As a budding high school English teacher, my favorite pastime during my last year or two of college was browsing through office supply and teacher stores. Call me weird, but I loved the smell of scotch tape, the synergy that emerged when a brand new notebook met a needle-sharp pencil for the first time, and the excitement of a fresh theme-oriented bulletin board that was not outlined in corrugated scalloped border.
In fact, I loved "school stuff" so much that my peers often challenged my decision to pursue secondary instead of elementary certification. As I meandered up and down the aisles of my favorite teacher store, I started wondering if they were right. After all, the manipulatives that I couldn't wait to use in a Greek mythology lesson were being marketed only to elementary math teachers. The puppet stage that I dreamed would house all of my Shakespearean villains was in the preschool section of the store. The truth was that very little, if any, creative and fun inventory was devoted to secondary education teachers.
My conviction that I had something to offer teenagers remained, however, as did my suspicion that elementary teachers were on to something about how the brain learns new things. With that, I committed myself to doing what they did so well but adjusting it to match the age of my students and the content of my lessons.
Say "It's center time" in a high school classroom, and you'll be eaten for lunch, but that doesn't mean this best practice is awash at the onset of puberty. Convinced this common tool of elementary teachers was a powerful way to get my kids to learn as well, I introduced "stations" in my eleventh grade English class one year. Students sat with their pre-assigned groups in makeshift pods, and I briefly gave directions for the logistics of 33 students moving six times in a classroom the size of a large envelope. Stations included guided discussion items, text-based scavenger hunts, vocabulary exercises, or any number of content-specific activities that were highly focused yet straightforward enough for students to complete successfully in the time allotted.
When teaching a new skill, I also borrowed the skill instruction pattern that elementary teachers follow. First, teacher does it. I did it. Whether it was diagramming a sentence or writing a full-length essay, I modeled it first. I did it in front of them, and I did it more than once when necessary. Second, teacher does it; student helps. As their confidence started to sprout, I continued to model the skill myself, but I asked them to help me. I provided academic feedback as they offered me their help: "That's a strong claim, Evan. Jenna, I think I will use the piece of evidence you found in the article to support that claim." Third, student does it; teacher helps. This step in the process required much interaction and patience on my part, and it often took two or three days, depending on the complexity of the skill. Finally, and most excitedly, student does it. This is when the student could completely perform the skill on his or her own without my help. It took me a few years of teaching to realize that my students had not learned until they could work successfully independent of me.
I incorporated many other elementary strategies into my junior high and high school classrooms over the years, and the results were consistently higher student engagement and sustained interest in the content matter. When teaching a unit on the Fireside Poets, for example, we shoved the desks aside and curled up on blankets in front of a cardboard fireplace. Only a day or two later would a student inevitably connect this experience with "circle time" in early grades. Field trips were also commonplace in my classes. While my seniors read Macbeth and contemplated the role of the supernatural, we sojourned to the infamous Bell Witch Cave in Robertson County, Tennessee. When my freshmen were writing descriptive and process essays, we traveled to the Corvette Assembly Plant and analyzed the process associated with the assembly of the iconic American sports car.
Regardless of the unit I was teaching, I consistently resisted the notion that learning had to be monotonous and accessible only in straight rows. As I watched students engage with and retain the content (and, of course, earn respectable scores on standardized tests), I realized that my creativity was merely the icing on the proverbial cake. It was the best practices that I incorporated-practices that cater to how the brain learns-that made all the difference. The desks were just a little bigger.