Posted in Education, Humanities, New Ideas, Teaching

Finding Unique Ways to Introduce a New Project

Teaching, at times, can feel a lot like being in advertising.  I am, in essence, selling my ideas, knowledge, and skills to the students.  I need to find engaging ways to hook them so that they want to pay attention and purchase the products I’m peddling.  I could take the low road and do what the web hosting company Go Daddy! did a few years ago when they used a scantily clad lady to get viewers’ attention.  Did the company increase its revenue that year?  Perhaps, but at what cost to society?  I never feel the need to purposefully trick or bate my students in order to engage them.  I’d much rather go the Apple way with their line of Mac commercials exposing how much better their computers are compared to other brands.  It was simple and elegant, yet it got the point across.  The advertising campaign used hard evidence to convince viewers that their product is better than their competitors’.  I provide students specific facts and details and explain the purpose behind the lesson or activity in a simplistic way so that they will understand why they need to learn the content or skill being covered.  I don’t need to lie to or trick my students to get them to learn something.

However, sometimes, finding the right hook or introduction can be crucial.  It’s like the opening seconds of a television advertisement when viewers have to decide, Do I sit and watch the commercials or go to the bathroom?  How can I get my students excited about a new activity or project?  How can I best engage them?  Do I tell a joke?  Should I start with a story?  Or do I just jump right into explaining the project?  Is one way more effective than another?  After reading Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers this summer, I was reminded that there are easy ways to make new ideas or learning memorable: Keep the ideas or information Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional by using Stories.  Some of the best advertising campaigns of all time utilize this same method.  If it works to sell stuff to people, why not use it in the classroom.  So, I do.  I try to keep everything simple and interesting by using strange stories with facts to support my claims.  Just Do It!  Wow, Nike was really onto something there.  What a clever idea that we will never forget.

Today in Humanities class, I introduced the students to our final, culminating project of the year.  Not only is it the closing project for our unit on the Middle East Region, but it is also the final opportunity students will have to showcase everything they’ve learned throughout the year in the sixth grade.  They will need to demonstrate their ability to choose reputable online resources, paraphrase research effectively, record notes using the bullet-style format, properly cite all resources used in the MLA format, synthesize information learned in a cohesive and meaningful manner, present information learned in a relevant and organized way, and reflect on their learning in a detailed manner.  It’s like one giant Humanities class assessment rolled into a project.  The students will research a country in the Middle East Region and present their findings via a self-selected visual method.  Perhaps they’ll create a poster, mobile, diorama, tri fold display, or other non-digital option.  It’s an intense project, but one that will allow us as their teachers to determine if they effectively learned the skills we spent all year working towards.  How am I going to sell them on this? I thought.

This close to the end of the academic year, focus is an issue for many students.  Our boys are starting to get restless.  They are ready for seventh grade.  How can we keep them motivated and engaged for one final week?  They certainly won’t want to complete this project?  They’ll balk at it as if I’m telling them to clean their room or organize their plan book binder.  How can I make this project more appealing?  How can I introduce this new project in a way that might hook more students?  How can I sell them on this new idea?

Taking from the Heath Brothers principles of SUCCESs, I found a new and unique way to introduce our final Humanities project.  Rather than just jump right into the project, I used an unexpected but interesting story.  I talked about the British Empire and their method of warfare.  They would head to an open field and battle the opposing army.  The side that had the most casualties lost and the other side won.  Things were easy.  Then came American colonization.  Europeans made their way to America and learned how to survive in the wild forests.  They had to learn how to hunt while animals hid behind trees.  They had to learn how to navigate around large forests in order to find their way around the countryside.  Things were very different for the colonists.  So, when the Revolutionary War occurred, the British Army came over to the New Land to fight the traitorous colonists.  They headed to open fields for battle and were stunned when they found no one from the other side.  Then, suddenly, bullets flew from the forests and trees, killing the British.  As the colonists had adapted to a new way of living in America, they had found a new kind of warfare.  They hid and snuck up on the British, unexpectedly.  As I told this story, the boys seemed enthralled and hooked.  However, they didn’t know where I was going with this fun story.  How was this story leading into a project on the Middle East.  Even my co-teacher revealed to me after the lesson that she had no idea where my story was leading, but she was engaged.

After the story, I linked it to our class.  “All year, you’ve been broadening your perspective and learning new skills in Humanities class.  You’ve learned how to take notes, paraphrase research, document sources, and present information.  Now is your time to prove that you have changed.  Can you defeat the British with subterfuge?  Can you showcase your learning through completing this final project?”  From there, I went onto explain the phases of the project.  The boys seemed excited and got right to work.  They grabbed lined paper and put the appropriate heading at the top of the page.  They started searching for reputable online resources.  I even heard a student say, “I don’t think this is a reputable resource because it doesn’t have a copyright date.  I’m going to find a better one.”  Wow, I thought.  They are doing it.  They are defeating the British.  How cool is that?  They are displaying the skills they’ve acquired this year through the completion of our final project.  Awesome!

Now, were they working so well and diligently because they were excited by my introductory story or were they so focused because they wanted to improve upon their grade in the class?  Or maybe they wanted to show my co-teacher and I all that they learned this year?  No matter what the reason for today’s result, I’ll take it.  They were on fire in the classroom and we weren’t even violating any fire codes.  Go sixth grade!  I do think that my story helped inspire them to get excited and pumped up about the Middle East Region.  Who doesn’t want to research about the role of women in Iran?

While finding new and unique ways to introduce projects, lessons, or activities can be tricky and make one feel like an advertising executive, it makes all the difference.  If that one person hadn’t thrown out the tagline “I’m lovin’ it” for McDonald’s, would we still be devouring Big Macs?  As teachers, we need to be innovative and creative in order to engage and excite our students when it comes to learning and growing.  Using fun stories, hands-on projects and activities, or games to open a new lesson or unit can sometimes make all the difference between engagement and boredom.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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