Although I wish I didn’t, I remember a moment from sixty years ago. Riding my tricycle, I came upon a cat killing a mouse. The cat’s claws had already raked open the belly of the mouse, but the mouse was still alive, writhing. I saw grey fur laid back and blood smear the sidewalk. And I heard the frenzied screams of the mouse. With my chin on the tricycle handlebars, I watched the mouse die.
Most moments from my third summer are lost. But I remember the dying mouse because emotion anchored the event into my long-term memory and still helps me access it all these decades later. People recall valleys and peaks, and teachers who remember this can increase retention in learning. So how can you infuse emotion into your classroom? Here are a few ways:
- Mourning—During a Holocaust unit, my students learned about Miep Gies. Miep hid and fed Anne Frank and her family for two years, until the raid of their hiding place on August 4, 1944. I told students how Miep, who was still living at the time, commemorated August 4 each year. She withdrew from the world and reflected on the lost. Then I darkened the room, and we sat for five minutes, thinking about the silence Anne Frank was forced to hold during her months of hiding. For the rest of the Holocaust unit, students were strongly attentive. At a mid-August softball game, a group of students found me on the bleachers. On August 4, they told me, they had met at one of their homes for an hour of silence.
- Personal Stories—To introduce an autobiography project, I wrote my own using themes from my life to engage students. I wrote about how in middle school I had to write 500 times— I will not forget my books and how, right in front of me, the teacher had shredded my work. I wrote how, one day later, I had to write 500 times—I will not forget my boots. I wrote about my fury over the waste of time and my frustration that the two sentences were different by only one letter. After my series of stories, students wrote with greater depth than usual. The sharing of my stories opened their empathy and helped them remember to keep their writing thematic.
- Surprise—The brain seeks what is novel, so bring the unexpected into your classroom. Move desks, display mystery objects, and ask a costumed character from history to burst into your classroom. Try changing your voice—whisper, speed up, slow down, shout. I knew a teacher who occasionally taught pacing from the tops of students’ lab desks. Surprise makes absent students wonder what they missed.
- The Senses—Senses create strong memories. This is why advertisers care about color and music and make images so real we can almost taste and touch. When you teach the Great Depression, play “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and take note of its minor key, the syncopation, and the stormy ending. A teacher who once taught in the room next to mine changed the colors of the bulb in her floor lamp to create the mood of the literature students were reading. The senses open a way deep into the brain.
- Celebration—A math teacher I knew celebrated Pi Day each March 14 (3/14). He found that after this day, students were more apt to remember that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Working with the formula was more memorable while singing Pi songs, competing to remember the most Pi digits, reading Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, and, of course, eating pie.
From kindergarten to high school graduation, students spend around 20,280 hours in class. Try making these hours memorable by combining emotion and thinking.