Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care

One of my little tricks of the trade is to get my students moving.  I sprinkle activities throughout my course design that makes them get out of their chairs, walk around, stretch, and even go outside. This helps keep the oxygen flowing to their brains, and is well worth it, pedagogically speaking.

Classroom desks are invariably small, rigid, and uncomfortable. Many times the classroom is overheated and stuffy.  Afternoons we spend lecturing to the postprandial crowd. With the best of intentions, we all lapse into a monotone drone at some point or another.  Students start dropping like dozy flies. Heads jerk, yawns are stifled, eyes droop. 

Rather than take it personally, jolt them out of their stupor.  I admit a predilection for the onomatopoeic BAM! BOOM! ZAP! But there are other ways to wake them up which you can build in to your repetoire.

During my physical anthropology class, we demonstrate brachiation by having everyone stand (who can) and swing their arms around in a circle. “Ever seen a dog do this?” I ask? They laugh, the stretch re-sets them, and they can sit down for another fifteen minutes or so of lecture.  We also stand up and sort ourselves by height and gender for a demonstration in sexual dimorphism.  They can move around in the fossil lab, swapping out skull casts and using my computer to look things up.

In my cultural anthropology class, I have at least three ‘get up and move around’ activities: the Survival exercise, where they wander the campus for about twenty minutes to reorient themselves after a quiz; the Disney exercise, where they draw maps of a space they are analyzing on the whiteboard with markers; and the Totem exercise, where they draw their ‘totem animals’ on the whiteboard with markers.

The Totem exercise has a dual purpose, in that it is meant to make them contrast their own work with cave paintings, so that they see the level of sophistication inherent in ancient art. At the same time, with so many of them sheepishly wandering up to the board claiming, “I can’t draw” it allows me to segue into my salutary lesson titled, “You can get better at anything with practice.”

Our culture is permeated with the fallacious idea that some people are just naturally good at things. If you are not lucky enough to have drawn the ‘art gene’ or the ‘math gene’ then oh well.  No need to try and get better. In fact, this concept is downright disrespectful to everyone who does try to get better, by denying their hard work and assuming they just come by it easily, naturally.  It is like that old joke about how do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Over the years I have had students come up to me, surprised that they now enjoyed (and are good at) math, science, what have you. Especially the women. Gee, what cultural messaging could they have been receiving?  I point out that as they are older and in a different setting, their motivation and purpose for being there are also different.  At that moment you can see the lightbulb going off over their head. Aha!

Building the physical back into our pedagogy can help train limbs and minds weak from disuse, remind them of the joy of drawing, observing, teamwork. At the same time, it wakes the sleepyheads back up, so that you are no longer staring at their bridgework.

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