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  • Writer's picturelaurawippell

How to engage your students: now, and in 25 years

This week, the film GATTACA celebrated 25 years since its release date. Decades after it hit cinemas, my students continue to respond to it positively, which leads me to wonder: how can we make sure our lessons and units stand the test of time?

Is it the futuristic architecture, the complex ethical issues, or Ethan Hawke's dreamy face that keep me coming back to GATTACA in my classes? The answer is probably all three, not to mention the beautiful and minimalist wardrobe choices.

So, to engage students do we need to simply choose audiovisual texts with thought-provoking designs, timeless concepts and Hollywood stars? Well, unfortunately it isn't that simple. I once used the film Brazil with my English B students, and while it had an interesting set, dystopian themes and even starred Robert De Niro, my students whinged the whole time about it being too long and dull. While the film had fantastic themes to analyse, my students weren't able to find any meaningful connections with their own lives. So does that mean Brazil as a film hasn't stood the test of time? Well, I don't think so. I actually believe I'm the one to blame for this lack of engagement.

Let me share with you why I believe I'm guilty of my students' lack of interest. First though, I'm going to ask you a question: what was the most engaging assignment or lesson you had while at school? What was so special about it? The answer for me is simple: it made me think.

I was in Year 12 and had been given an assignment for my elective subject, Legal Studies. I had to research an Australian law that had been implemented, and write an essay about whether I was in favour or not with that law. Earlier that year I had travelled to Tasmania with my family and visited Port Arthur, which was well-known as being an important site for Australia's convicts. The site, however, had another horrific reason for fame: the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, where 35 people lost their lives in a mass shooting. It was an event that shocked Australia, and spurred John Howard, the Prime Minister at the time, to tighten Australia's gun laws. Even though I was an egocentric teenager when I visited Port Arthur, the site left me feeling sick to my stomach, so my choice for my assignment was simple: I would write my essay on Australia's firearm legislation.

I did my research and my best to present both sides of the argument. I concluded that I was in favour of the gun reforms, as, at the time of writing my essay, a decade had passed since the introduction of the new laws, and during that time there had been no mass shootings within Australia.

A fairly simple assignment - so why do I still fondly remember it, all these years later? Well, after I handed in my essay, my teacher congratulated us for our work and then explained that we would need to prepare a presentation for the class, and as a further challenge, adopt the opposite viewpoint for our presentation.

Come again?! I had to present an argument for something I did not believe in? My teenage brain went into a spiral!

How on earth could I create a presentation where I presented arguments against the stricter gun laws? After a lot of stressing and procrastination, I finally went back to my essay, looked for the other arguments I had included, and put together a presentation that I was happy with. It made my head HURT, and forced me to think in a completely different way. While the process didn't make me change my original opinion and I didn't become a lawyer, it was a valuable lesson into REALLY seeing something from someone else's perspective.

Looking back on that assignment now as a teacher, here's what I love about it:

  • Student choice: we had freedom in choosing the law we wanted to research

  • Guided learning: We had support in terms of essay structure and trusted sources

  • Critical thinking: my teacher never gave me her opinion on the gun laws while I was researching - she allowed me to do the work and form my own opinion

  • Extension: I never, NEVER would have voluntarily created that presentation from the opposing viewpoint if my teacher hadn't asked me to. She gave me a challenge that I still thank her for today

So, back to the Brazil film. Why am I to blame for my students' lack of engagement?

  1. (Lack of) student choice: for their assignment after the film, I assigned one text type for my students to write their response. It would have been really interesting, and excellent practice for English B Paper 1, if I'd let them choose their own text types.

  2. (Need for more) guided learning: I gave them a table to take notes during the film, but no guided questions. More support could have been given to help them take down quotes, summaries or ideas while watching.

  3. (Lack of) critical thinking: here I am, again: guilty of being the sage on the stage in the classroom. While we did do a prior activity before watching the film in order to build context, I did a lot of talking and shared my personal opinion on the film. Instead, I could have closed my mouth, and planned a Question Formulation Technique activity for my students, in order to foster curiosity and get them asking their own questions before watching the film.

  4. (Opportunities for) extension: Apart from a written response, what other wonderful activities did I miss after watching this film? It would have been perfect to use as a base for a Socratic Seminar, or even an oral presentation where students had to conduct interviews by stepping into the shoes of each character.

My conclusions after all of this? We are constantly learning as teachers, and there are limitless opportunities for improvement. Although we do make mistakes, if you sit down and take the time to plan a lesson that will make students think, you never know who may fondly remember that lesson in 25 years time. Because we remember the things that challenge us. And when in doubt, you can always turn to fresh-faced Ethan Hawke and GATTACA, with its wonderfully complex themes.

To celebrate GATTACA's 25th anniversary, why not watch it with your students? Click here for my complete English unit on the film.

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