From Disorderly to Engaged in a Nanosecond

October 15, 2018

While conducting classroom walkthroughs last week, I entered a room at the beginning of a World Language lesson. The class was full of 2nd graders conducting their own private conversations while ignoring the directions and prompting from the teacher. I settled in expecting to observe 10 minutes of chaos from this first-year teacher, but he had other plans. I was reminded of how easily a simple focus activity can provide the engagement needed to transform a tumultuous classroom into a vibrant learning environment in a nanosecond.


The teacher started talking to the students about how smart they were. He empathized with a student who said that learning Spanish was "boring" by agreeing with her and confirming that they were much too smart to not be bored by Spanish. He paused in thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers.


"I have an idea! We're no longer going to use Spanish to teach Spanish in this class. Who knows French?" the teacher asked. The students were silent and no one raised a hand. He continued, "Well, French is MUCH less boring than Spanish and once you know French your brain will see Spanish without even trying. Let me show you what I mean."


The teacher turned to the whiteboard and wrote out the French word for three, trois, and its Spanish equivalent, tres.


Teacher: "What is trois?"


Student: (After raising her hand) "3!"


Teacher: "Yes! Look what your brain did! Let’s try another one." (On the whiteboard the teacher wrote the French, cinq, alongside the Spanish, cinco.)


Teacher: "What is cinq?"


Student: (After raising his hand) "5!"


Teacher: "Yes! This is what your brain saw without even using Spanish!"


You could have heard a pin drop as every 2nd grader’s eyes were fixed on the teacher eagerly awaiting his next French/Spanish word pair.


The point is that classroom behavior solutions are often one-sidedly focusing on extrinsic motivators (e.g., stickers, colored pencils, certificates) to produce a viable learning environment. What should receive equal billing are simple strategies that engage students intrinsically. Student engagement may seem like a short-term strategy for addressing student behaviors but it's dually effective as a long-term strategy for promoting ongoing intellectual involvement in daily student learning objectives.


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