Sunday, October 5, 2014

Curiosity Killed the Cat but Not the Student

Curiosity Killed the Cat but Not the Student
By Jill Jenkins
            If Merlin is right, why are so many high school students draped across their desks sleeping?  Why are so many elementary school students staring blankly at their teacher when they should be listening? Why are so many middle school students flipping spit wads and sailing paper airplanes across the class?  They are not curious.  How does a teacher spark that curiosity in minds that are so bombarded with action-packed movies, electronic games, and text messages?   
            According to the article, “How Curiosity Changes Our Brains” by Emma Saville that appeared in The Washington Post on October 3, 2014, when we are curious about a subject our retention increases because there is “increased activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory.”   In another scholarly paper, “ Stimulating Curiosity To Enhance Learning” by Graham Pluck and Helen Johnson, “Curiosity is an aspect of intrinsic motivation that has great potential to enhance student learning. “   Their study discusses the findings of Thomas Friedman, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky.  In Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, he postulates the theory that “curiosity combined with motivation is more important than intelligence.” Jean Piaget’s theory involves the importance curiosity plays in the development of cognitive skills in children.  Lev Vygotsky stressed the importance of adults of encouraging exploration to increase children’s cognitive development.  As an educator what does this mean?
            Children have to be actively engaged in their own learning.  The teacher becomes the facilitator the sets up the projects and encourages the child to explore either alone or in groups to solve problems. In the article “ Stimulating Curiosity To Enhance Learning” by Graham Pluck and Helen Johnson, project based learning is highly recommended even in courses like learning a foreign language where rote memorization used to be the norm. This brought back memories of my  experiences learning Spanish in two different Spanish classes taught by the same teacher.  In sixth grade, our school decided to participate in a televised Spanish class.  In the 1960’s this was state of the art educational technology.  Each day we watched a Spanish teacher sitting in a chair saying “Eschucha” and she repeated a word in Spanish and “repite”.  We listened to the word and repeated it like parrots.  Bored out of our minds, one day three of my dear friends and I unplugged the wires in the back of the television and plugged them into the wrong places knowing our sixth grade teacher would never decipher our ploy.  It saved us from one day of the doldrums.  In high school, I had the same Spanish teacher from my television nightmares, but in person she was a vibrant, interesting teacher who used an interesting technique.  We were put in groups of four and had to create a play in Spanish involving a marketplace.  We were given one class period to write and produce our masterpiece and presented it the next class period.  We were engaged and motivated to learn vocabulary that would make our presentation fascinating and brought both costumes and props.

            Before beginning a project, the teacher needs to “chum the hole,” by offering bizarre and even grotesque facts that might entice the students to want to know more.  For example, when I teach Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, I offer students a list of project ideas that they can use to create their term project.  One of the term projects is to research clothing worn during Medieval or Elizabethan periods of Europe and explain how the clothing reflected the beliefs or culture of the time.  “To chum the hole”, I enlighten them with a few tidbits of knowledge that I learned from Utah Shakespearean Theater’s Late Director, Fred Ash. For example, every article of clothing ever worn by a woman with the exception of the bra was first worn by men: mini-skirts, high heeled shoes, pantyhose and girdles.  In fact Henry VIII had a rosebud built in his codpiece to give his manly parts the sweet smell of roses. In those days, men were judged not by how buff they were, but by the curve of their calves.  As a result, younger men with better legs wore short skirts, tights and high heels.  Women during that time period wanted to look like the Virgin Mary, but they had no knowledge of what she looked like except that she was pregnant.  As a result, they wore dresses that were longer in the front than in the back and gathered under the bosom and for a final touch, they would eat a small amount of lye before leaving the house which made them regurgitate giving them the appearance of morning sickness.  Because high foreheads were all the rage, they plucked their hairlines back.  Another tidbit of information is the sewage of London ran directly into the Thames River which was also their drinking water.  To make the water taste better, they would put a great deal of sugar in their water or drink alcohol: beer or wine.  As a result, their teeth often turned black and since they had no toothpaste to whiten their smile, they often rinsed their mouths with urine. Imported Portuguese urine was considered the best.  That was usually enough to get them going. The same concept can be applied to other disciplines.  Science teachers can chum the hole by demonstrating how explosive hydrogen is with an in-class experiment.  History teachers can relate a bizarre story from the past.  Geography teachers might have students use colored chalk to experience Holi, the festival of colors, to introduce events in India.
       Other options for projects include: first, to research and write a speech using a visual aide either a poster or a Power Point Presentation on weapons used during the time; second,  research and create a speech, a paper and Power Point Presentation on the medical advancements during the time period explaining why their infant mortality rates were so high; third, research and complete a paper, a Power Point Presentation or a poster comparing of the physical, social and psychological effects of the Black Plague to a modern day pandemic: H1N1, Bird Flu, Sars, or Ebola;  and fifth, research and write a paper, and present a speech using a visual aide either a Power Point Presentation or a poster exploring William Shakespeare’s life and work and determine if he actually is the author of Romeo and Juliet.  Students also have the option of creating their own project, but they need to check with me so I make certain they have to do some research and draw some conclusions based on their research.  The more choices you give students the more likely you will pique their curiosity. 
            Another project I use came from another teacher, Mr. Wade Houtchens at San Bernardino High School. Students create a news broadcast that includes at least ten events that happened in the play and have at least five commercials advertising items that were used in that time period. (This is where they use the information about urine mouth wash, trenchers, and Friar Lawrence’s potions.)  His students loved it.  I use his project, but with new technology my students could create a movie upload it to You Tube and show it to the class.  It forces them to discover what items were used during that time period, decide what parts of the play are the most important and it gives them a creative outlet.  More importantly the students are engaged.
            When I teach the Epic Poetry, I present the characteristics of an epic hero and put students in groups to identify an epic hero from films, books or comic books (graphic novels) and justify their choice with details.  After the class finishes reading The Odyssey by Homer, they can choose to work in groups or by themselves to create their own epic hero story.  I always give them choices so it can presented as a movie, a comic book (graphic novel) or it can be a story they read to the class.  One memorable project was presented Jack, a student confined to a wheelchair because of his muscular dystrophy who wrote about Jack of the Night Ninja who by days is disguised as a handicapped boy confined to a wheelchair but at night becomes a Ninja who is an expert at karate and  prowls the streets fighting crime.  The joy in his face when he read his story freeing himself from his wheelchair brought the entire class to their feet in a standing ovation. 
            Before you give up on your struggling learners, try to engage their curiosity.  Don’t forget to entice their interest by presenting them with thought provoking ideas, give them choices, and allow them to work with other students on project based learning. These are the students who stare spellbound over an action movie or build a car engine that can go zero to 100 in less than four seconds.  They have the ability if you can tap that curiosity. Preparing them for the Common Core Test does not have to be grueling drills, make it fun and interesting by instilling a sense of curiosity in your learners. 

Don’t waste your time telling your students, inspire them.