The Power of Novelty: Part 1 in a Series

It’s not a new idea or anything, as you can read from this 2013 Education Week blog, but this past week, I had a great reminder that using novelty to heighten student interest is really effective. TBH (to be honest), as the cool kids say, the novelty grew out of my own mistake—I left my cutely laminated cards (which I use to sort students) in my bag at home, so I did what good teachers do: I improvised.

My students and I are still getting to know each other, and we are beginning our first in-depth writing assignment, the “This I Believe” essay, or sometimes another version, called the Credo Assignment. In both, the goal is to get to know the students in my room, because I firmly believe that relationships are the basis of the best learning environments and it always matters who is in the room (read my blog about that topic here). In any event, the class didn’t begin as I had planned, which was to hand out cute cutouts to sort groups randomly to form pairs, like those in Scholastic’s 15 Quick and Creative Ways to Group and Partner Students. Instead, I told students they had one minute to line up by birth-month order. Then, each student at the very end was told to step forward, and they became partners.

After two periods of this, my students came in thinking they knew how it was all going down (which, incidentally, is a very good sign that the novelty factor is working). So, I changed it up. This time, I lined them up boy/girl/boy/girl from shortest to tallest. They had to work with the person next to them. The next class, they came in curious about what we were doing. Again, I decided to have them move to four corners based on their favorite season, then I just pointed and paired them off. This entire process in each class took no more than three minutes, but it intrigued the students enough that they were wondering, “What are we doing in Chandler’s class today?”

What they did was this: Alone, they brainstormed 10 ideas they could possibly write about. I always use timers for those kiddos who just don’t get the concept of time very well (my son and husband are prime examples of fascinating people whose concept of time is not quite in line with reality). An easy way is to search YouTube for “five-minute timer with music” and you’ll end up with something like the one I just used, or maybe if you want something more fast-paced, try this one, which is Super Mario Brothers-themed, though I can’t personally deal with that one!

When the timer buzzed, I told my students to interview the partner we’d picked in the beginning. I always partner kiddos in the beginning, even if we won’t be working in pairs until later in the class, just so we don’t interrupt the flow. I put on the Bouncy Balls website, which uses your computer’s microphone to measure noise and visually demonstrate the levels with bouncing balls and warnings of “Sh …” and “Too loud” based on what you set the volume to be. I adore this simple noise-control tool because much of my class is all about the chaos of collaboration, which can easily get too loud.

I give each student four minutes to interview their partner about the topic, and I call out “switch” when it’s time for the other person to be interviewed. The reason I only give them that amount of time is to make it rushed. I want to speed up the pace of class in order to switch it up from the slower activity before. It can also deconstruct into simple socializing if I don’t manage the time, or one student will hog the whole eight minutes.

Finally, and most important to my ultimate goal of students’ writing a personal narrative, is the “brain dump.” I tell students to silently write as quickly as possible. Grammar, punctuation, spelling and paragraphing don’t count. If the students can’t think of something to say, they should write “I don’t know what to write” or “I like elephants”— literally, whatever comes to mind. Think about their 10 topics, and write—for 10 whole minutes. No talking, no stopping and no asking “Is this OK?” because this is a brain dump. I’ve done this before, but I was shocked at how intensely my students did this activity. (Take a look at how quiet my room was for this activity in this post on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and follow me for peeks into my classroom.)

I purposely backed this right up until the bell. What happened? Groans. Yes, groans!
#EnglishTeacherGoals: My students didn’t want to stop writing. Later, we will “mine” these brain dumps, but for this one day, I got to hear my students buzz about the fast/slow/faster/ pace of class, which if you think about it, is pretty novel in itself. What did you do in Chandler’s class? Something to do with your birthday or your height or the seasons, and then a brain dump, and then you didn’t use grammar at all. Gimmicky? A little.

Do you want to know the best part? Here’s a sample of what my students wrote during their brain dumps: Aidan, Owen, Liz and Emily. Follow me to see how to “mine” a brain dump and see what these kiddos come up with for their final personal narrative!