Does Creative Equal Engaging?

Today was the First Day of Freshman Academy. This is a program set up for eighth-grade-going-on-ninth-graders who are struggling with math to earn half a credit. They come all day for two weeks during the summer doing reading and math. If they come to the after-school program during the year, they get the other half credit.

Out of about 40 students, eight chose to come. Today, Day 1, five actually showed up. And of those five, three are supposedly leaving next week to stay on campus through an Upward Bound program. That leaves us with two students. Two. 2. Dos.

I doubt the administration wants to pay me to teach two students.

So. Last week I was all excited to create my lesson plans. I looked through my twitter favorites, researched the web, and created my little heart out. All to no avail.

The eighth grade teachers said the students need a lot of work on geometry and measurement. I decided to begin with some geometry powerpoints introducing some terms and definitions. Then I read some ideas and decided to have students construct a line, line segment, point, ray, angles, and polygons out of pretzel sticks, butter creme frosting, and dots.

The students hated it. They complained the whole time about the frosting being too sticky, their wax paper wasn't long enough, the dots were nasty, this was stupid, are we done yet, and that they would rather be doing book work. They asked 'Where is everybody else?' They were debating what lies to tell their parents so they wouldn't have to come back tomorrow. I was shocked. How could my idea fail so quickly?

My 17-going-on-I-know-everything sister told me they didn't like it because they aren't 5 and that is lame to do and that she also would rather have done book work. What?!? I'm sorry, even as a 23-year-old, playing with food always wins over worksheets!

On the up side, I introduced the students to Wordle and they prompty became obsessed with it. I had each student give me ten words that came to mind when they thought about math. We entered them in and created our positive, uplifting, encouraging word cloud.

I let the students create their own and they did names of their friends, family, hobbies, and whatever else they could think of about themselves. They seemed to enjoy it, although probably because it requires very little work and even less math.

I am slightly discouraged.

I think I've just had my first experience learning that creative does not necessarily mean engaging.

What does an activity require to make it engaging for students?


  1. I so fell foul to this problem when I first started teaching. I strongly believed that any active learning trumped book work or writing. I then executed some crash and burns much like the ones you described. That said, I still think active learning is the bee's knees.

    In good part, I think 'engaging' comes from the activity being purposeful. That is, it shouldn't just be "fun" it should also be "a better way to learn". For instance, I like doing card sorts where each student has a card and they have to line up. It's more active and it gets everyone involved. The downside is they might only learn about the matching of their one card, rather than the whole lot. So, I've learned to follow up the running around card sort, with a sitting down paired card sort (with the same cards obviously!). Finally I will collect the cards in and we will test what we learned. And I tell the kids this is how it will work UP FRONT so they realise where the learning is going and why it's important.

    Playing with food *is* cool and the students *will* learn lots but if they don't realise that they are learning they might get stressed out. Over time, the more they get used to learning in lots of different ways with you, it's likely you won't need to be so overt on the 'purposefulness' but I found it to be super important when I first started teaching without textbooks, pens and paper!

  2. PS - Please, please don't be discouraged. By trying new things you are showing that you care, that you plan and that you are thinking about how to engage the students well. In no time at all you will have these kids baking, and learning, all at the same. It just takes practice :)

  3. Sometime what comes across as disinterest is just covering up the fact that they are afraid to "play."

  4. The students did tell me the next day that they had fun and that they were just giving me a hard time. Plus, it's harder to be interesting and engaging every day for three hours during summer than for 45 minutes during the school year.

    It still has me thinking, what did they take from the fun activity? They may remember it but did they learn?

  5. I'm with you - I get really discouraged sometimes with how a new activity goes, sometimes. A few points to consider, though:

    1) Teenagers process new experiences by complaining. They float a few whines/complaints and see how much agreement they get. It doesn't necessarily reflect how they actually feel.

    2) How they feel today is not necessarily how they'll feel tomorrow.

    3) While you shouldn't completely disregard student input, keep in mind that they don't always have the perspective to appreciate what they have or haven't learned in a given lesson. I just finished my year-end recap with my students and one block raved about the same activities that another raged about. "Dumb" and "useless" activities are very subjective. (Also, remember that they are talking about the ACTIVITY, not YOU!)

    4) A lot of really great activities fall flat the first time you try them in the classroom, but need just a few tweeks to make them great.

    5) For the sake of argument, let's say that this WAS a failure:

    Big deal.

    If you are passionate about teaching, you are always trying new things. You'd have to be very unrealistic to expect a 100% success rate; if half of the new things I try in a year are worth repeating, I look on that as a pretty good year.

    Keep your chin up.

    - John

    p.s. I totally obsess about each activity that doesn't go 100% the way I want. (Which is to say, nearly all of them.)

  6. I totally agree with John, but DON'T get discouraged. It's amazing how much teenagers complain about everything. It's cool to complain. My kids complain that they'd rather do book work than a foldable and then on end of year reports. . . remember, they have protect their "reputation."

    When doing activities. . . I always try to build in higher order thinking.. . even if its stuff like collaging. What I do is have them complete some sort of reflection that has them apply the material from the activity.

  7. John and Miss Teacha,
    You are both sooo right. And I've decided that instead of being discouraged, I just need to change my perspective. I realized that my kids were complaining because they didn't know the math so of course the activity was stupid. Once I brought it down to their level, they enjoyed it a lot more. I know these are things that I will learn as I go.

    I like what you said about building in higher order thinking, that's something I need to get into a habit of doing.

  8. I try to start planning each lesson with two questions:

    What are the mathematical goals? and what are the process goals?

    I also try to keep in mind, how does this relate to the end goal(s) of the course?

    Hang in there. This isn't easy.