Teaching has never been easy, though perhaps it is a bit harder today due to the introduction of ever more distractions. In order to really reach students you have to get more creative. One technique that is proven to capture the attention of some students is to add a bit of gamesmanship into the lesson of the day. Kids today are raised to say, in the words of Kurt Cobain, “Here we are now. Entertain us.” (Side note, another good way to get the attention of high school students is play “Smells like Teen Spirit” on a boombox while you stand on a desk and play air guitar. Trust me, this works.)
If you don’t combine an element of entertainment with your plan for education you will lose them. Since video games and game shows are so incredibly popular, one good way to get students interested it structure the lesson as mission to get from point A to point Z. Here is how it can be done. Once every student is seated, go to your chalkboard or dry erase board and begin with a very specific reference to the lesson you are teaching. For instance, let’s say you are an English teacher who is teaching The Crucible. You would begin by writing something likes this on the board: Witchcraft————–Dr. Habib Al-Assan, Head of Cardiology, St. Eligius Hospital. And then you say to your students, “Anyone want to take a chance on how we’re going to go from witchcraft to Dr. Al-Assan?” Even if you somehow get the correct answer, don’t give it away. Just say in a non-committal way something like, “Interesting. Let’s see if you’re right.”
So how do you get from witchcraft to the head of Cardiology at St. Eligius Hospital? (An entirely fictional character in this example, by the way; it would be much better to use a real life reference.) Well, the Crucible lesson of the day is all about singling out individuals for prejudicial treatment and suspicion. Your lesson is structured to not only begin the process of getting students to understand how The Crucible isn’t really about Salem and witchcraft, but about Washington and communism. You would reach Joseph McCarthy between the midpoint and the end of the lesson. And you would end the lesson by revealing that Dr. Al-Assan, despite being a third-generation American, a respected physician and recipient of multiple medical awards, was arrested and detained shortly after 9/11 because his name popped up on a terrorist hit list. The point is to tie the fear the unknown and mysterious-be it witchcraft, communism or Islam-to overreaction by authority to the point of stripping people of their civil liberties without due process of law, or even by subverting and corrupting and, yes, breaking the law.
This technique builds suspense into the lesson and nothing captures the interest of people better than suspense. It also provides them with an opportunity to increase their critical thinking skills by both attempting to connect the two entirely unrelated concepts and then giving an example of how it is done. And finally, this technique captures their imagination because it becomes a kind of game. And the beauty part is that it can be applied to practically any subject.
Consider science. Your little drawing could look like this: Isaac Newton—–MySpace.com. Wondering how you get from Newton to MySpace? Remember, gravity is a force of attraction that pulls things together. Just like MySpace pulls people together.
Ancient Literature: The Odyssey—-George Clooney. Most of my students had no idea that O Brother Where Art Thou was based on Homer’s epic poem.
Political Science: Thomas Paine—-Dixie Chicks. These are indeed the times that try mens souls when a musical act that engages in freedom of speech are blackballed from the radio while the object of their derision held up as a hero for violating the Constitutional amendment he has sent thousands to die protecting.
As you can see, this technique is incredibly flexible and when used sparingly-no more than once a week-can prove highly effective. In fact, you might even transform it into a weekly method. On Monday you could tell your students that by the end of the week they are going to understand how to connect Galileo to Cuba. How? Galileo was a victim of authoritarianism run amok and so is Gitmo. Of course, none of those prisoners in Gitmo are geniuses like Galileo. But then Galilelo was not considered a genius when he was punished for heresy.