By Amy Erickson
With the holidays around the corner, I’ve been thinking about recipes and how I can bring unique and bold flavors to the table. Last weekend, I made candied jalapenos and this week, I’ll make crispy, cayenne pecans and honey-butter bread. With my head in the kitchen and my body in front of the computer, I was immediately drawn to the title of one of Dr. Lolita Paff’s 20-Minute Mentor videos: “How Do I Release My Students’ Natural Zest and Curiosity for Better Learning?” It sounded like a recipe for success.
In the video, Dr. Paff offers helpful tips to draw students into course material and encourage them to think about content after the class has ended. I enjoyed her suggestions for eliminating boredom by piquing curiosity through personal connections and strategically using questions in the classroom. I’m hoping my holiday goodies turn out to be half as good as this lecture.
Add Relevance, Eliminate Boredom
In this video, Paff (2016) cites a study by Yazzie-Mintz revealing that students were bored because they felt material was irrelevant. Paff (2016) recommends making a personal connection to the material in order to remove boredom and improve engagement. She states “if you give students the opportunity to really think about the issues in their daily lives, in current events that they are curious about, that puzzle them, that trouble them, and they have a voice, an opportunity to share that with you—that’s empowering” (Paff, 2016, para. 25).
Asking students for their opinions, ideas, concerns and questions in relation to the content suddenly personalizes the material. This would be a wonderful at the introduction of any class. An instructor could take notes about student questions, curiosities, and concerns and, throughout the course, pose questions, share concerns, and relate the material to individual students. It would be interesting for both instructors and students to revisit these questions, concerns, and issues throughout the course and at the conclusion of the course, too.
Connecting to Passions
Another way to personalize content is to ask students about their passions and interests. I’ve found that such a discussion is another wonderful way to begin a class. I ask students to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk “Bring on the Learning Revolution” in an attempt to get them to talk freely about their passions without any pressure of submitting an incorrect answer. I introduce this video with the following instructions:
In this lecture, Robinson (2010) states that very few people know what their skills and talents are. Do you know yours? Are you in a career that, as Robinson (2010) says, “excites your spirit and energy?” Take a moment and write 2-4 paragraphs after thinking about the following questions:
- What are my skills and talents?
- What unique gifts do I possess?
- What inspires me?
- What do I stand for?
- What do I believe in?
- Can I make the world a better, safer, stronger, healthier, kinder place with these talents?
Students inevitably say that they have never been asked these questions before. They will need time and a little encouragement to discuss these topics, but it is worth it. Some find it uncomfortable to talk about their own gifts and talents; you may want to give everyone permission to brag. This introductory exercise allows you an opportunity to get to know your students and see what inspires them. This information can be used to personalize content and energize students throughout the course.
One of my students completed this assignment and talked about his commitment to addressing poverty in his community. Weeks later, when we read the New York Times article “How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusef Mama’s Back,” I asked this student to share how he currently helped those in need in his community. He discussed the work he was doing and research he had conducted on various charities and shared it in the discussion forum. Some talked about initiatives they were involved in with their churches, while others shared links to local volunteer opportunities. I shared contact information for friends with domestic and international non-profits in the event that students were interested in internships or volunteer opportunities. Students took the lead in the discussion forum and forged meaningful relationships by posing questions to each other about alleviating poverty in their communities. All of a sudden, the literature class became relevant and the students were interested in the potential for real-life application.
What about YOU?
University professors are not alone in trying to engage individuals. Dr. Paff (2016) reminds us that “companies are trying to attend to outside interests, and co-curricular mission, and service, so that when employees, young and old, come to the office, they’re working for an organization that cares about their community and gives back” (para. 8). With that in mind, consider sharing with your students what you do for your community. Maybe you build homes for Habitat for Humanity. Maybe you teach GED classes at a local outreach organization. Maybe you sleep in a tent in November in Minnesota to raise money for the homeless. Whatever it is, share that with your students, as it has the possibility to spark connections and ignite passion for your courses.
I hope you have found helpful ideas in this piece for your classroom. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and, if you are at all interested, here are the links to my candied jalapenos, spicy pecans, and honey-butter bread.