Parachutes: The perfect resource for student immersion

Emily Tostevin

Emily Tostevin is a Religious Studies and History Teacher with responsibility for Gifted, Able and Talented Education at St Sampson’s High, a mixed secondary school in Guernsey, Channel Islands.  Emily worked for Health and Social Services before training as a teacher at Oxford University in 2010.  Since then she worked for one year with the anti-smoking charity GASP, the Guernsey Adolescent Smokefree Project, before starting at St Sampson’s in 2012.   

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Last term I decided over breakfast that I needed to do something to make my Year 7 scheme of work on celebrations start off on a more interesting note. I concluded that simply greeting my class at the door and saying “we’re going to be studying religious and non-religious celebrations for the next six lessons” didn’t truly seem to grab my audience, and so I went about thinking of a more interesting way to introduce the topic. By the time I had arrived at school I had decided on a way to ‘parachute’ my students into an engaging lesson. I grabbed myself two student volunteers on the way into the building (whom I bribed with the promise of Maltesers...) to help set up my classroom.

"At the back of the room was a Buddha statue to represent Wesak, and at the other side was a prayer mat and Koran to represent Eid."

In the space of 20 minutes the room was set up, stations around the room linking to different religious and non-religious celebrations. In one corner was a Christmas tree with a table next to it including nativity figures, Christmas presents, novelty toys and an information sheet on Christmas. At the back of the room was a Buddha statue and burning incense to represent Wesak, and at the other side was a prayer mat, compass and Koran to represent Eid. At the front was a table filled with artefacts for a Hindu shrine, including offerings of candles, incense, fruit and sweets. The fairy lights spread over to the next table as this side of the room was celebrating not only the Hindu festival of light Diwali, but also the Jewish festival of light Hanukkah. On that table was a menorah, dreidel and chocolate coins. Finally on one wall I stuck some Halloween decorations. I included a card with basic information on each celebration next to each ‘station’.

Before the lesson started I dimmed the lights, put a YouTube video of fireworks on the board and played the Coca Cola Christmas theme song, Holidays are Coming. I then greeted the class at the door and watched as their jaws dropped as they tried to figure out what had happened to their room and what they were going to be doing. Once the class had settled, they were given two minutes to go and look around the room and attempt to figure out what their lesson was going to be about.

Rather than telling the class what the Learning Intention (LI) was, students had to work out what it was they were going to be learning about. They had a further three minutes to discuss this on their tables and then write down what they thought the LI was going to be, and then each write their thoughts on Post-its.

One person from each table then came and stuck the Post-its to a desk at the front, where I read them and gave them tips on how to get closer to the real Learning Intention. Encouraging students to work out what the learning intention will be, rather than just presenting them with one, means they are already engaged with their own learning and understanding of what they will need to do in order to progress through that lesson.

The effect of such a ‘wow’ lesson has been brilliant. I encouraged students to blog about their lessons afterwards, meaning that the learning went on after the lesson had finished. In the following weeks, students had to research religious festivals and write a project on their findings, meaning that this initial parachute had a direct link to their ongoing learning.

Months afterwards, students have continued to mention this lesson and ask about doing something like that again. It is fantastic to see students so engaged with their learning, and it has also had a positive impact on behaviour.

"All of my GCSE ethics classes always enter the room to a relevant piece of music."

Back in November I wrote about creating a murder scene in the classroom as an exciting way to ‘parachute’ your students into their learning. A number of colleagues commented that they loved some of the ideas within the article, but that they couldn’t imagine doing it themselves. Lessons such as these sound like a lot of work but actually take a lot less effort than it first seems. Once you own the resources, it really is a simple case of setting them out and then sitting back and watching the reaction of your class.

It is easy to overlook how much of an impact the start of a lesson can have. It shapes what will happen not only for the rest of that 45 minutes to an hour, but on the ongoing topic for the whole term. So take the time to make an impact.

A really simple parachute that takes minimal planning is playing music that relates to the lesson. I’ve started to use music far more regularly at the start of lessons – all of my GCSE ethics classes always enter the room to a relevant piece of music. Whilst my choices may raise some eyebrows, they certainly grab the students attention. When studying sexual ethics I have played Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, The Spice Girls’ 2 Become 1 and even Bloodhound Gang’s The Bad Touch.

Most recently on a new lesson on abortion we started off with The Sex Pistols’ Bodies, with a background picture displayed showing a pro-life poster. While people remain divided on whether playing music during a lesson is a distraction or a positive way of keeping students focused, in my experience this way of parachuting students into their lessons certainly sparks an interest in the subject and sets the tone for the lesson.

Don’t fall into the trap of losing the first five minutes of a lesson; if students start off the lesson engaged by an exciting parachute, then it is far more likely that the rest of their work will reflect an interest and passion for your subject. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Do you use parachutes in your lessons? Let us know in the comments!

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