We’re delighted to welcome Rebecca Gettelman to Minds in Bloom today! Rebecca is sharing some really awesome ideas about using the unexpected to teach the everyday lessons, like grammar and writing. Read on to find out more!
If you search through my teaching boxes, mixed in among the red pens and teacher’s manuals of the typical middle school teacher’s stash, you will find a box of matches, an ostrich egg, and a huge bag of sidewalk chalk. These are not random or misplaced items; they are important parts of my curriculum. Before I tell you more about these, though, I want to ask you a question.
How many times have you stood in front of your class and, as you teach an important lesson, watched your students not pay attention to anything you are saying? The squirrel outside the window is so much more interesting than the grammar lesson; who said what to whom over lunch must be written about in detail for a girlfriend before any class writing can happen; even dozing off outranks the review for tomorrow’s test.
We’ve all been there. And while I don’t have all the answers, I do want to put something out there for you to consider…
Have you ever lit a match in front of your students?
No, not metaphorically. A strike-it-on-the-box-and-watch-it-burn, let-the-pyromaniacs-, I mean students-, loose match?
Ever thought about teaching metaphors this way?
Have you ever held an ostrich egg?
They are big—child’s head big—heavy, and surprisingly durable. (I suppose they would have to be to allow an ostrich sit on them.) They are also not something most (or any) of your students will have seen before.
Ever thought about passing one around and using it as a writing prompt?
Last question… (You didn’t know I was giving a pop quiz, did you?!)
What is the biggest sentence diagram you have ever constructed?
Not the longest sentence. Not the most complex. I’m talking 20 by 30, won’t-fit-in-your-classroom big.
Ever taken sentence diagramming outside?
One of the most valuable teaching methods I have found is to surprise my students, making a typical lesson on a typical topic something that keeps them on their toes. When you do this, students’ natural curiosity and interest level not only stops them from spending the whole class watching that squirrel, but it also helps cement the lesson you are teach in their minds by connecting it to something that they find memorable.
So, let me tell you about the three unexpected tools I mentioned above.
Match Burning and Metaphors
When we teach metaphors and tell students to include them in their writing, we often define “metaphor” and then see something like this in subsequent papers: “My grandfather was a statue on the bench,” or “My dog was a racecar zooming around the yard.” Metaphors, true, but nothing original. Sigh.
Several years ago, I started teaching metaphors to my sixth graders like this: I begin by darkening the room and lighting a match. As a class, we watch it burn. (Just let your student see you pull out a box of matches, and you’ll have the attention of basically everyone in the room. Light one, or several, and it will be a day that none of them forget.) After it burns down, I ask my students to describe what they saw. I usually get metaphors of a similar nature to the ones above. After burning another match, I write this on the board: “I saw a young man grow suddenly old.” We discuss and observe, write and rewrite, and burn lots more matches. By the end of the day, every single student has improved their metaphor writing skills tenfold. Not only that, but it will be a lesson that sticks with my students in the weeks and years to come.
Feel free to incorporate the above into your lessons, but if you would like the fully fleshed-out version that I use in my classroom, you can find it here.
The Omnidirectional Ostrich Egg
It is always great to show your students something they haven’t seen before, and an ostrich egg almost always fits that bill. Once a year, I pull out one that I keep hidden in a box in the back of one of my cupboards. (How I came to possess said egg is a story for another day.) The egg is smooth with a cream-colored shell and surprisingly heavy, even though it has been blown out like an Easter egg. After everyone has had a turn, I hold it up and ask my students to write a story about it. I don’t tell them what it is or what kind of story they have to write, but I let each student decide where he or she wants to take his or her own writing. The egg usually gets passed around a couple more times, and then my students get to work.
The excitement in the classroom is often tangible, and I have yet to have a student who didn’t have something to write about. They happily scribble away and usually want to share what they have written with each other. Writing can be fun, but so often it becomes just another chore that our students have to do. On Ostrich Egg Day, my students are memorably reminded of the joy and creative possibility of pen and paper—a lesson that is valuable in any classroom.
Sidewalk Chalk Sentence Structures
I love sentence diagramming—I find the rulers and pencils, the precision, and the challenge all a lot of fun. That being said, I fully recognize that this makes me a bit of an English nerd. (That’s okay—I accepted and embraced said weirdness a long time ago.) Unfortunately, not all students share this joy, but sentence diagramming can be a very useful tool for understanding how sentences and proper grammar all fit together.
So, every year after I have laid the requisite groundwork with my classes, I take them and a bucket of sidewalk chalk outside to the school’s large parking lot. We form teams and then see which group can come up with the largest, most complicated, correctly executed sentence diagram. (I have seen sentence diagrams that four pick-up trucks could easily fit inside.) Suddenly, instead of groans, I hear a sound that warms any English teacher’s heart: excited chatter and lively debate about…grammar! Instead of a chore, sentence diagrams are…fun! And the students are learning. And the diagrams are correct! And when the bell rings, the students don’t want to stop! Really, could a grammar teacher be more proud?
The truly unexpected is not something that can be done every day—some days you just have to define and explain main clause versus subordinate clause—but by deploying unexpected items and activities occasionally and effectively, they can improve your own teaching and your students’ learning in fun and exciting ways. I challenge you to use these tools or to create your own this school year!
Rebecca Gettelman is a teacher with over a decade of experience in the classroom. She has taught at both the middle school and high school levels and is known among her students for her love of Shakespeare and her quirky sense of humor. Rebecca currently lives in Iowa in the heart of Amish country with her husband and two young children. You can visit her at her Teachers Pay Teachers store and at her blog, Rebecca’s Classroom and Kitchen.