I’ll admit that I didn’t come to this session with real high expectations, but that’s only because it was the only session that I could imagine getting something out of. That’s what happens when a fourth grade teachers wanders into a high school conference.
Our presenter was Lucilla Esham, a history teacher from Delaware. She began the hour by complaining that when Delaware “won” the Race to the Top contest, it came with considerable strings, including something called “component 5” which ties teacher evaluation to student achievement. Because of the increased pressure and focus on rigor, she and a colleague decided to increase the level of engagement in their classes without compromising their academic coverage.
The first thing they did was include daily YouTube clips that introduced their topics. They used these mostly for warm-up activities, which take ten minutes and consist of a short clip followed by an extended response question which the students compose on-line. Their students were engaged in these activities, particularly kids with attention issues.
Upon reflection, they realized the primary reason was novelty. People are hard-wired to pay attention to new stimuli. This explained why the students paid attention to the videos more than their teachers lecturing.
They also tapped into research that shows brain activity responds to music. Apparently music increases dopamine, which in turn increased attention. Research shows that music increases learning; it focuses attention, increases attention, improves memory and releases tension.
Another applied strategy from brain research involves writing. The act of writing taps into higher-order thinking, forces students to use reasoning and simply gives students a chance to practice an important skill.
After employing these fairly simple strategies – video, music and writing – they yielded improved data; quite good actually, particularly on the writing portion of the state test. She displayed a selection of writing samples from before and after her course and the differences were marked.
She showed us a short video clip that described the causes of the Civil War. It was fairly compelling. I could feel the engaging effects of the music and the video, and could see the possibilities of warming up the students with an activity like this and building upon it with discussion and further reading.
Another quick video was about settlers. I actually think I’ll use it next year with my students. It has a catchy soundtrack, authentic, primary-sourced illustrations and short bullet points.
This session was better than I expected. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, a good conference session doesn’t try to do too much. It does something and it does it well. You really can’t learn much in an hour, but you can certainly learn something in an hour. In this hour I learned the value of finding and presenting short video clips to students, having them write about them and discussing their writing as a way to teach history.