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I asked my former students what made learning memorable. Here’s what they said.

Posted June 14, 2017, at 6 a.m.

This June, I had two eighth-graders, who were former students, visit my third-grade classroom to volunteer one last time before entering high school. They were reminiscing about their time in elementary school when one shared a comment an eighth-grade teacher had made about how students have little knowledge about the states in which they live. My former students said hands began shooting into the air as classmates shared known facts about Maine. Apparently, the students raising their hands had been in the same third-grade classroom: mine.

The teacher asked the students how they were able to remember so much information about Maine. They explained our project called Chatting Across the USA.

I know why these students remembered that information. They used Skype and Google Hangouts to have face-to-face conversations with students in classrooms around our country. The students taught each other about their states and then had the opportunity to ask questions that interested them. These lessons were authentic and student led. The students were the teachers, learners and leaders of an audience beyond the classroom walls. They were able to make a personal connection with each classroom we met.

This got me thinking about something: What is it that makes learning memorable? I believe that how teachers engage and excite students plays a very prominent role in how they learn and feel about learning. Teachers have to bring a passion for learning into our classrooms. We also need to genuinely connect with our students and find out what they are interested in.

I decided it would be interesting to contact my former students and find out what made learning memorable for them. I emailed and messaged students — those I had taught recently and students I had 26 years ago — and I was pleased with the number of responses I received, about two dozen. It was interesting to see how the age of the student changed the complexity of the response.

The No. 1 response from the younger students was the word “fun.” If the lessons were fun, they were memorable. They loved using technology, especially video conferencing and blogging. Several responded that using songs and poems helped to make what we were learning memorable.

The older students gave responses that were much more reflective. Their responses included the following observations:

— “You gave us never ending encouragement to do our best and never stop trying.”

— “You encouraged us to think for ourselves and form our own opinions rather than telling us what to think.”

— “You fostered a love of learning and curiosity.”

— “The positive learning environment you created made learning memorable.”

The younger students focused more on the participation and engagement of the lessons occurring in the classroom, while the older students impressed upon the importance of the relationship and connection with the teacher. When I contacted my former students, I really wanted to know what made learning memorable throughout their educational journey. Every single student responded with examples of what I had done as their teacher that made learning memorable.

I wanted to hear responses that did not include a connection to me. So I decided to ask the general public within my Facebook community. Many of the people who responded had experienced a teacher who really made a difference in their lives. You could sense that a smile was on the each person’s face as he or she wrote about a special teacher. Their memorable learning experiences included:

— Teachers who made them think and sparked their curiosity.

— Participating in learning that connected to real life experiences.

— Several responders had teachers who dressed up as characters to tell history.

— Hands-on projects were very memorable whether it was creating a diorama or performing experiments in a chemistry lab.

— The No. 1 response given was having a teacher whose enthusiasm was infectious.

I created a chart listing all of the student responses and all of the Facebook responses side-by-side. I could put all of the responses into two categories: lessons and the teacher. Lessons that were hands-on, engaging, authentic and student-led were standouts. Not one person commented that filling in worksheets and sitting at a desk working quietly was memorable. What made the biggest impression on me was the recognition of the importance of the classroom environment the teacher created and the teacher’s enthusiasm for what was being taught.

Current and future teachers can create wonderful, hands-on learning experiences for the students in their classrooms, and students most likely will remember those lessons. But they have to do something more to inspire a love of learning in their students, and that is show passion for learning.

Teachers’ genuine interest in their students, combined with a visible enthusiasm and excitement for the learning occurring in their classroom, will not only raise the level of learning, but it will also propel students to discover their own passions.

Cherrie MacInnes teaches third grade at Brewer Community School. She is the 2016 Penobscot County Teacher of the Year.

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