Ideas for the Curious
The majority of administrators and state education agencies view student success in terms of test scores and course passing rates. Certainly I agree those assessments are important in ensuring every student receives an equal opportunity for an adequate education and makes sufficient progress. But I have to admit, although high-stakes testing and standards-based reform do react to a need in public education, I looked at success within my classroom quite differently.
Below are a couple of fun classroom experiments guided by these principles. Teachers, feel free to reframe them for use in your own classroom.
Idea 1: An Invitation to Dream
Each year, my senior English students read the poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick, which introduces the idea of carpe diem, or “seize the day.” It’s so easy for a teacher to discuss the idea of carpe diem, but students need personal or real-life connections for a poem to hold true meaning.
To connect this poem to “real life,” I reminded students of Henry David Thoreau’s idea that “[n]o man on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” I then tell the story of my father: A man who worked hard his entire life only to die at age 59 of an unexpected heart attack on our living room floor. Sadly, although I lived with my father, I never really knew him. Both he and I were focused, me on school, him on work. And I’ll never forget my mother’s regret after Dad died, “He never had any fun.”
I asked students what they want to do with their lives besides work and school. What might be fun? Ignite or fuel their passion for life? At the time, my students were primarily gifted and high-ability. Although they didn’t qualify as “at-risk,” they were not without their own set of common struggles: perfectionism, lack of sleep, and financial and academic pressures from their parents, peers, and selves, and many had not thought beyond these pressures.
After I shared with them my “List of Ten Things to Do in This Lifetime,” students created their own list that could not include anything related to career or school. We shared our dreams, and their assignment that night was to begin fulfilling one of their goals, whether that meant to make a call to a long-lost friend, research travel costs to that place, wherever it may be, or devise a plan to save for that special something.
Some students fulfilled a dream during that school year, and we celebrated. Others did over time and let me know. And all were reminded of Herrick’s message, carpe diem, years later when I mailed them a copy of their dreams.
Idea 2: Literature in Three Dimensions
The classroom environment should be both attractive and functional. When arranging and designing the physical aspects, such as student desks, other furniture, enrichment centers, and displays, consider age appropriateness, your instructional goals, and group and individual students’ needs.
One aspect of physical space that often is underutilized is the ceiling. A successful project in my classes involved turning the ceiling into not only a unique and colorful display, but also a teaching tool.
Every year, my students designed ceiling tiles to reflect the content or theme of the literature read for class. The project grew popular, and during my final year of teaching, every tile represented student learning and enthusiasm. (Tip: Encourage the use of non-flammable paint to avoid conflict with the fire marshall!)