3 Teaching Strategies to Make Something Out of Nothing

orking in New York City public schools in the late 90’s early 2000’s was awesome. Teachers were constantly given basic resources, and the stipend we did receive for instructional materials was 100$ for the year — but at least I could buy a grade book that needed to be turned in annually, chalk or white board markers if you were lucky to have a white board, and copy paper. Teacher’s could also use these funds for traveling to a meeting (paid for the metro card) or positive reinforcement efforts.

make something beautiful, out of nothing…

If you’re thinking that this is at least some sort of resource, I taught 6 classes daily, on 4 different floors, in 3 different classrooms. I usually upgraded/fixed my cart that I pushed around everywhere or again, bought countless notebooks, pens, and folders for students. No money was used on content or engagement or making education purposeful, it was all spent on basic supplies — mainly for the students.

After my first few weeks or doing anything I could to maintain control, I remember one night being so frustrated, that I decided to write an example that was so crazy and what I thought would be funny, and we’d start the class that way. I would ask the students just a few simple questions based on the silliness that I read to them, and the concept was to work on listening skills and comprehension. Most of my students were very rude, did not want to be in school, and could care less about English class — so I knew it had to be something awesome.

I began writing using one of the students coming in, and acting a fool. The student then would interact with others, while the teacher was up front trying to get control — and yes, this was how the class period usually started. However, in this story, much like the one with Swayze in Red Dawn, one student looked out the window and saw helicopters hover above the football field (which was only 80 yards!) and guys dressed in black outfits began sliding down ropes and touching down all around the end zone. When I read that part, I had the entire class on edge listening.

Some of them were shouting with excitement and cursing, and I praised them for the proper use of figurative language — which they bursted out in enjoyment over.

Tip #1 — relate to your students, and create your own content that revolves around them, so they are intrinsically included and therefore in theory would want to get involved.

My paragraph continued with a specific student in the class who is always super quiet and polite, however when she saw the guys dropping down the ropes, she stood up and said, “They found me. I don’t know how, but they found me.” (Total Back To The Future bit!) From there, she quickly grabs her bag, and jumps out the window of our third floor classroom, sliding down the gutter and landing inside a dumpster that happened to be full — breaking her fall perfectly.

I continued with describing how the entire class went to the window to watch in awe as the girl then pulled a katana from her bag and began fighting off the enemies that came for her.

Needless to say, the girl loved it because she was painted as a brave hero with a mysterious past. The kids loved it because it was all about them. I concluded with saying that we can start the class off that way if they like it, but I wanted them to try something like that now as well. I broke them into groups, asked them questions about the setting, about the characters and for them to describe what they remember, and the mood of the scene.

Students were chatty, but focused — and I couldn’t believe it.

That following week, one of the kids came in and said that they wrote something as well and wanted to share it out. I said that if anyone ever wants to do something similar — I’d give them an extra bonus 100 as a quiz score, and they loved it!

Tip #2 — Points are free. Give them out as often as you can, because every student wants them!

So many kids were coming in with stories that they wrote about our class being involved in super silly situations, randomly someone different was always the hero. I remember saying that if anyone can volunteer the answers to the 3 major questions we cover, regarding setting, characters, and mood — I’d give additional extra credit to that student as well. Students began to actively listen to the passages that started the class, and this turned into a daily occurrence with hands flying in the air to participate for the points.

I noticed that some were a bit frustrated because they weren’t getting called on — and I changed it on the fly to: Everyone writes down in the first 4 minutes following the listening passage, responding to the big three inquiries that we began calling them, and I’d give extra credit to all correct answers.

Tip #3 — Capitalize on any and all teachable moments, because they are sure fire signs that what you’re doing is working — and without proper resources to support you, it is absolutely necessary to recognize and capitalize on these moments in your class at all times possible.

I went home that day and realized that I was giving daily quizzes and calling them extra credit tasks. I realized that I needed to also keep it interesting, and the following day, here’s what we did: I read the class my usual crazy story that was a somewhat plagiarized spinoff of some wild movie. Instead of reading the entire thing, I waited until I had the class exactly where I wanted them, and when I could tell they were on the edge of their seats — I stopped.

The look on their faces was priceless. I told them, today — they are going to write the ending and I gave them 25 minutes to do so, and they went immediately at it. I was shocked.

My point is, without additional resources, you have yourself as the content expert standing in front of the students — so utilize that. If you don’t have resources, remind the students that you guys aren’t given what you need, and that’s not going to stop you. Together, you guys will learn anyway, you don’t need anyone’s help — and this is the basis for the relationship that you will establish with them because of your dedication to being their teacher, no matter what.

Constantly doing the same thing, or constantly doing the basics of your subject and going through repetitive motions, blaming the system for your lack of creativity, means you’re letting your students down. I would start each year not expecting anything. I needed that, so I could get the students on my side, knowing that I could make due with whatever — even if I was given literally nothing.

If you teach math, the world is literally filled with examples that can be used to exemplify why content is necessary, and start with finding them and letting your students see the relevance. Science has never been more relevant in our lives right now. History is literally being made each day that we experience.

Relating your content to the real world is free. Creating the “why” behind the purpose of students learning your subject matter is always free to do, if you do it knowing you have no money. Don’t expect anything, and everything that you do get — is something that can enhance your students’ learning ability — even if it’s not much.

My current school doesn’t use textbooks and hasn’t for a few years, we get our stuff online or we make it together. Reach out to others and collaborate. Observe others and literally steal best practices, and put your spin on it. Use newspapers, old magazines, any publications that are appropriate to an educational environment, and stimulate your students! Find posters already hanging in the school hallway, and “borrow” them to grab content for your lessons. Maybe have students find something from their homes and use that as the basis of materials.

I remember once I asked the class to bring in anything that they could and we’d use it in a lesson. A kid had a baseball in his bag and gave it to me. We turned the ball into the “conch” from Lord of the Flies, and from that point on — only those that had the ball, could speak. It turned into, “the ball’s in your court” and if someone did something awesome, they got the game ball for the lesson that day and could speak when ever they wanted because they were, “ballin”.

Not expecting to have books and materials, makes you the teacher you never knew you were, because it’ll be just you and the students — genuine, sincere, on the same team, and working together towards a common goal. You can do it!

If I can help in any way, contact me via email at thetravelingprincipal@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to help!

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Joseph Clausi

Joseph Clausi

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My name is Joe Clausi, and I have over 20 years of experience in secondary education, on both coasts of the United States, and with all kind of schools.