The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Let’s Start the School Year Vigorously!

on September 8, 2015

Since today is the first day of school for many teachers, I decided to give some practical suggestions about bringing more vigor into the classroom this year.  Because the suggestions came off the top of my head–which is rather bumpy–they are neither detailed nor organized.  They are meant just to give you the general idea of what vigorous learning can be.


A week or so ago I posted an  essay in which I condemned rigor in the classroom and hailed vigor as essential for motivating students and producing lasting learning. However, in that essay I used mostly dictionary definitions and metaphors to make my case and gave only sketchy examples of vigorous learning activities. This time I want to be more factual and descriptive in letting readers know what I mean when I call for vigor in our schools.

Educational vigor is not defined by grade levels, curricula, materials, or test scores, but rather by the kinds of work students are able to do on their own. Although the majority of teachers who champion vigorous learning work in traditional schools and follow the set curricula and grading practices, they differentiate materials, instructional modes, assignments, and assistance to fit the needs of students. They bring vigor into their classrooms by giving students more choices for work and for how the classroom operates. They assess student growth by examining their daily performance rather than by test results. To illustrate what I mean, I have listed several examples of vigorous school learning activities below. The letters following each example stand for the school levels I think are appropriate for their use: E for elementary school, M for middle school, and H for high school.   Your sharp eyes may see ways that an example can be used at a level I have not indicated.

A word of caution, however: the listed activities are not meant to be done in isolation. They are parts of planned units in which a teacher may introduce materials to be studied, skills to be acquired, and even information to be memorized before letting students bring their own skills and imagination to bear. Vigor lies in what the students do with those materials, skills, and information to make them their own lasting knowledge and abilities.

*Interview senior citizens about their community, education, first job, home chores, as a child to contribute to a class book about life at a particular time and place (M,H)

*Design a scale blueprint of your dream house using a teacher designated cost per foot and total amount for the whole house; create an advertisement to sell your house (M, H)

*Write weekly messages to your teacher giving feedback on lessons, homework, testing, etc. (M, H)

*Keep a journal as if you were a character in a novel or short story that you are reading. Make it reflect the character’s thoughts and feelings about events and other characters’ actions. (M, H)

*Write five math problems for a classroom test, based on the math work you have been doing. The teacher will choose one problem from each student for the test, but may ask for editing. (E, M, H)

*Write a letter to a newspaper used in the classroom whenever you have a strong reaction to an article or other newspaper feature. (E, M, H)

*Write and illustrate a fiction or non-fiction book for younger children.  Read your book aloud to your class; revise it as necessary, and then read it to the age group for which it was intended. (E, M, H)

*Keep a personal expense account for one month. Then create a budget for the following month and see if you can do better (M, H)

*Make a video advertising an imaginary product or promoting a good cause. Present it to your class for feedback (M, H)

*Create a poster advertising a coming school event (E, M, H)

*Turn a short story you have read into a comic strip or a puppet show (E, M)

*Write a poem modeled on one you have studied in class (E, M, H)

*Write a fictional story based on a historical event (M, H)

*Compile a book of drawings of animals you’ve studied with names and a few facts (E)

*Give an oral book report aimed at persuading your classmates to read the same book (E,M)

*Create a monthly vocabulary game to which each student contributes a sentence containing a word learned that month. Students earn points by guessing word meanings correctly (E, M, H)

P.S. Since I was an elementary grade teacher and, later, a high school English teacher, you didn’t see much about math or science in these examples. Sorry.

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