Using Unconventional Methods to Engage Students

Mar 28, 2024

When I was in the 11th grade, I found school to be quite boring. In some classes (the ones with particularly strict teachers), this caused me to count the dots on ceiling tiles and pray for the clock to speed up. In others, it meant "off-task behavior— which is really just a nice way of saying that I was often obnoxious.

In my junior English class, I talked out of turn, acted like the class clown, and was constantly 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 always trying to redirect me in the gentlest way possible. And for some reason, that just wasn’t working.

Can you relate to this guy at all? Have you ever students who just did not respond to your interventions?

The Turning Point: A Creative Intervention

One day in class when the teacher wasn’t looking, I flipped another kid's backpack it inside out, putting all of his stuff back in and zipping it up from the inside. Just a standard backpack flipping. Well the kid found out it was me 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 after class.

When all of the other students left the room, Baker stared me down for a solid minute and made me wait in uncomfortable silence. I was sure this would finally be the moment when this teacher snapped.

But instead he finally 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 schoolwork in my class as long as you are reading this book and nothing else. Do we have a deal?”

The Unexpected Journey: From Resistance to Passion

I looked at this towering book and thought it would be impossible to even get through a few pages of it. But then I thought about what it would be like to not have any schoolwork 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 after only a few pages I found myself liking it quite a bit. I read it in the hallways in between classes; 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 under a week, 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 appear 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.

The Ripple Effect

I now had this special bond with my 11th-grade teacher. And every single day we would talk about these books that I couldn’t get enough of. A connection was formed. Then one day when 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. Neither can my own kids. Our house has become a library; I now have a love affair with books, and I credit that to an English teacher who used an unconventional method to engage his student.

Reflection: Lessons Beyond the Classroom

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 schoolwork 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.

Embracing Unconventional Teaching

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.

The Importance of Unconventional Teaching Methods 

There's really not a one-size-fits-all method to connecting with students. They are complex beings who have different needs, and as educators, our call is to discover what those needs are and then figure out how to meet them. And I think this starts with being able to name the principal reason for why we do what we do. Why do kids come to school and what is the point of their teachers? Because once we know where we want students to be, we can adjust our practices to get them there, and be able to justify unconventional methods if we know that they are helping that happen.

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