Voices in Education

Brain in the Cooler

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If I had a nickel for every time I have been told as a teacher that I must keep my students engaged, I could probably retire. Student engagement — these words are mentioned in countless articles, videos, webinars and textbooks about education and teaching. All of these sources have given me insights into how I might better engage my students in class, but true student engagement has been elusive for me at times.  

I teach algebra at the college level, so I already feel at a disadvantage. It never fails that on the first day of class a student, frequently many students, tell me they hate math, they can’t do math, or someone told them that they were not good at math. Usually I hear something like: “I am just not a math person.” Others ask me, “Why do I have to take algebra?” or “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Students frequently ask the hard questions. These questions are especially hard to answer, when so many of their minds seem already closed to the wonder and the beauty of this language of the universe called mathematics, and to the possibility of ever being successful at math. They aren’t the only ones who struggle. I struggle as their teacher, trying to find ways to help them appreciate math and actively engage with the subject.

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a psychology professor who was one of the coolest instructors on campus. I had to take his class for my degree, but I found it incredibly interesting and felt it had some practical use for me as a business major, since I planned to specialize in marketing in graduate school. I had a keen interest in consumer behavior. Dr. Y. had a way of making his subject interesting on every day that our class met, and I never missed a class.

Uncovering the Truth about the Cooler Brain

One day, we all filed into the classroom and took our seats as usual. Dr. Y. came in a few minutes later, and he was carrying a small Igloo cooler which he set down on the edge of his desk. We didn’t think anything of it at first. Maybe it was his lunch? Anyway, Dr. Y proceeded to tell us that he was going to lecture on the human brain. As he was talking about aspects of the human brain, he was pulling on a pair of latex gloves. The students started to get nervous. Why did he need gloves? He couldn’t have a brain in that cooler, could he? He wouldn’t actually bring a real, human brain into the classroom, would he? The whispers got louder. Dr. Y. calmly continued his talk, and as he spoke he moved the cooler to the front of his desk. Then, he opened the lid. It was facing us so we couldn’t see what was inside. By this time, a few students were visibly worried and a couple of them started to get up out of their chairs. Dr. Y reached his gloved hands into the cooler, still talking about the brain, and he quickly pulled out something large and round and tossed it to a student in the front row! By now, a few horrified people were screaming and running for the door. But when the student in the front row held up the object, we all started laughing. It was a head of cabbage!

How the “Hook” Leads to Student Engagement

After everyone had settled down, Dr. Y. told us the real topic of the day’s lecture. It was on the subject of fear. Fear is very powerful. It can make you afraid of things that aren’t really there. It can make you react to things that haven’t happened yet, and maybe never will. I never forgot that lesson, and I have told that story many times since then. Dr. Y used a perfect “hook” to engage us, and then kept us interested in psychology class during what could have been a rather dull lecture. We were vocal, we were interacting, and we were fully engaged for the rest of the class period.

At the time, I didn’t know that I would end up teaching later in my working life. But once I did, I wished to be as engaging an instructor as Dr. Y. Over time, I have developed my own “hooks” to engage my math students, and I use humor most often to relieve the stress associated with math. I sometimes start class with a magic trick: guessing numbers, guessing their age or shoe size, or guessing a card out of a deck. All are magic tricks made possible by algebra. I always teach them how to do the trick afterward. Other times, I start with a funny or interesting video or cartoon about math. My tests always have a math-related comic strip or puzzle at the end to give students a laugh. I tell jokes and stories. Some are corny, to be sure. But they are always math-related and usually well received.

So far, my students get good grades, rarely miss class, and give me positive feedback. I always silently thank Dr. Y. for teaching me the power of the “hook,” and for helping me to find my own.

Dawn Del Vecchio

Dawn Del Vecchio Educator

Dawn has been an educator for 20 years, teaching in K-12 districts as well as community colleges. A graduate of California State University, Los Angeles with an MBA in marketing, Dawn has taught mathematics and business subjects. She currently teaches algebra at a Los Angeles college.

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