I have made it a part of my practice to do my best to share with students the real-world significance of learning the concepts we cover. I used to believe, that this alone, would be enough to keep students engaged in the course and curious about learning. For example, we recently were learning about isotopes in my Grade 11 Chemistry course and I gave the students an opportunity to explore one way that we use isotopes and write a short article about it. The students chose topics that were incredibly fascinating and we had a roundtable discussion sharing what we learned. At the end of this activity, after all of the wonderful discussion, a student pauses and turns to me to say “is this going to be on the test?”. Now this question didn’t surprise me, but it made me think – ‘do our students often get the opportunity in our class to learn something, just for the sake of learning it’. Something that has been digging at me for years has been, how do I get my students more curious and engage in their own independent learning in my subject? I try my best to model it, sharing articles about things I had read the night before, which led me to a journal of the month activity that flamed out miserably. I teach with enthusiasm and get really excited regularly about things, that only gets me engagement in that moment. So I am taking a risk this year. I have decided to try a “genius hour” with my students. I will dedicate one period a month where they can explore any topic in chemistry they are interested in.
To guide them through their first solo exploration, I had them visit Science News for Students. They were asked to choose an article and conduct a close read on this and write about what excited them most about it and what their next steps might be if they wanted to learn more. With one of my sections, the activity went off without a hitch. My heart was bursting with pride and excitement. Some were so amazed they couldn’t hold in their “WOW!”, and even would tap a classmate next to them to say “look at this!”, or ask “is this related to that concept we learned the other day”. With another section, I felt they were just going through the motions. They wanted to make sure they completed the “assignment”, but didn’t seem to get into the spirit of the lesson. I am trying to consider some other options for running an activity like this with the second group that would change the dynamic. Part of me thinks if I pull a couple of students aside before the class starts and get them to pump up the atmosphere this could help. Or, if I provided them with a few other types of media to access the information. Maybe they can read a magazine, listen to a podcast or watch a youtube video? I have seen the power of giving them an opportunity to explore a topic of their choosing while also building critical skills for engaging in technical content. I will keep at this until I find the winning recipe with this other group, but I am very excited to continue allowing students to explore more about their interests in my subject and learning WITH them.