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Often when I enter a classroom as a substitute, my hands are rather tied as to what I can do with the lessons given. Sometimes, however, I’ve found that with a little bit of thought I have on occasion been able to turn a very dry lesson read straight from a textbook into something that students feel engaged in.

My favorite, albiet short, example of this was a fourth grade class several years ago. The class schedule was set up rather traditionally, so on this day they were reading aloud from a textbook about the Siege of Fort Vincennes. The book described the battle in a context that the kids had no real way of understanding. See, this was a battle from the American Revolutionary War – back when battles were fought mainly on foot. They didn’t have advanced weaponry like they do now, and war looked nothing then like it does in today’s video games. So as we read aloud,  most of the students looked utterly confused.

One of the students, determined to understand, raised a hand and asked me to explain what they had just read. And this was when I grinned, excited for the chance to put my educational philosophy in place long before I ever knew what an educational philosophy was. I started out by explaining that, back in this war, people fought battles in units. “So,” I continued, “let’s think about those units like they are classes in this school. Your class gets to be the unit we are reading about in the book.” I explained that in these battles, every unit, or class for our example, carried a flag.

This is the part where the fun began! I grinned widely, and called on the student who had first asked the question. “Now, we don’t have any flags. So let’s say for our example the person in each class that would have a flag instead yells out. So, go ahead – please be the flag for your class. Yell out for me.” For a moment, the student stared at me with wide eyes, amazed that any teacher would ask him to yell in the middle of class. With a nod, I encouraged him and he excitedly ‘waved the flag’ for his class. “Now, if we know that there is one flag person yelling for each class, and you hear that voice – how many classes do you think there are?” The class as a whole agreed that it would mean one class was around.

I then went on to explain that what made this particular battle special was that they split into smaller groups and instead of only having one flag for the unit – meaning 100 people, they gave 10 people flags and made it look like there was 10,000. Continuing with the example, “So let’s say we are all on the playground, and want to make people believe that there are more classes in our school than there actually is. How many people yelling would mean one class?” They reminded me that would be one person. “So, let’s see what happens if I ask all of you to yell.”

I don’t think the class actually believed at first that I was asking this of them, because I actually had to encourage them to raise their voices. Still, after a second the whole classroom was yelling out in glee. Once we all settled and quieted again, I asked them how many classes they would think are in the school if they heard that amount of yelling. Animated and engaged now, everyone agreed that it would me there are lots of classes, not just the one. I then redirected them back to the lesson itself, and asked someone to explain how what we had just done compared to what we read.

I was so pleased! Everyone in the class seemed to understand now!

While I can look at that and understand that my example isn’t entirely constructivist, I think that it represents how – even before I had started training to be a teacher – I had ideals and preferences for my classroom teaching that engaged students in their learning. I have never desired a quiet classroom, and knew even then that if students are going to gain anything from their lessons, they had to be a part of what they are doing. I had never even heard the terms “passive” and “active” learners, but I knew then even as I know now that I could never be content in a classroom full of passive learners.

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