It's too often that students are placed at their desks and lectured for hours about topics that neither inspire or interest them. They later get tested or quizzed on these lectures and labeled with a grade to rate their engagement with the content. The only purpose this serves is to rank students and teach them that test scores are the only way to gauge learning. But what if you could connect every day lessons to the real world — or a world that existed long before any of us were around to witness it?
That’s what I thought years ago as a newly minted elementary school teacher who desperately wanted to break the norms of lecture and testing. What I came up with was a time machine that taught my students everything from geometry to history, social norms to language and various forms of math… and kept every student on the edge of their seats through the process. Overall, it took less work and preparation than a traditional lesson plan.
Of course this wasn’t an actual time machine — though, to an early elementary student, a strong imagination is as good as any time-travel vehicle. Instead, each student made their own time machine and we went back in time together to study topics that encompassed multiple subject areas in one lesson.
Look at the geometric shapes used in Greek architecture. Let’s study how different ancient cultures completed math problems. How did people communicate in the early days of verbal language? What did soldiers who were fighting in World War II do to take their mind off of the battles during “down time?” How did people send letters and communicate through the written word before the days of postal carriers?
Although we didn’t do all of these topics in one lesson, over a series of weeks, I was able to connect various standards and required lessons to real-world situations, where students “experienced” the lessons through imaginative time travel — and on average, retained about 98% of the information taught. You can do this with your child, or children, whether you’re a parent or a teacher.
Making a Time Machine
This is always fun for students and helps to grow their interest in the lessons. A time machine can be made of just about anything. Since each student in my classes made one, I kept it simple and gave each child an extra-large piece of construction paper.
Each piece was folded like a book and the students spent an hour decorating them in any way they wanted. Most children really kicked their creativity into high gear when designing the vehicles they’d use to travel back in time. They’d draw knobs and switches and warning panels on the paper. Others would cut shapes into the paper to allow light through and give it a 3-dimensional look.
Once completed, the time machines should stand upright on the child’s desk to look like their own, personal control panel.
Traveling in Time
Sometimes, the simplest things could be the most exciting for children. Before we went back in time, I gave each student a rubber band to wear as a bracelet. Those were our communicators that kept each child from getting lost while we traveled through the space-time continuum.
Then, each student had to sit with his or her eyes closed and head down on the desk as I turned the lights off and played some space-like instrumental music from YouTube for about 30 seconds. As we traveled through time, I’d roam around the class and yell out silly things like “look out, a dinosaur!” or “Oh No! It’s caveman!” and the kids would shriek in delight as they imagined traveling through this scary and dangerous wormhole.
After the song, I’d flick the lights back on and the students could open their eyes and lift their heads. Sometimes I’d be dressed in a quick-change costume based on our lesson. Other times, I’d have a simple pre-made powerpoint on the whiteboard related to the topic. Whatever I chose, the students wouldn’t know where we traveled to until they opened their eyes. I always told them that I had no idea where we’d end up and that their time machines always decided for us.
That anticipation and curiosity was enough to get them committed to the lesson from the start.
Teaching Through History
These lessons don’t have to be long. Many of the topics we touched on lasted no more than 30 minutes. But, during that time, the students were engaged with learning about the architecture, schooling, everyday life and customs of whatever culture and time period we visited.
Students might learn to count to 10 in Japanese or design their own Greek building using different geometric shapes. But even if they never left their seats, no student ever felt like he or she was being lectured to. It was fun for me and for the class. I kept thinking to myself, "Isn’t this what learning is supposed to be?
You can create similar lessons by finding a time period or culture that interests you or your class. Put together some information about how that culture communicated through reading or writing, how they performed math and other things that made their culture unique. Your child or students can study what an average day was like for the people in that culture. What were their fears or what did they do for fun? What kind of games did the children play (and try to play one!)? Why is the culture different today and what brought about that change?
There are endless possibilities of what children can learn and, when it’s engaging, you’d be surprised just quickly your students will connect with the material and commit it to memory.
Returning to Modern Times
When the lesson was over, the students rarely ever wanted to head back to their modern time. But to get there, we had to buckle back into our time machines, close our eyes and put our heads down. I turned off the lights and started the music again. It should be noted that I usually had one more trick up my sleeve. Occasionally, I’d choose a student who I knew could be quiet and whisper in their ear to get out of their seat. He or she would tip-toe somewhere in the classroom and hide.
When the music stopped, inevitably, the children would realize someone was missing. I’d make a big fuss that the student got lost during the trip back and we had to find them or their parents would be “super mad at us for losing their child.” The students would then scour the classroom looking for the missing student until he or she was found.
Was this part of the lesson? Of course not. However it did give the students one last bit of fun that kept them looking forward to the next time when they could bring out their time machines for a trip into the past. Try this at home or in your classroom. I’d love to know where your time machines take you and what you learned along the way. Just look out for those rogue dinosaurs and cavemen along the way.
Ray FitzGerald holds Bachelor’s degrees in journalism and education from the University of Florida and St. Leo University respectively. 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.