Connecting to Students’ Interests

1 of the things that I have learned in my years of teaching (all 3 of them) is that students do better work when they enjoy what they are doing. Students, like all people, enjoy working on those things that interest them. For example, I love programming. I will be perfectly happy and work hard in a discussion, watching a video, writing a collaborative program, etc… I have no interest whatsoever in knitting. It doesn’t really matter how amazing a teacher’s lesson is; if it is just on knitting, I am most likely going to be daydreaming (There is nothing inherently wrong with knitting. It is just not a personal interest.).

Students are people, just like teachers, and are susceptible to the same whims. Unfortunately, we do not always have a say in what we can teach. In the last week, I have co-taught lessons in physics (work and power, acceleration), biology (kingdoms), the Cuban Revolution, Realist poets, and totalitarian leaders in World War II. No matter how wonderful the student, I highly doubt that many students will be intrinsically motivated to learn about all of these disparate subjects even though there were a handful of students who came in the library for science, history, and English in the span of a week.

Part of our duty as educators is to find a way to make the material we have to teach interesting to students so that they want to learn about it. There are many methods and no one method will work in every situation with every student. However, I discovered a lesson by Angela Cunningham (@kyteacher) that I thought would work well in many subjects. The idea is historical Facebook pages. Her original idea can be found here.

Facebook is blocked here, as it is in many schools. However, close to 90% of students at my school have either a Facebook or a MySpace page; many have both. The hope is that by tying biographical research to something that they like to do, they will get more invested in the assignment than they would if it was a simple biography research paper.

I modified Angela’s lesson some. She used Google Sites; my teachers are familiar with Microsoft Publisher, so I designed my template there. It is actually fairly simple to do. I just took screenshots of Facebook at home, added them to Publisher, and added spaces for students to add information and pictures. Here is a picture of what my template looks like:

There are some basic requirements that we tailor to each specific class.

  1. A profile picture
  2. You need status updates that reflect what was going on in [place] during [time period]
  3. At least 6 people the historical figure would be friends with in the “Friends Online” section
  4. Basic biographical info in the “Information” section
  5. At least 3 Facebook-style groups that your figure would belong to.
  6. Suggestions of 3 people in that your figure might have something in common with in “Suggestions.” (For example, an English teacher asked people who wrote in a similar style and a history teacher asked for people with similar political views.)
  7. At least 2 advertisements of products from the time period in the “Sponsored” sections.
  8. At least 1 important event going on at the time in the “Events” section.
  9. Language can also be modified. The English teacher required period appropriate language and the Spanish teacher is considering having her Spanish 4 class do it in Spanish.

In the last week, I have done this project with a Spanish teacher, a world history teacher, and an English teacher. The history teacher focused on totalitarian leaders during World War II – see details here. The English teacher focused on Realist authors – see details here. The Spanish teacher focused on Cuban revolutionary figures – see details here. Next week, an English teacher wants to do it with English Romantic poets and a US history teacher wants to do it with important figures from the 1960s.

In all 3 classes that have done a variant of the project, the students were interested, engaged, and produced good work. One of the teachers actually made a point to stop by to tell me that she heard the kids saying “This is cool” and enthusiastically showing the students who had been absent how to work on the project. The teachers were all enthusiastic and that carried over to the students. The students were interested and enthusiastic; the students’ hard work and interest then refreshed the teachers and classroom morale went up, at least for a little while. I only have access to 2 examples (They were turned into their classroom teachers, not to me.) at the moment. Here is one on Emily Dickinson and one on Fidel Castro.

There are several aspects of this lesson that I think are worth noting. Obviously, it is important that students like it, at least so far. However, there are also some important educational points. Compared to a normal report, this type of assignment is almost impossible to plagiarize. It forces students to try to understand what would have been important enough to the person that they are studying to write about. They need to make important connections between their historical figure and larger world during that time period. If anything, research may be more intensive than during a normal report. They have to have an understanding of not only the person that they are studying, but the time period, the culture, the place, the language, and other important figures from the time period.

If you want to try it out, click here for the Microsoft Publisher temple.

Here is a video on how to use the Publisher template. You may have to turn up the volume.

Historical Facebook Pages from Jason Bedell on Vimeo.

How do you get students interested? Please leave some ideas in the comments.

3 comments to Connecting to Students’ Interests

  • Meagan

    Can’t wait to try it. My Media Specialist just emailed me the link, and I have been reading it over. I am very excited.

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    I’m glad to hear it. I have another class doing on figures from the 60s today. They seem really interested and are actually enthusiastic about helping each other. It’s been a real boon for us having 6 teachers use it in two weeks. Let me know if you need any help. Thanks for the comment.

  • I wonder about this – there have been things like the Facebook “Aeneid” which were hilarious and demonstrated utility. It is important to keep the events of the Aeneid in order so as to aid interpretation.

    My own thought is that re: Dickinson, there’s a few of her poems which are not only accessible to a teenage audience, but maybe even useful. My reading of “If I can stop one heart from breaking” is that Dickinson is moving from the selfish to the selfless. She can’t stop her own heart from breaking, but cooling a pain or being more careful with passion are indeed achievable.
    ashok´s last blog post ..Emily Dickinson- “It is an honorable Thought” 946

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