My friends, I must warn you. We are in the midst of an epidemic of epic proportions. Our classrooms are ground zero. The zombie apocalypse is upon us. Every day, more and more of our students are becoming zombies. Not the brain eating, Walking Dead variety, but the mindless, blank eyed, non-responsive variety. They sit there in the classroom staring at us at the front of the room, but they do not hear us. They have headphones haphazardly hanging out of one ear and they twitch uncontrollably each time their smartphones buzz with a text message. They may carry a tablet, or a laptop with them to “take notes”, but in reality they are tweeting and surreptitiously checking their Facebook status. It’s only a matter of time before they turn on us. We cannot fend off these zombies with shotguns and baseball bats, but there is hope. Here are a few tips to prevent this from happening in your classroom. While each technique alone may not be enough, when performed in combination they can be very effective.
1) Remain a moving target. Move around in the classroom. It is easy to stand up at the front of the lecture hall and talk. I personally love the sound of my own voice and find everything I say absolutely fascinating. This, however, is a recipe for disaster. After about 5 minutes my students will begin to drop like flies and, before I know it, I am talking to a whole room full of zombies. To remedy this situation I try to use as much of the available space as I can. I pace, I switch sides, I get up real close to my students and then back away. Movement prevents them from locking their gaze and shutting down their minds.
2) Use visual aids. We are working with a generation of students that have had audio/video stimulation since birth. I’m not saying that we need to put on a show, but using carefully constructed, visually appealing (i.e. not paragraphs of material) Powerpoint slides, Prezi presentations, videos, etc, can make a huge difference in the level of engagement. Low tech aids are also great. When talking about photosynthesis, I bring a plant to the classroom. I use water and food coloring to demonstrate diffusion. Don’t underestimate the need for students to connect the words that they are hearing with an image.
3) Be hands on. A student is much less likely to become a zombie if they can make physical contact with their subject matter. For example, when discussing a topic like the Krebs cycle, which can be very hard for students to internalize, I use grapes and toothpicks to build molecules. I have the students walk through each of the steps with me as I lecture. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is less time efficient and requires the use of additional materials. I can guarantee, however, that by the end of a traditional lecture on the Krebs cycle, every last student will be a zombie and no learning will have been accomplished.
4) Force participation. Every time I ask a question during one of my lectures I look out over the classroom and observe a sea of faces trying to avoid eye contact. I may hear a response whispered under the breath or perhaps there will be one or two brave students that speak up. To avoid this dilemma I use an automated student response system. I build questions into my Powerpoint presentations and periodically check in with my students to make sure that they are paying attention and actually assimilating the information. This has been very effective at preventing zombie conversion.
5) Be a dynamic speaker. My uncle Jack is a fisherman and a great story teller. I don’t care a thing about fishing, but he is so engaging and funny that I could listen to him speak for hours. When was the last time that you spent time working on your speaking skills? Take a voice recorder into the classroom with you for your next lecture and, afterwards, listen to yourself speak. One of the single most effective ways to prevent zombies in the classroom is to develop your public speaking skills.
There are many other weapons available to us in the war against the zombies. Together we can win the battle. What are your favorite classroom tools and techniques for fighting the undead?