Classroom Management: Tactile Learning and Insisting on Mastery

They’ve been given a piece of paper with random concepts and diagrams. These ideas relate directly to the lauric acid lab they just completed and to the content they will be reading about in their next homework assignment. This is a tactile experience engaging students in the content of Changes of State and the Kinetic Theory. The instructions are to cut the vocabulary terms and the sentences describing and the diagrams illustrating what particles are doing during each phase change and in-between.  Then, they are to glue them in the proper order beginning with “Solid” making the correct links between the words and the diagrams.

As soon as they pick up the scissors they are smiling. They read the words out loud as they cut. Then, they spread them out. “Do you think this goes with that picture?” Intensity fills the room as students concentrate to figure out the connections. First a comparison with each other’s work and then a final check with me before the final gluing. This gives me a chance with each individual to assess whether they are mastering the concepts. It is clear they are still struggling to make a connection between temperature and changes of state.

They are given the additional task to write what is happening to the temperature at each phase of their developing diagram (a direct link to the lauric acid lab).  These instructions are given verbally and written on the board. However, as soon as their last paper is glued down,  they are “done”. The chatter and joking and distraction begin and most of them simply ignore these additional instructions.  So, how do I get them to do it?

“Your exit ticket today is for me to see your written sentences regarding the temperature on your diagrams.” Suddenly they become productive again. They value their break time and do not want to be stuck in the class figuring out temperature and phase change connections. Hastily written sentences are shoved in front of me.  Instructions such as “I can’t read that, please make it legible” or questions like “What is actually happening when you add energy at this stage of your diagram?” or  “What is happening to the atoms and how does that relate to the temperature?” send students returning to their seats in a flurry. Some return three or four times before getting it correct. With each return to the seat there are heavy sighs and murmuring complaints. But once I give that final “OK a huge smile spreads across their faces. Grinning from ear to ear they insert their completed and accurate diagrams into their binders. Some even thank me. All of them cheerfully say “good-bye” as they head off to their well-earned break.

After a couple of months, they are already trained and fewer and fewer are needing to return for “redos” when we have similar activities. They realize I’m actually looking at their work and expecting mastery. Thus, they are making the effort to get it done correctly the first time. And, more and more are asking questions earlier on in the activity to make sure they understand.

Since this activity we have moved on to other topics but the discipline we have been developing is beginning to pay off. Many of the behaviors I described in my previous post have completely disappeared. They still have their moments but there is definite progress. And, my last assessment with them yielded individual ‘bests’ for all students and a drastic overall class improvement in performance at this stage of a unit. My genuine exuberance and expression of pride in them made them laugh at me but I could tell it also made them feel good.

My message from this experience? Give them a chance to “handle” the material, even if it is content but do not let it stop at being a ‘fun’ activity. Stay the course, not lowering standards, and insist that they demonstrate mastery. The results? Developing discipline and leaps in learning!

Breaking Teenage Barriers

How I got my teenage son to talk to me again.

“Well, what do you advise that I do at home?” a pleading father probed. It was parent teacher conferences and he wasn’t the only one asking for advice at home. But, I’m not the parent. And I’m not the expert. I’m just the teacher. However, it’s caused me to reflect.

It’s true I’ve had six children survive the teenage years in my home and number seven just turned 13. But I still don’t feel like I have all the answers. First of all, each child is absolutely unique and what works for one doesn’t work for others. I place a lot of stock in parental intuition, doing research, and thinking outside the box.  

At least, that’s what I’ve relied on as a parent.

With one of our sons it had become a stormy and turbulent yet simultaneously silent time. Despite family dinners little was exchanged and mostly bickering with siblings and parents ensued. If it wasn’t negative then it was a few grunts followed by a retreat to his room. Occasionally we would have a conversation over sports but it could easily erupt into an argument.

Desperation settled in as I tried to figure out a way to re-engage my son. I talked to other parents, researched, and meditated. Finally, an idea came. I had to meet him on his turf: in a video game.

But how to propose such an idea so that he’d buy into it?


The time came during a conversation with his sister about mother/daughter time and he was curious, clearly feeling “left out”. My proposal spouted forth,

“Do you want to play a video game with me?”

He couldn’t believe it. “Seriously?” After all, I was always insisting he shut down the video games.

“Yes, a game for two people”

He immediately knew what to do and sprung into action. Within 30 minutes I had purchased and downloaded the game “Portal” onto my computer.

The next night a new tradition was born.

For those of you who don’t know, in Portal you can engage in a two-player game in which the team solves a series of puzzles (loosely based in physics) together. It is impossible to proceed unless both players actively play a role in the solution. So, one player can’t do all the work while the other follows.


Furthermore, you take on a robot avatar for the entire game.

We’d play 30-60 minutes together every night or ever other night, depending on his schedule. My son was in his element explaining not only the game to me but also how to use my computer to manipulate my robot. He erupted into contagious laughter as my robot ran into walls and fell off cliffs. His robot would beckon me (literally its hand would be waving at my robot) and he would say, “Mom, come this way”. He guided me, he encouraged me, he taught me. Eventually I figured things out and we actually reached a point of problem solving together. “That’s a good idea, Mom. It might work” was music to my ears! We had so much fun together. Often, after the game we’d talk about life, his day, current events, or ideas. Our portal game became an essential part of our evening.

We solved the puzzle together and then continued on with different activities within the game. But what we really gained was a restored relationship.

I think back on different ways I connected with my children: a knitting class, bike rides, exchanging self-written poems and stories, dog walks, or playing soccer. With each child it was so different. And what worked for me didn’t necessarily work for my husband. For example, the knitter enjoyed Saturday matinees with Dad while the writer participated in local theater productions with Dad. Thus, in no way do I feel like I have the answers for others.

My advice? Dig deep down into your heart and ponder how to reach your child. An idea will come and then simply act on it. I had no idea how amazing the video game idea would be but I was willing to try.

It’s never too late! And it’s always worth it. Just reach out.

My family now.