Remember when you first thought about becoming a teacher? Remember how you thought it would be fun? When most people look back on their own educational experiences, the teachers and lessons that stand out most to them are often the ones that were the most out-of-the-box, non-traditional, creative, and just plain fun.
But these “inspired” lessons were the exception rather than the norm, in part because of the pressure to out-achieve other nations and more recently to cover content standards. Now, however, the standards are on our side. We find within the standards themselves not just content to be taught, but essential skills such as creative problem-solving, higher order questioning, and generalization.
Herein lies the path to creative, inspired instructional design that is not only supported by the educational accountability system, but is even mandated.
Below is just one idea that you can try in your classroom, regardless of your student population’s age, ability, or motivation. For many, many more, come to my session on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lecture” at AMLE2015 – The Annual Conference for Middle Level Education.
I teach, I pause, and I ask my students to translate what they just read or heard into language a younger group of students could understand. High school students translate for middle school students. Middle school students translate for elementary school students. Elementary school students translate for pre-school students. Any shift in language requires the students to know and understand the content well enough to re-teach it. It also requires them to synthesize, simplify, and summarize the content, all higher order thinking skills that appear in today’s teaching standards. See multiple grade level examples below.
#1: Scaffolding is often necessary when student are unfamiliar with the idea of translation. Notice how each of the samples below were scaffolded—or differentiated—for students who needed more support to be successful.
#2: If you are teaching in grades 4-12, consider projecting a photo of your own child at age 6 and ask your students to teach your child what you just taught them. This personalizes the translation and helps kids connect to you as well. If you don’t have children, bring in a photo of you at age 6 and ask them to teach “little you” the content.
The translation doesn’t need to be for younger students. It could also be a re-telling of the content in a different dialect or format. Students might re-tell the content in surfer speak, gangster speak, old English, or caveman. Or they might re-tell the content as a fairy tale, a romantic comedy, an action thriller or a tragedy. This retelling can be verbal (out loud), written (on paper), visual (drawing) or kinesthetic (acting).
Why it Works
Our least motivated students can tune us out when we are talking, and they can duck and cover during a class discussion, but there is nowhere to run when they are responsible for teaching an idea to someone else. In the case of storytelling, we take what might otherwise be less than thrilling content and make it engaging by having students create a creative package for it. While students might not inherently care about the content, they enjoy the challenge of repackaging it in an entertaining way.
Translate the water cycle into pictures.
- Teacher provides a blank diagram with arrows and a paragraph describing the water cycle. Students draw pictures to show visually how the cycle works and label each drawing. Teacher shows a sample of a different cycle explained in images, such as the life cycle of a butterfly, as reference.
- Scaffold. Some students are provided with simple pre-cut images that just need to be put in order and labeled.
- Scaffold: Some students are provided with pre-made labels that need to be attached in the correct places and create the drawing to go with each.
Describe why the US Constitution was needed, so that a 4-year-old could understand the reasons.
- Scaffold: Some students are provided with a list of reasons that just need re-written in simpler language, while other students must make their own list using the textbook and then simplify them.
Explain the difference between median and mean values so a 7-year-old could understand it.
- Scaffold: Some students are provided with a paragraph and an example to simplify. Some students are provided a step-by-step guide to complete the task. (i.e., 1: What is the definition of mean value? 2. What is the definition of median value? 3. How are they different? 4. What are they used for? Now how can you use simpler language and a simple example to explain this idea to little kids?) Some students will be given just the prompt and their textbooks and no other support.
Describe the vascular system from the point of view of “Red, the blood cell, and his Amazing Adventures”
- Students will be given a list of the places a red blood cell will travel, which they need to put in order and find a description for what happens in each location in their textbooks.
- Scaffold: Some students will be given the list already in correct order and with a short description of what happens at each location and will only be required to turn it into an adventure story.
Describe your weekend using the key elements of a tragedy
- Students will be given a list of the elements of a tragedy and a sample story of the teacher’s weekend in tragedy form. Some students will be required to write only one paragraph using a single key element of tragedy, like “everyone dies at the end.” Others will be required to write longer and more complex tragedies using more than one element of the genre.
Translate Romeo’s final monologue into surfer speak or caveman speak
- Students will be given samples of a Juliet speech in both surfer and/or caveman as reference
Grace Dearborn is a veteran classroom teacher and has worked as a mentor teacher, literacy coach, curriculum advisor, and PD coordinator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org