When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands was The Smashing Pumpkins. I absolutely loved Billy Corgan’s voice. Their music was and still is amazing. While Siamese Dream was a phenomenal album, the double-disc Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness changed my life. That album was awesome from start to finish. Even the cover art created a mood and an atmosphere that could only be summed up with one word: nostalgic. I remember when I first heard that the album was being released. I was so excited. The week prior to its release, I listened to nothing but the band’s previous music. I was smitten. I felt like a kid the night before Christmas. The band put out a video for the first single off of the album. I couldn’t wait for it to be released. The local record store in my town opened at midnight the day it came out. Unfortunately, my parents wouldn’t let me go out that late. I was so mad. I just wanted to hear the new songs the band had created. The first time I listened to disc one, I almost cried. The songwriting was brilliant and the music was epic. The band had created a masterpiece. The wait and hype created was totally worth it. That album made my senior year in high school memorable in so many ways, despite my moment of projectile vomiting in the middle of Physics class.
Building excitement within people prior to the release of a new album or product is why marketers get paid so much. Their job is to make people line up for the release of the newest game system or iPhone. They create commercials and advertisements, helping to create hype and desire within future owners. As a teacher, I feel that it is important to employ some of these marketing strategies in the classroom prior to starting a new unit. I want my students excited to learn something new. I want them to be curious and engaged. I usually start talking about a new unit a week or so before it begins so that the students start to ask questions. They begin to do some research on the topic prior to us starting the unit in class. They become so excited, that when we do actually begin the new unit, they hang on my every word. Mission accomplished!
For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing my students for the start of our new unit in STEM class. Three weeks ago, I had the students complete a survey on what they wanted to learn regarding the unit topic of Astronomy. I wanted to find out what they were interested in learning more about as most students have been introduced to space and astronomy concepts in the past. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cover things they had already learned. Just knowing that we were going to be learning about astronomy got my students excited. They couldn’t wait. They provided me with such detailed ideas and suggestions about the new unit that I was getting excited for it to begin too. Then, over the past two weeks, I kept reminding the boys of the new unit and that it was starting soon. I would put quick plugs in at the end of class like, “Can’t wait for our new unit on Astronomy to start soon,” or “Thanks for all of your great feedback on the new unit, it is going to be amazing because of your ideas.” I had the students asking me details about the new unit outside of class. They were so curious and excited.
Finally, after weeks of preparation, we began our new unit on Astronomy in STEM class yesterday. I started the unit with a video hook based on the survey ideas I received from the students. It was a cool news segment from a year ago about pictures of a far away star that seemed to periodically be blocked by some strange object that couldn’t be explained. The scientist they interviewed hypothesized that it could be some sort of alien megastructure. This got the boys talking about aliens and the possibility of life on other planets. They were so engaged. I had to cut the discussion short so that we had time for the math pre-test. I then went over the whole unit online on Haiku. I detailed the science and math portions of the unit and quickly introduced the group project. Sounds of, “Yes” and “Yeah” were heard throughout the classroom. Smiles covered the faces of my budding astronomers. It was awesome. I then showed them the Little Bits kits that they would be using to create the space rover in small groups. You would have thought that I had just shown them a million dollar bill. I had them hook, line, and sinker. They were like kids in a candy store, of awesomeness!
Because they were so engaged and eager to jump into our new unit, they completed the math pre-test with a vigor that I hadn’t seen before. They took their time and checked their work. They didn’t even check their work on the chapter assessment they completed in class the other day. That test was graded and this was merely a placement exam. They seemed to put more effort into completing this pre-test than they did the chapter assessment. Crazy. They did quite well too. I have a few students that moved into the more advanced math group because of the work displayed on this pre-test. In years past, students do not take the pre-tests seriously. They usually rush through it as they know they will be learning the material in the coming weeks anyway. Not this amazing group of students, oh no. They took this pre-test as if their lives depended upon it. Was it really because they were so excited about our new unit? Did that eagerness and anticipation help motivate them to put forth their best effort in completing this pre-test? It probably helped that I reminded the boys that they had the ability to move into a higher or lower math track based on their results on this pre-test. I told them, “We want to place you into the math group that will best support and challenge you based on your prior knowledge and skills. So, be sure to show us what you know.” I think that might have helped to trigger the great effort and focus I saw in class yesterday.
Being a teacher, at times, is a lot like being in advertising. We need to “sell” our students on the content, skills, and curriculum. We need them to see how it is relevant to them and why they would want to learn it. Engaging our students can be tricky and challenging at times, but isn’t that one of the fun parts of being a teacher? It’s like trying to find the one key that opens the lock when you have 7,500 possibilities. Yeah, being a teacher is a lot like being a puzzle maker. We show our students the brilliant pieces of the picture, and they put them all together to form their image of learning.