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Sunday, August 5, 2012

In the Cards Revisited

When my girls were school age, I started teaching High School chemistry and I loved it. However, it soon became clear that what I was trying to teach and what the kids were learning bore amazingly little resemblance to one other. I realized they needed to give me their undivided attention and also I had to figure out some way to repeat what I was trying to get across. I read an article once that said you have to hear something new - like a new word or concept – an average of 7 times before it is really yours. But with those teenagers in front of me, it would be game over if I started repeating myself.

I’d say: “Chemistry is easy if you can follow what I am talking about, but I have found out that most of you don’t seem to be getting it. That means either my teaching is not clear enough for you to understand, or you need to stop me and ask me questions.” That didn’t work - I rarely got a question because they were not sure enough of what to ask and didn’t want to look stupid in front of their classmates. So quite a few students were getting lost and nothing I did seemed to work.

Then I happened on the idea of using cards with a students' names written on the back.  At the beginning of a class, I would get one student to shuffle that class's cards and another to cut the deck. I’d tell them I was going to talk for around 10 minutes about something new they really needed to understand and that I would write any new words I used on the board. When I had finished, I would then ask the person whose name was on the back of the top card in the deck to tell the class what I had just said.

No one knew whose name was on that top card, and suddenly I had a captive audience paying rapt attention - a joy to teach. Very often the kids on those first couple of cards would get so hopelessly muddled over a point that hands would shoot up - so I'd thank the student and turn up another card. Usually after we were 4 or 5 cards into the deck, there would usually be a request that I repeat some of what I had tried to teach in the first place. My classes oftentimes became pretty lively, sometimes they seemed on the edge of chaos with students vehemently discussing and arguing with each other, but as long as they were talking chemistry I’d let them go. Inevitably the topic always got a thorough airing and in the end, most were using the words on the board to talk about the new ideas I was trying to get across.  Best of all - they were involved in their own learning and and they loved it. 

Like Confucius said – Involve me and I'll understand. Rie