Getting a group of junior high students to sit still for a 70-minute language arts class can be a challenge.
“When I tell people I teach junior high, they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Chandler educator Bethany Giss says. “But they’re a delightful group of people.”
Giss’ secret: Don’t keep them in their chairs.
Instead, the veteran Bogle Junior High School teacher uses song and movement to teach students the mundane vocabulary used to describe the writing process.
During a lesson on alliterations (the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words in a passage), Giss brings a group of students to the front. While the class sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” the front group stands up or sits down based on the “b” sound.
“Even though you’re in eighth grade, if you close the blinds and cover the windows we can be a little goofy,” she tells the kids, some a bit hesitant to stand up and sing aloud. “But who wants to sit down for 70 minutes? You guys are growing. It’s really important to get you guys moving.”
Some students from last year’s class arrive to teach the next lesson: sentence structure.
Mackenzie Forner shows her classmates different arm movements to match up with “subject,” “predicate,” “whole idea” and “end mark.”
Up her arms move to the left, then to the right. The students make a quick curve of their hips and end their chant in a straight or curved body posture, depending on the type of sentence they’re creating and its end point.
“Can we do this in a test?” one student asks.
“Some people do,” Giss replies.
She later says it’s not uncommon for students to break out in song during tests: they’re remembering Giss’s lessons.
Even the tune to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” gets put to use. The advanced students use the song to teach the spelling — and definition — of onomatopoeia.
“With an oink, oink here, and a splish-splash there. Here a whosh. There a click.”
Onomatopoeia is the use of a word that sounds like what it represents, such as animal sounds.
Giss started her teaching career 15 years ago with a master’s degree in special education, where movement and song are greatly used.
“We know teaching practices are good for all kids,” she says. When she switched to language arts, she crafted her lessons using the same ideas.
It helps break the ice with students who are perhaps self-conscious because of their age, and it builds “good class levity, “she says.
“Teaching writing is boring. I’m trying to look at ways to reframe the grammar so they’re looking at it in the forefront,” she says.
When the kids write, they remember the different traits (sentence fluency, voice, word choice, ideas, organization and conventions) because of the hand movements Giss has taught. They can then be a better judge of what they’ve written and use the proper words when critically examining each other’s work.
Teachers at the high schools tell Giss they know who were her students — they’re the ones singing songs they’ve learned.
But they’re also the ones who know how to avoid fragments in writing.
“They get a kick out of it,” she says.