The Sure Way to Grab a Student’s Attention

By JOSEPH TINTLE

As a teacher, I’m approaching my favorite time of the school year.

No, not summer break. Spring.

A period in which we bid a less-than-fond farewell to the 10-day PARCC tests, the three-day student growth tests, and the morning-long SAT and ACT tests.

Oscar Wilde once wrote in De Profundis, “All the spring may be hidden in the single bud, and the low ground nest of the lark may hold the joy that is to herald the feet of many rose-red dawns.”

Wilde was certainly a romantic genius. As for me, I’m a simpler fellow. I see Spring as the chance to get back to teaching students what they need to know about English literature and send them away in June with at least somewhat of an appreciation for our language.

But, as always, I’m going to have get their attention.

After all, why would 16 year olds want to sit down and pour through a few hundred pages when they can easily tap into Facebook and see what their friends are doing?

Clearly, a teacher must get their attention.

What I like to do is make an immediate connection between my students and the author whose book we will read. That can be done in many ways. Start off with a few compelling questions to the class and get them speaking about certain topics that will be covered in the book. Or go for the jugular.

If you’re going to teach Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller put a revealing, but not too revealing, photo of Marilyn Monroe on your StarBoard. The boys definitely will take notice. They will begin to ask all sorts of questions of the actress, her suicide, her drug usage. It’s amazing what these kids know about celebrity gossip.

Then flash up a picture of Arthur Miller and you’ll hear, “Who’s that old guy?”

When you tell them that he was Marilyn Monroe’s husband and that he wrote Death of a Salesman, he immediately gets street cred and the teacher has a fighting chance to get the students to study the play.

It’s the same with Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. A few kids have heard of the book, but no one has read it, and they certainly don’t know Albom, even though he’s been voted Sportswriter of the Year thirteen times.

So, again, you must make a connection. In my case I can tell them that as a former sportswriter I’ve met Mitch Albom when he worked on the Detroit Free Press. I can take it a step further too.

Two years ago he delivered a magnificent address at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J. Before his talk, I hunted him down and we spoke for twenty minutes in his dressing room about sports, writing, and life. Then he autographed a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie for my English class and wrote a touching message for them about keeping their heads up in life and just keep marching forth. I bring the book in now and show the kids and they are immediately hooked.

How about other authors the students may not have heard of? How are you going to get them interested?

Humanize these writers.

Before I read books I research the authors. Often I find them to be quite a quirky bunch. A good source of material is Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg. In it he points out that writers have a reputation for drinking, but did you know that J.D. Salinger partook in quaffing his urine? Or that Henry David Thoreau almost never took a bath? And what about Louisa May Alcott’s addiction to opium? You don’t hear this stuff growing up.

Schnakenberg must have had a blast researching his book, particularly the section about H.G. Wells. The author of The Time Machine, was a “short, fat balding intellectual with small hands and a hitched-pitched voice,” writes Schnakenberg. Yet he bedded down scores of women during his marriage and had five children out of wedlock. And, Schnakenberg added, he did so with a clear conscience.

And so I ask, how can a teacher not grab a teenage student’s attention with this kind of material?

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