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Try This - Get Them to Try Something New

Overcoming students' reluctance doesn't have to be a battle

Found in: Classroom Management

Maybe you consider it your students’ Green Eggs and Ham face. Every time you want them to try something new, they arrange their features to convey clearly, “I do not like it, Miss Sam-I-am.” While we don’t have the solution that guarantees a too-cool-for-school student will suddenly get say, excited, about the unfamiliar, we can give you some tips for piquing students’ interest.

But first, let’s take a look at what it is that might be behind the fear of tiptoeing into uncharted territory. The student could just be shy, says Sally Zepeda, an instructional expert with the University of Georgia College of Education. This will be especially acute if it’s an activity that involves group work or getting up in front of the class. Another possible culprit? Fear of appearing “too smart” or enthusiastic in front of peers. “They don’t want to be looked at as the brain if there’s peer pressure that it’s not cool to be smart,” says Zepeda. Then you have plain old apprehension about the subject itself from a mathphobe or a reluctant reader.

Don’t worry, though. Your fellow educators have you covered. Dive in, the water’s warm!

Philip Groshong

Put On a Happy Face

Keep in mind that old adage about catching more flies with honey than vinegar, because the same thing applies when trying to get students interested in something new. Don't let on that you suspect they might balk. Ann Nichols, who teaches high school students with profound mental disabilities in Florence, South Carolina, presents anything new with enthusiasm and confidence that the students will reach the goals she sets for the activity. “I do not always know what the end-product will be, but I tell them that I am sure they will succeed.” When cranking up a new lesson, Martha S. Alexander, an AP Biology teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland, uses positivity in her presentation to help nip in the bud students’ negative influences on one another : “I insist that we will all be supportive of each others' efforts.” For example, she has students design a lab to solve a particular scientific problem and each person is required to present that lab and its solution to the class. The students must answer questions from their peers, but, says Alexander, “an important norm we agree on in class is to question the idea, not the individual.” As a result, the students tackle the new challenges without fearing reproach from classmates.

Give Them a Choice and a Voice

It’s the same principle as when you’re trying to get your toddler to eat breakfast in the morning: waffles or pancakes? If students have the choice between two equally appealing options that the educator has selected ahead of time, it can help speed getting into the meat of the activity, says Beverly Donovan, a teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “By giving them a choice, you have empowered the students to employ their reasoning skills, while appealing to their interests.”

Similarly, Zepeda encourages teachers to let students share their thoughts on new activities up front, provided they are instructive or constructive. (No whining!) “No matter what age, there’s always some tendency for students to push back,” she says. “Use that. Ask them, ‘What gives?’ This allows students to voice their apprehension about a new activity in a positive way,” rather than with an eyeroll and chair slump.

Make Sure They Really Understand

Confusion is the enemy. If students don’t understand what you’re asking of them, it can lead to apathy. That’s why Carl Clausen, an art specialist in Bellevue, Washington, makes sure his students grasp the activity they’re about to try by trading places with them. He has students teach him the skill or concept he’s just introduced by repeating the instructions for any related activity in their own words. This reteaching moment allows him to check for understanding while also giving the class the chance to hear the instructions again.

Get Their Hands Dirty

You don’t need a field trip to get your students physically engaged in a new activity or lesson. Just bring in a stack of newspapers. Once a week, Waterloo, Iowa, English teacher Sara Graham launches her high school students on a newspaper hunt, sending them armed with a list of a dozen questions about current events into the local paper’s pages to find main ideas and supporting details, evaluate credibility, and practice reading skills. It’s a great way to give concrete examples of new lessons taught during the previous days. “It becomes a bit of a competition to see which group can figure out the questions first,” Graham says. “After a while, they start to write their own questions and challenge their classmates.”

While working on a Navajo reservation, Carl Beekman, now of Kissimmee, Florida, started a robotics course to interest students once reluctant to seem involved in academics. (Bonus: The students’ enthusiasm was infectious, and parents began visiting school to check out their kids’ robotic activities.)

Alexander, the Maryland AP biology teacher, has her students become the subject they’re studying. For example, during a stem cell research lesson, the students take on the roles of various proponents and opponents of such work. It’s hard to be disinterested when you’re playing a debating nun.

Such active learning keeps students interested in new material and ensures that they are grasping new concepts, say researchers Charles Bonwell and James Eison. Their “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom” report says the hard work educators put into presenting new information creatively pays off in student enthusiasm. “Trying new teaching methods can feel uncomfortable [but] instructors who are using active learning in their classes believe it makes a difference.”

This Teacher's Tip: Visit the Dead to Wake Your Students

Philip Groshong

Linda Prather’s love of historic cemeteries began in college when she would retreat to the one adjacent to her dormitory for a quiet place to study. Now she tiptoes among the tombstones to fire her students up about their new lessons.

Each year, Prather takes students from the eighth-grade class at her Fort Thomas, Kentucky, school about 15 minutes over the state line to the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. They spend the day traversing the 744-acre property, exploring its shaded nooks and crannies and Gothic architecture. It’s pretty hard for a student, after a day of studying demographic patterns on gravestones, to tell you that social studies is boring, or that writing isn’t fun when she gets to pen giggle-inducing epitaphs.

It’s a team effort, too. Eighth-grade language arts, math, science, history, and art teachers work with Prather, a social studies and language arts teacher, to prepare students for the trip. For many weeks, students perform a variety of new tasks, such as studying the susceptibility of various headstone materials to weather for science class. Things even get a little metaphysical, as Prather has her students read and discuss portions of Chicken Soup for the Soul that deal with death.

Even Prather used to face reluctance when she was introducing the trip in its early years. “‘We’re going to do what?’ they would ask,” she says, adding that there were “moans and groans.” But that attitude didn’t last long.

Check out Prather’s detailed lesson plans for her cemetery trips.

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