I am the king of useless knowledge. Well, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch. However, I do know a lot of unimportant information about topics that will never save my life or help me move ahead in the world. I could talk for days about the grunge music scene from the late 1980s and 1990s. I can name the band members from many of the influential bands from that movement in music. Will knowing the lead singer of Mother Love Bone ever come in handy for me in life? Of course not, but did learning it help prepare my brain to be more able to learn other fun facts about Mother Love Bone and the formation of Pearl Jam? Yes. Because I learned about Andrew Wood and Mother Love Bone, my brain was able to make connections from that information to many other knowledge nuggets that are linked to this fact. So, while knowing that Andrew Wood’s untimely death led to the formation of Pearl Jam will never help me find a new job or buy a house, it does highlight the importance of helping students learn to make connections between information chunks they need to or want to store in their long term memory.
As I see the value in learning information that is interesting and engaging, I have tried to find ways to incorporate the teaching of this skill and strategy into my sixth grade classroom. I begin most classes with what I refer to as a Brain Opener activity. These activities allow the students to begin calibrating their brain for the class we are about to jump into. They usually include some sort of critical thinking component as a way to help the boys begin to activate and work on forming their frontal lobe. Some of them also include the teaching of useless information.
Today’s Brain Opener in Humanities class was Word of the Day. The purpose of this activity, which I explained to the boys when we started it several months ago, is to help them begin to compile a mental inventory of English words that they may encounter on future standardized tests including the SSAT, which the majority of our students take in the ninth grade. The words I choose come directly from a study list generated by the SSAT board. I tell them each day we complete this activity, “Try to use this word in conversation with others and your writing over the next few days so that you will be able to add it to your long term memory in preparation for the SSAT. Also, try to find a way to connect this word and its definition to past words you have learned or information you already have stored in your memory bank.” I want the students to see the value in linking pieces of information and knowledge together in their brains, which we discussed during our unit on the brain that we completed at the start of the year in our study skills class.
For this activity, I read the word of the day, that is projected onto the board, aloud for the students. I then explain which part of speech the word is before going over the definition. I make sure to use student-friendly language for the definition so that all of my students, including my ELLs, are able to understand the word and its meaning. I then provide the students some thinking time so that they can generate a grammatically correct sentence that accurately utilizes the new word. I call on a few volunteers for this activity, clarifying any mistakes they make in using the word. They have become quite good at this activity and create very effective and high-level sentences.
Other Brain Opener activities I utilize include Trivia Time and On This Day. Trivia Time provides the students with a fun and engaging opportunity to learn useless knowledge regarding many different topics. At the start of the year, I had the students create a theme song for this activity, which they sing at the start of Trivia Time each week. This may be one of their favorite aspects of the entire activity. Although, sadly, I do not feel as though I currently have any contenders for the next addition of American Idol. Sometimes the singing of the theme song sounds like a cacophony of cats in an alley. I then ask three questions to students, chosen at random using the popsicle stick method of name choosing. The students are vying for a special prize if they correctly answer their question. The boys really enjoy this competitive and friendly activity that teaches them information that will never save their lives, but, as I remind them almost weekly, may help them win the big prize if they are ever chosen to appear on the game show Jeopardy. Again, this activity helps the students learn the importance of drawing connections between their prior knowledge and these new facts. I make sure to help them determine how it might be connected to information they have previously learned, when applicable. On This Day is another critical thinking activity that the boys enjoy. It begins with a short video on events that occurred on that particular day in history. As the video plays, I jot down the major events onto the whiteboard. Following the video, I ask volunteers to help us determine which event is the most historically significant and why. The students love delving into the history behind major events in time. These discussions and conversations can go on for a bit if I notice that the students seem interested in a particular fact or happening. This activity is also another great way to help the students practice how to connect new information to something they may already know.
Helping students to see useless information as vital and important allows me to help my students learn how to best utilize the plasticity of their brains. Making connections between bits of information they need to store in their long term memory, makes the process of memory storage and future retrieval more effective. Thanks to MTV and music magazines I read as a teenager, I am able to help my students see that all information being thrown at them on a daily basis can serve a purpose if stored and used correctly. These Brain Opener activities, allow me to do just that in my classroom.