Driving home the other day, I had an epiphany. In order to understand how my big realization came about, I need to provide you with a bit of a back story on my mental faculties. So, I have a relatively ineffective memory regarding information that doesn’t directly apply to or impact me. For example, even though I look at the daily schedule my school’s assistant headmaster sends out twice a week, I couldn’t tell you what time the Varsity Lacrosse practice is tomorrow because I’m not a lacrosse coach. Now, storing information that I do want to know or care about is a bit easier, but still not perfect. I do end up forgetting chunks of information about things which do apply to or directly impact me. The one exception is music. Rarely do I forget the name of the particular artist performing the song playing on the radio. I’m great at the game Name that Tune. I can name the band or artist playing almost immediately. It’s quite a cool little gift that serves no real purpose in my day to day life. It stems from me being a bit of a loner with no friends growing up, and so I spent hours in my room listening to cassette tapes and casingles of my favorite artists. Let’s just say that hearing and knowing music is my jam. Now, let’s fast forward to that epic car ride home. The radio was blaring and the sun was shining. Things were awesome. Just as one song ended, another began. Instantly, before the song even really started, I knew the band playing. Just from hearing the opening guitar riff of the song, I knew that it was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Warrant off of the Cherry Pie album. Now, I haven’t listened to that album, song, or artist in years, but I still knew, right away, who was responsible for crafting that fine piece of music. Of course, recent neuroscience research tells us that putting information or knowledge to music makes it more memorable. We remember and recall music easily.
This got me thinking, Aside from music, how can I help engage my students in what we are learning in the classroom? How can I make sure that when my students leave the sixth grade classroom, they are not just prepared for seventh grade, but ready to take on the world? How can I make the really important life skills I’m trying to teach my students sticky? As I continued driving, enjoying the lyrical musings of Jani Lane, I continued thinking. What are those really important things I want my students to know and understand? How to be a kind person? How to help others? How to solve problems? How to think creatively? Sure, those are all really important life skills. But, with the state of our world in such disarray in recent years, I really want my students to care about the world around them. I want my students to see the injustices that are being committed around the world and want to change things. I want my students to make a difference. I want my students to see a social problem in our world and work to fix it. I want my students to be engaged in the world around them. That’s what I really want.
So, how do I do this? Well, the Humanities units I’ve created over the years do help my students to broaden their perspectives and see the truth in everything. Is that enough? Perhaps, but I don’t want to just whet their appetite, I want them to be thinking about our world regularly. I want them to see what is happening around them and take notice. I want to shock them. I want my students to wonder about and question things that are happening. Why is the world like this? Why is that country having those problems? What is going on? One easy way to do this, is to engage them in weekly discussions on current events. I can get my students excited about the news and world happenings. Once they become curious in the world outside of themselves, they may be able to start noticing things and problems.
Such has been the case this year. Each Saturday, we spend one block of our Humanities class discussing current events. Sometimes the students research current events on their own the day before, and what they learn drives our discussions. Then, at other times, I introduce a particular current event that I feel the students should know about and we discuss that. At the start of the year, my goal was to get them interested in the world around them, and so I chose current events that I knew would engage my students. Within two months, my students were reading about current events on their own time and then seeking me out to share what they learned. Brilliant, I thought, my plan was working. Once I could see that my students were hooked on our current events discussions, I turned the power over to them. I began letting them choose the topics we discussed. Our discussions grew more lively and engaging as the students started to notice and observe things. They started to question things. They were beginning to care about the world around them and what was happening in it. Yes!
A prime example of this change in their attitude and behavior regarding the world around them occurred in class during Saturday’s current events discussion. We talked about the March for Our Lives protests that took place last weekend around the country. As our school was on vacation for most of March, we hadn’t had a chance to talk about this happening. So, we read a short article regarding the current event before the students started a discussion. The boys were really engaged in yesterday’s chat. They talked about racial issues in our country and the world. One student shared how in his country, race doesn’t seem to be an issue. Another student talked about how black people in America are mistreated. Another student shared how he thought people need to stop talking about doing something and actually do something. Amazing, I thought. My students seem to really care about things. They are interested in the world and what is going on. While I had to end the conversation so that my students could enjoy their Morning Break, we could have kept talking for at least another 30 minutes or so, as my students were so into the conversation. Although the conversation that happened during class was quite great and insightful, what really made me realize that my students care about the world around them and want to bring about change is what happened after the discussion ended and the students went to Morning Break. About five students stayed behind to talk with me about the thoughts that they didn’t have time to share with the group during class. One student wondered that if by talking about race so much as a class and country, we are actually making more of an issue of it. Interesting. I never really thought about that before. I like his unique perspective. Another student wondered why race seems to be such a huge issue in America, as many other countries don’t seem to have similar problems happening. What has led to this problem? Nice. He’s trying to understand a problem. I love it. Other students gave up part of their only break during the class day to share their thoughts on our current event topic because they care that much about it. They see problems in the world and want to fix them or make a difference. They are engaged in the world outside of themselves. My students are ready to take on the world. Mission, accomplished.
Is it really this simple? In some cases, yes. As teachers, we just need to get our students interested and engaged in events happening around the world. Once they get excited talking about current events, they will then get curious and begin seeking out, on their own, problems and injustices occurring around the world. They will ask questions and start to become invested in what is happening outside of their screens. If we are interested and passionate about current events and what is happening around the world, our students will follow suit. Sometimes it comes down to presentation and engagement. Once our students are interested in something, they will begin to want to learn more about it. This quest for knowledge will lead to them caring about what they are learning. From there, the rest will happen naturally, as I saw first hand in my classroom yesterday. Making things memorable and sticky for our students, allows them to begin caring about them. Just like in the Warrant song, that will forever be ingrained within my memory, noticing a problem and doing something about it is a crucial life skill that we should want our students to begin developing in our classes.