Learning by Doing: Developing Activities that Inspire and Inform

What does making a Renaissance-era dome out of newspaper or role-playing a labor strike have to do with school? Learning, of course. In this video, Deana Swanson shares some ideas and tips for making your classroom a lively site of learning that engages students not simply in reading and thinking but in making and handling. With enough creativity, forethought, and flexibility, active learning can happen in any subject.


So I made half of the class the immigrants, and I said, “All right! All of you have a job, and your boss isn’t paying you very well and you have to work 16 hours a day. And so you get tired of it.

And so you go on strike, and you say, ‘We don’t want to work.’”

And they all laugh because they probably don’t want to work.

And then I say, “Oh, well, here’s the other half of the class. They just got off the boat from Ireland because the potato famine is going on. And guess what? They want your jobs. And guess what? The boss hires them. So now they have a job. And now you went on strike. But too bad nobody cares. You don’t have a job.”

And all of a sudden, they’re not laughing anymore.

Tips for Collecting Ideas and Resources

How do you get ideas? So how do you plan to use these in the classroom?

Tip One – Gather Over the Summer

The first thing, and I’ve only done this one year, but it worked really well—I took the book home over the summer. I think it was the science book that year, and I researched whatever it was. We’re going to do this science experiment and this science experiment. And most of the experiments were already in the book.

So I made a list:

  • I can get these things from home.
  • I need this from a hardware store.
  • I need to get this at Hobby Lobby or whatever.

And I actually had all summer long, and I just gathered the stuff, put it in a box, had it in my classroom. And that way, as soon as that science experiment came up, I had it. I don’t usually function like that, but if you’ve got the time, it’s a wonderful way to do it.

Tip Two – Look One or Two Days Ahead

The second way is kind of what I’m doing now. I try to look a day or two ahead, and then a lot of times… For instance, tomorrow we’re going to make these little like a handmade book. Before the printing press was out, if somebody wanted to make their own books, sort of like a Lewis and Clark Journal kind of thing. And I researched it. All I needed was some construction paper (which I went up in the office and got it). And then we used yarn to sew the binding. Well, I had that already in my closet from all of the industrial age stuff. I just keep my basket of yarn in there. And then we needed awls, and I figured out you can just use your pen. So for that, I really didn’t need to gather much stuff at all.

Tip Three – Find Future Ideas in Present Subject Matter

Another way—and this is usually what happens with me—is when I’m teaching, I’ll think of something. We’ll be reading it or discussing it, and I’ll think, hey, we could do that. We could make that, or we could do that.

For instance, we were reading about the South and the plantations and the cotton (which we’d already done this) and indigo dye and rice. Well, I can’t grow rice, but hey, what about indigo dye? And so I went a mile up the road and I got a little bottle of purple dye, blue dye, whatever it was. And I told each—I went home and got a bucket—and I told the students they could bring in anything that was white and that I would—again I would bring them because they always forget.

(And I think if we tell them to bring stuff in, it’s not going to happen as well as if I go to the thrift store and for a dollar, I find a whole yard of muslin. So I just cut the muslin up into little squares and they each got a square. So if they wanted to bring something, they could. But that way nobody’s left out. Everybody can participate, and the parents don’t have to, “Oh, dear. What does Mrs. Swanson want them to bring now?” I can just go. I’ve already got it myself, and nobody’s troubled. If they want to, they can.)

And so we dyed the fabric. So that’s an example of I’ll just be teaching, and I’ll read about something and I’ll think, oh, we could do that. And I always have sticky notes nearby. I’ve got them on my desk, I’ve got them at my podium and I’ll grab my sticky note, and usually I write it legibly enough. I’m writing quickly that I can read whatever I wrote down, and I’ll run to the store that night, or

I’ll get something from home, or I’ll go up to the office and get the supplies. And so that’s just kind of how I function.

Tip Four – Accept Students’ Ideas

Number four would be my students give me ideas, and I tell them, “Y’all are starting to get the hang of this now. Why don’t you, when you have an idea, just raise your hand and say, “Hey, Mrs. Swanson, could we do that?”

Maybe we could. A lot of times some of my best ideas I’ve gotten from students. It was their idea. And I’ve said, “Sure we can do that.” And tell them that, you know, “Let’s all work together. You give me your ideas too.”

Tip Five – Research

Number five. If I’m desperate, I’ll research— like those domes. I had no clue what to do for the Renaissance. And so I just looked up. I think I just typed in domes or whatever, and I just research, “How could we make a dome like out of bricks or something?”

Newspapers were much easier, and it doesn’t take me that long. I’ve got one forty five minute period a day, so I try to do as much of it as I can at school.

Other Tips

And another helpful hint is just to think arts and crafts. Like a lot of times the art that they did in a certain country or during a time period, obviously it’s very hands on. Usually we have a lot of the supplies here at school. And so that is kind of one of my first go tos is what was the art? What would they have made during that time period?

And another question was, how do we how do we make it sustainable? How can we keep doing this?

And I think the most important thing is just to set a goal and to purpose to do it. And my goal is, at the end of every chapter after the test, (usually we can take the test pretty quickly, have it graded, and either that day or the next day) have a twenty to thirty minute period where we work on something hands on from that time period to help them understand it better.

And so if I want my students to enjoy learning, I want class to be fun and hands on and interactive and involved for them. And then it’s my goal to try to come up with something. And I have found that even my most feeble attempts (and some things that just didn’t work that well) the student still appreciated it.They weren’t sitting in their seats getting a lecture, and they were appreciative.

And even the guys—I teach these big boys that are bigger than I am—and they’ll sit there and make their little yarn dolls or whatever. It’s fun. They’re doing something rather than just taking notes. They enjoy it.

I keep a notebook. This is my history notebook. I’ve got like money and just different pictures of things in here. And I keep pictures: Rosy, whatever, when the women all left home and went to the workforce. I have just different pictures and different things. I’ve done articles. I’ve got the plans for the domes in here, and I just keep these as my personal resource, and I’ll put sticky notes in the book. I’ll put sticky notes actually in my teacher’s book, make Lewis and Clark journals for this or make Geodesic Domes for this. And I’ll stick the sticky note in my book, and that way I won’t forget from year to year.

And that’s why you need to keep teaching, because every year that you teach, you have all these ideas and it gets easier and easier, and you’ve already put that hard work into it, so you might as well benefit from your years of teaching. Also, something that’s very important is to make it yourself first, do it yourself, so that you not only have an example to show them, but you know exactly what you’re doing, and you know where the where the pitfalls are.

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