Using Unconventional Methods to Engage Students

Jun 29, 2021

When I was in the 11th grade, doing well in school was the last thing on my mind. Boredom and a lot of energy is not always a great recipe. And so most of the time, I was letting all of my pent-up energy loose in class. If you’re a teacher, you know all about kids like me.

In my English class, I was borderline obnoxious. Talking out of turn, constantly trying to make jokes, and absolutely getting on my teachers nerves. Now I don’t excuse that behavior at all, it was out of line, but that was me in high school. And this English teacher, Mr. Baker, had more patience than I can imagine, and was constantly trying to redirect me in the most gentle way possible. And for some reason that just wasn’t working.

Can you relate to this guy at all?

Well one day in class when the teacher wasn’t looking, I took another student’s backpack and flipped it inside out and put all of his stuff back in and zipped it up it from the inside, as one does. Well at the end of class this kid found his backpack like this, put two and two together and discovered it was me who did it, and went and told the teacher. I could see a dim fire burning in Mr. Baker’s eyes as he asked me to hang out in his room a minute. I thought, okay, I might have taken it too far this time and I’m busted. When all of the other students left the room, Baker stared me down for a solid minute and made me wait in the uncomfortable silence.

Then he said, “Have you ever read any Stephen King?”

Extremely perplexed, I said “No, Mr. Baker, I don’t like reading.”

And he said, “Well, he wrote this book, The Stand, and it is 1153 pages long. For the next month, I won’t make you do any school work in my class as long as you are reading this book and nothing else. Do we have a deal?”

I looked at this towering book and thought it would be impossible to even get through a few pages of it, I mean it has really tiny font. And then I thought about what it would be like to not have any school work for an entire month. So I shook Mr. Baker’s hand and reluctantly agreed to his deal.

Then in his class, I started reading this book. And I found myself reading it in the hallways in between classes. And I got in trouble in geometry class for reading while the teacher was lecturing. And at home I started locking myself in my bedroom for hours at a time, tearing through this 1153 page book. And after finishing it in 5 days I brought Mr. Baker his book back and asked him if all of Stephen King’s books were like this. I saw this wry smile show on his face, and then he handed me The Shining. And although I had to start doing English classwork again, I kept reading these books whenever I got the chance.

I now had this special bond with my 11th grade teacher. And we would talk about these books, that I couldn’t get enough, of every single day. This connection was formed. And when one day he said, “Oh you have got to read this book, A River Runs Through It, not a Stephen King book, but you will love it,” I trusted him and devoured that one as well. Fast forward 18 years, and I can’t go a day without reading. I now have a love affair with books, and I credit that to an English teacher who used unconventional methods to engage his students.

Now there is a lot you can take away from this story. We can talk about the connections teachers can make with their students. We could discuss literacy and how it has this power to draw students in and engage them in brand new ways. But let’s zoom in on the unconventional for a moment. I’m not so sure Mr. Baker’s technique of letting me off of school work for a few weeks would fly in any of the schools I have worked in before. I’m not sure if the content in The Stand aligns perfectly with the SAT test I had to take later that year. His pedagogy was unconventional and might not meet all of the standards on his teacher evaluation.

But I don’t care what anyone says, this English major, this English teacher, this lover of reading and literature, will tell you that it was effective. How do we create more space for true personalized learning? I used to do this lesson when I taught World War 1 to my students, where I would show up to class in a traditional British officer’s uniform, and we would make trenches out of all of the desks and I would lead my students through a paper ball battle with each other.

I would pause the battle at certain times and students would write letters home to their loved ones. I’d call an armistice and give short lectures about why we were in battle and what this war was all about. And my students would make a lot of noise and have a lot of fun. Several times people would be walking by my classroom on this day, and question the efficacy of my class.

This kind of noise, this level of fun is pretty unconventional. But if you ask those students about what they know about World War 1, or how they felt about history and English class, I bet you could determine that lesson as effective.

So what’s the answer to the question, “How can we create space to make learning more unconventional, connect more with our students, and meet them where they’re at to introduce a passion for learning? Well I don’t have the exact answer to that, but I do believe that is a question that we should all be asking. 

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