One of the first things you learn as a teacher is to have a backup plan in case your lesson doesn’t go the way you are expecting it to. You always need a plan B at the ready. So what happens when plan B goes wrong?
It was my last lesson of the term with a year 8 science class. As per usual, I wanted to do something fun, interactive, and relaxing. Plenty of people will tell you that you should be teaching until the last moment, but many of us teachers know that is a fruitless task. For one thing, half of the students don’t bother coming to school on the last day (heck, some don’t bother with the last few days, or even the last week). There is little point covering new content when only half the class is there – you’ll just have to re-cover it again next term. Also, the end of the term is usually wrapping up the end of the unit, with not much point beginning the new one when the students are likely to forget it over the holidays.
Besides, the teacher is tired, the students are tired, the teacher aides are tired. Basically everyone is tired and just wants the holidays to hurry up so we can all have a break from the incredible workload and from each other. Holidays can do wonders in refreshing all members of the school, reinvigorating the teachers and relaxing the students. They can even work wonders on things like friendship issues and bullying issues, with the students often coming back to the new term in a happier frame of mind.
So I had decided that I wanted my class to do an online activity to do with cells. We will be moving on to the cell unit next term, and I’d already done a little introduction lesson to give them a head start in the lesson or two before (Thank you Bill Nye and the creator of the worksheet to go with the video!). So off I went booking the laptops for my class for that lesson.
I get to school happy as Larry to be doing something fun on the last day. Then I realise that the laptop trolley I’d booked was in another building. I can’t move my class to that building as the rooms are all full, and I can’t bring the laptops into our building (school rules to reduce potential issues).
A bit lost for what to do, I decide that we could just have a bit of a more relaxed lesson and watch a movie. (Shock horror!)
I decide we could watch Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. It’s one of my favourites, and I know how to drive discussions from the movie linked to genetic engineering, ethics, and scientific method. I’ve done it before and it’s worked really well!
So with that decision made, I go into the lesson happy again. This will be easy and fun!
But of course it’s not. The students come into the lesson in a bit of a ratty mood, struggling to contain their excitement about the holidays and just generally being silly.
I figure I need to calm them down before we watch the movie, so I start teaching on the fly. I ask them to think of an area of science that they’re interested in – it could be make up, sport shoes, computer games, etc. Once they chose an area, I got them to think of product they could produce, then gave them a $1m budget to plan around. They had to think about what resources they would need and how they would allocate their money. One student got so into his idea of creating a zombie virus, he was calculating how much he would spend on test subjects, a vaccine, a safety bunker, etc. Another was sending something to space (I forget what) and was confused how to make it all work with ‘such a small budget’, until we discussed how he could set aside some to fundraising.
Once they all got tired of this random little exercise (and I ran out of ways to keep it going), I decided we could start the movie. They were all calmed down now and happy to sit and watch.
So on goes Netflix, and after sorting out the sound we’re good to go.
Only, apparently the computer wasn’t.
It decided that it was going to crash. And not just a normal, ‘Well this is mildly annoying’ crash either. This is the ‘I’m going to crash, refuse to restart, then restart, then decide I need to update something, then crash again, and let’s just repeat this whole cycle three times’ type crash.
After a few minutes (once it’s decided to try the first update install), I get the students back onto their budgeting, and thinking about the ethical impact of their work – was it beneficial to society, not beneficial, or neutral? (‘Zombies ARE beneficial miss!’)
Once it was obvious that the computer was going to be out of action for a while, I started to panic. What do we do now? I’d dragged out the random activity to it’s death, and the students were getting bored. Help!
The co-teacher who works with me in the class came up to me and said ‘Do you want me to go find a plan c?’. ‘Yes please!’ I begged, trying to keep the zombie boy interested in his plans for world domination, while also trying to keep the fastest-rugby-shoes-ever boy beside him from falling asleep.
The teacher came back with a bulging folder. Great! Worksheet time!
Except they weren’t worksheets.
They were simply adult colouring in pages.
I knew immediately that they would be a huge success with this class, so she goes around to each student and lets them choose the page they want to colour in. Some are simple, some are very complex, and all of the students are excitedly engaged again. We go and get some coloured pencils, and all of a sudden we have a classroom of students colouring in like they’re back in primary school.
That was our Plan C, and it worked brilliantly. The whole mood of the room relaxed again into a happy engagement. Some students comment about their colouring books at home, and not one single student thought it was a silly thing to be doing.
20 minutes or so later the computer decided to be functional again and I put the movie back on. Some students stopped colouring, but most coloured while they watched. It was a beautiful thing to see – they were actively engaged in both activities, sharing pencils, complimenting each other’s colour choices, talking about the movie (some even linking it to the random activity we did before, thinking about budget and ethics) and generally having relaxed fun. We end the lesson on a high note, with every single student choosing to take their colouring page home (whether to finish it, show it off, or throw it out, we’ll never know).
Now I know some people out there will be horrified. Surely I don’t get paid to get the students to watch movies and colour in! That’s valuable teaching time I’m wasting! They’re not learning anything!
Except it’s not wasted at all.
Many studies show the benefit of colouring for adolescents and adults, particularly those with troubled lives (and most teenagers consider their lives troubled in some way or another). It also provides a unique reflection time, with absent thought running through their minds.
I decided that I will be making a folder of my own like that, ready to be a plan C at the drop of a hat. I’d like to make it more science based, but of course some abstract pages will have to be there!
Of course I wouldn’t be doing this every lesson, but it got me thinking about the Cells unit we’re about to do. I’d like to include some time for students to colour in a detailed diagram of the cell, something they can annotate properly and be proud of. Something they can spend half a lesson relaxing over, while sneakily teaching them about the contents of plant and animal cells. I’ve see a few versions floating around the web, but I might end up drawing my own to make it more appropriate for my needs.
Overall, it turned out to be a very mixed, yet successful, lesson. One I hope to never repeat!
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.