What do Jokes, Tree Pose, and Back Scratches Have to do with Learning?

I’ve still been thinking about the Brain-Based Teaching session our Teaching Excellence Program delivered, especially the deep role emotion plays in learning.  I read Eric Jensen’s book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind several years ago and TE’s recent session reminded me of a lot of great ideas for how to incorporate positive emotions into the classroom in order to help cement those experiences and that learning into your students’ memories.  Here are some fun ideas:

Get them laughing.  If students are having fun, they’re more likely to retain that experience and that learning in their minds.  If you’re funny, you have one of the ultimate classroom tools.  If you’re not, try getting kids to feel silly to get them laughing.  In an angles unit I taught, I made the students do yoga moves so we could look at what kinds of angles our bodies were making.  We all lost our balance, felt silly, and got some fun memory triggers for acute and obtuse angles.

Use your hands.  Not only does making things tactile get the brain working in new ways, it also brings the novel and unexpected into class.  Could they touch something gooey or unusual or wet during an upcoming class?  Think about the nervous excitement that comes when you’re not sure what something will feel like – that’s a positive, fun emotion for people!  When I taught vocabulary, even with my tenth graders, we spelled our words on each other’s backs with our fingers and they had to guess the word and then use it in a sentence.  It was good practice and it felt good and sort of silly to get a little back scratch during class. 

Keep them guessing.  If there’s a mystery or puzzle and you’re excited to know the outcome, you’re definitely engaged.  Try that in the classroom by introducing a provoking question at the beginning of class that they’ll be able to guess at as they learn more, like ‘What do babies and the water cycle have in common?’ I just made that up and have no idea what an answer could be, but I bet some of you are trying to figure it out right now!  Or try using an anticipation guide where students guess the answers to new content questions and then find out if they’re right throughout the lesson.

Add a scent.  Familiar smells can often bring back strong emotion and memory, so incorporating smells into the classroom can be a fun way to activate new learning.  I tried this when I taught fifth grade and we had different scents for different math units.  When we studied fractions, for example, I brought in lemon flavoring and every day students dipped a popsicle stick in it and brought it to their desk.  On quiz day it was hilarious to see them all waving the sticks under their noses as they worked.  I’m not sure the smell actually helped them learn fractions, but it added a level of fun and novelty that probably helped it stick.

Make a connection.  If all of these ideas seem hokey or like extra work, remember the power of plain old positivity.  If you look a student in the eye and tell them what a great job they’re doing, they’re going to feel like a million dollars and remember that day and the learning that came with it, no novelty required.

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