If you’re like me, your life tends to be filled with a sort of controlled chaos. Throughout my teaching career, my classroom always seemed like it teetered on the brink of falling apart. My life as a parent usually feels the same — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s because having everything orderly and proper and predictable is boring. And no one remembers boring things.
The same results happen for children — whether at home or in the classroom. Boredom is the arch-enemy of learning. If things become too routine, children tend to coast in and out of lessons with little to no retention. Constantly reading from books or watching videos online is great for practicing certain skills, but knowledge retention is not one of those skills.
That’s why I rarely ever used textbooks in my class. I had to cram a Smart Board activity into my lesson plans to keep my observation scores from being lowered.
It’s not that I don’t like those tools. For some lessons, they’re irreplaceable. But if you want to inspire students and ignite their love of learning in core subjects, you need to get them out of their seats and moving around.
And here are five ways that I made that happen, with one example for each of the core subjects — Science, Math, Social Studies and Reading — and a bonus that you can use at any time.
1. Be the Solar System
Sure, you can look up pictures or have students draw diagrams of the solar system. You can teach them the order of the planets with the sentence “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.” You can even find some really cool videos to show on NASA’s website.
But what I found through the years is that students obtained a better understanding of the planets by becoming the planets. I gave each students a role — the sun, a planet, a star, the moon, a comet, etc… and put them in their proper order. This gave the students a definitive idea of how far the planets are from one another. The moon actually rotates around earth and the movement around the sun taught about seasons and moon phases.
The single activity covered five or more lessons in very little time.
Every child took part in the activity and I never had an issue with a student not remembering the facts that they learned in the lesson. Many students came back to my classroom years later and talked about how much they enjoyed the lesson.
2. Be the Banker
One of the math topics that my younger students struggled to grasp was regrouping (or “borrowing” as most of us adults were taught). Once they grasped subtraction, they’d often take on bad habits when the top number was smaller than the bottom number — and usually end up subtracting the biggest from the smallest regardless of its position.
So, what do you do?
I would split my class into groups of four. One student would be the banker, one would be the “kid” and have a random number of play-money in one-dollar bills (less than 10). Another would be the “parent” and have nine or fewer 10-dollar bills. The fourth would be the “grandparent” and have nine or fewer 100-dollar bills.
The banker would approach the “kid” to collect a bill. Maybe the electric bill was due and the “kid” owed $150 dollars. But, the kid only has a few ones. What is he or she to do?
Exactly what we all did when we were young. “Call up” mom or dad and ask to borrow some money. The kid would then turn to the parent and ask to borrow money for the bill. If the parent doesn’t have enough, he or she has to “call up” grandma or grandpa and ask for money. They then transfer the hundreds into tens, and tens into ones, to satisfy the banker.
By doing this, kids can visually conceptualize the numbers moving from one column into another while changing value along the way.
Plus, it’s fun to actually have the kids talk like “parents” or “grandparents” to fill out their role.
3. Be the History Maker
Learning about a historical event in a book is bland, boring and gives students no concept of what really happened or what was at stake.
Through the years, my students took part in D-Day, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the March on Washington and countless other momentous occasions. They did so on the playground, in the classroom or even in their own homes.
That’s because acting out key historical events is far more entertaining — and hence memorable — for students. The Children would learn about the topic, create scripts, then reenact scenes from their social studies curriculum while playing the parts of the history makers.
Sometimes I’d assign the students homework to go home and act it out again with their families so they they can show what they learned. Parents would come back to me every single time to comment on how accurate their child was with the details and facts. That’s because they learned them in an engaging and satisfying way.
Plus, their new-found understanding and empathy on these topics, and why people fought, struggled and worked to create change in the world, helped my students become some of the most respected role models in the school. And your students could take on that same role.
4. Be Theatrical
Just like social studies, reading class can be filled with acting and dramatic moments. Not only does this help students connect with the text, but it motivates the students who don’t like reading to engage with the lesson so that they can take part in the acting.
Whether it’s part of the curriculum, or a treat for finishing work early, you can have quidditch games, recreate key scenes in books or even have students write and act out their own short stories to add a bit of creativity and individuality.
Just make sure Romeo doesn’t get too chivalrous with Juliet.
5. Bonus: Be...in Your Seat
Not every lesson can be taught in an active way. And we all have that student (or in many cases students) who struggle to sit in their seats during those lessons that don’t require movement.
But there are ways to keep those students moving, while remaining seated and not distracting his or her classmates.
Inflatable exercise balls are an incredible tool to help even the most fidgety of students focus on work. I always kept three or four in my room and allowed students to replace their chairs with the balls if I felt it was needed (and sometimes as a treat for those students who did great work and remained still in their seats).
When I started the experiment, I was sure the students who sat on the balls would bounce all around and bother their peers. I thought the students who stayed in their seats would complain that they didn’t get to sit on the ball. In short, I figured I’d end up with four useless exercise balls in my garage within a week.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I simply explained to the class that some students need the balls to help their concentration more often, but that everyone would get a chance eventually to use them. Even in second or third grade, everyone understood.
The students who needed the movement would bounce slightly, but never out of control. Just maintaining their balance was often enough for them to stay moving and locked-in on the assignment. Almost instantly, their work production improved and their overall behavior changed for the better.
Whether acting as a class, or using exercise balls instead of seats, children require movement throughout their day. After all, sitting in a chair while listening to a lecture is counter to what their developing minds and bodies want to do.
That inner-struggle often takes over during tough lessons that require extra concentration and leaves students forgetting most of what they learned.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few tweaks to your lesson plan, you can be the hero of your classroom.
Ray FitzGerald holds Bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and education from the University of Florida and St. Leo University. He is a long-time teacher of the gifted in an elementary setting and works with parents, educators and children at RaiseALegend.com and hosts the weekly Raise a Legend Podcast to help raise a generation of legendary children.