

At the beginning of class, students were asked to read each of the 3 poems independently, and underline any words or lines that stood out to them in any way.  When we got to the multipurpose room, students were divided into six groups, and were asked to silently discuss their thoughts, emotions, and responses to one poem at a time. I placed some prompting questions in random spots on each paper to help them gain focus and intent in their response.  At each station, a reminder of the expectations of the activity were also posted. 

This activity worked well for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it allowed those who don't normally volunteer themselves in class to have a voice.  It allowed students to be somewhat anonymous in what they shared, so I felt they were more honest and took larger risks in their responses than they would if we had discussed the poems out loud in class.  And in connection with the subject area of this post, students were able to decide how they were comfortable participating in the activity.  Some sat down in the chairs placed close by or on the floor to read over the comments of others before responding, some felt comfortable standing the whole time and stepped back when they were reading others' comments. 
Students were moved from station to station after 4 minute intervals, allowing for a predictable and organic movement break. 

Once students had explored each poem, we sat in a circle in the  middle of the multipurpose room, and had an open conversation (no raised hands necessary, just speak up!) about why survivors chose to write poetry, and how poetry allows us to experience a historical event in a new a meaningful way.  

Many researchers (and teachers too!) would agree that the attention span of teenagers is short and getting shorter.  By breaking down larger academic tasks into smaller, time oriented goals, students can maximize the short attention span they have, and take natural movement breaks which we all know they so desperately need.  Predictable breaks allow them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and not to get bogged down in what may, at first glance, appear to be an overwhelming task. We know that whether we like it or not, their bodies will be in motion.  My opinion? Why fight it! Embrace it, and use it to your (and ultimately their) advantage in the classroom.   

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