Who Cares?

Teaching students what they don’t want to know is no fun. You can recognize the signs: eyes rolling or glazed or actually closed, heads propped on a hand or down on the desk, feet tapping, fingers drumming, and bodies shuffling.

To change this scene is a challenge. How can teachers transform a class into note-taking, question-asking, forward-leaning students?

One way is to take a lesson from screen writers. They’ve got it down to the minute, these creators of film and television episodes and video games. They understand how to hook the brain, how to carry it along with rising tension, how to make us care and cry and laugh, and how to leave us satisfied at the end of a story. They use a set of tools gleaned from neuroscience, and they spend years getting it right.

The precision of screenwriters is impossible for a teacher with classes coming up hour after hour, day after day, week after week, term after term. But I’ve found that using a simple theatrical model often wakes students up. My impulse is not to do it this way.

Left to my natural way of thinking, I tend to unfold a lesson in sequential, logical steps, to build on information, to start out telling students what they should know instead of taking time helping them to want to know. So I need to consciously turn my lesson planning to a more dramatic approach. This works most naturally for social studies and literature and science, but it can also be applied in math. Here, for example, is the model I use with second-grade gifted students who were learning algebraic equations.

  • Set Up: Hook the interest (lead in with a story or a question)

I told the old story of Cinderella. Then I asked students to think about the step-mother from the perspective of Cinderella.

“She wasn’t fair,” the students said. And we talked about fairness.

  • Conflict: Reveal the tension

“Today in math,” I said, “you’ll have a chance to be fair. That’s what equations really are—solving the mystery of x in a fair way.”

Then I showed them an equation: 3(-x) + x – (-x) = 10 + x

“You control the world of this equation,” I told them. “And you’ve got a mystery to solve—what is x? As the ruler of this world, you can do anything you want—as long as you are fair.”

  • Resolution: Resolve the dilemma (through points drawn from content)

And then I gave them some tools, tools they wanted by this point:

  • Choose one side to be the x side and one side to be the number side.
  • Then just be fair, step by step—
    • If you take an x from one side, you take an x from the other side.
    • If you add an x to one side, you add an x to the other side.
    • If you divide on one side, you divide the same way on the other side.
  • Reprise: Review key elements

“Your equations will keep getting harder,” I told them. “But the principles will stay exactly the same—isolate the x and be fair while you do it.”

I could have started this lesson with the principles of algebraic equations. But the Cinderella story with the concept of fairness caught their emotional interest. Second graders care, after all, about fairness.

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