When the clock hits 2:15, my class comes to life. It is time for science! The students have their notebooks out and are ready to move to their science seats before I even finish explaining the upcoming experiment. They hang on every single word I say. How do I know they are listening? There are no questions about what to do. Not one. The experiments are being executed perfectly. Even my student with the shortest attention span is caught telling her lab partner EXACTLY how many drops of liquid need to be applied to make a chemical change visible! So why do they listen SO well in science class, but have such trouble remembering vocabulary from reading class after days and days of review?
Science matters to them-- right now! They are in charge of the science experiment's success, and they want to see results! They care!
How do I get students to care about vocabulary in reading class?
I can think like an adult, and lecture students about how knowing more vocabulary will make them understand more about what they read in the future. I could also remind students that they will be better writers in the future if they understand more vocabulary. Those involve "the future" reasoning, and as a kid, that kind of reasoning just is not enough.
How do I make students understand the importance of vocabulary "right now" in their lives? Grades! That's it. No. While it is true that learning vocabulary will help grades, does it make the students want to REALLY LEARN the words? My students do care about their grades. They do their sentences, participate in class, and get excellent grades. However, I can tell my students really do not care. They figure out the system, use those test taking strategies (I taught them) and they ace their tests. Parents are happy, students have As, but I know they still just went through the motions. A few students write really nice sentences, and they seem to enjoy the process, but this is a small portion of the class population. HOW CAN VOCABULARY COMPETE WITH CHEMICAL REACTIONS?
PLAY! We easily lose track of the fact that our students are KIDS! Let's play a game! Make students WANT to CARE.
This morning, we played a game I made up called, "Draw, Sculpt, or Act!" I need a better name, but this one includes directions in the name, so it works quite efficiently in my jam-packed days. Students work in groups to get their teams to guess the most vocabulary terms in a given amount of time. They can draw, sculpt with play-doh, or act out words charades-style. This gets students out of their seats. If they use one strategy, and the team is not guessing, they are forced to get the point across in other ways. This is far from regurgitating definitions and forcing words into lackluster sentences.
During today's game, ALL students were engaged. They quickly found out that if they had recently studied the words, it was easier to guess. Students worked together. If one student could not think of the word, but they knew what the person was trying to show, they would describe it. For example, "Oh, that is a planet going around and around! It is that little invisible thing that goes through the planet!" Another team member heard this and was able to guess, "Axis!" The students all seemed to have a rush of adrenaline (fun). The winning prize was small-- a simple sticker. The winning team was proud, but other teams did not feel deflated.
The most important part of the game came afterwards. We reflected on the words that were easier to guess versus the ones that were challenging. They were fairly common across groups. For the most challenging words, we brainstormed ideas to help people guess them better. I told the students, "You will see these words again when we review, so remember these tips!"
After the game, I gave students the vocabulary assessment. Compared to other weeks, the students finished in about half the time! It is hard to prove if the game gets all the credit. It just seemed that students really knew the words, and took less time relying on test-taking strategies! As a teacher, I prefer standardized-style assessments to take LESS of my class time.
This could be good news for students:
More Time Playing Games = Less Time Taking Tests
Is it too good to be true?
Games do make it matter "right now" for students. We just need to be sure that the games we choose:
- Engage all students,
- Challenge students to think,
- Create opportunities for students to make connections,
- Are as effective, or more effective, than another learning opportunities,
- Allow for opportunities to reflect or "debrief" about the content,
- "Trick" students into caring about that content,
- Make it memorable-- make it matter.
When forced to think about whether or not we have "time" to play games in the classroom, we need to think about what will matter most to our students now. It may even make their futures brighter!
We play a lot of games. Jeopardy, math card games, and computer games are some of our favorites. What are yours?