The administrative team in my district recently engaged in a ritual that we have performed for as long as I have been here, we renewed our certification in CPR and basic first aid. It takes about two hours and the training is usually provided by a few of our staff members, a nurse, PE or health teacher. Our instructors were two of our very best health and PE teachers from our school district. Their expertise was apparent, their affect was warm and inviting, they encouraged risk-taking and engendered confidence in the participants. Numerous elements of a successful learning experience were in place. Our instructors showed us several videos that illustrated the symptoms of cardiac arrest and the procedures for emergency care. The animations were of high quality, it was fun to try to figure out if the figures depicted in the video were actual people or computer-generated images.
Practice is essential because if you find yourself in a situation requiring CPR, you must have done it before, even though you didn’t perform it on an actual person. We practiced on first aid dummies, pardon the expression, but they’re literally “dummies” – plastic mannequin-like apparatuses that have a head and torso, but no arms or legs. You can blow into the dummy’s mouth and, as long as you are holding its nose in proper form, the chest will rise as it would in real mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Chest compressions mimic how it will feel to administer actual CPR, the dummy’s chest depresses approximately 2 inches, manually causing the heart to pump blood to the body. So each administrator practiced the entire routine at least three times.
One might conclude that this entire exercise was a matter of compliance, that is, something you just have to do periodically, check off a box to meet a legal requirement for training. But I have found that it’s not sufficient to sit back and “comply” because although the process of administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation is quite elemental, the procedure seems to change every time I’ve been trained. You’re required to recertify once every two years and sure enough, every two years, the methods to move blood throughout the body via chest compressions and provide a small amount of oxygen through mouth-to-mouth seem to change in each instance. When I first learned, it was one breath and 15 chest compressions. Then it was changed to chest compressions first, then breaths. Later, it changed again, 30 chest compressions and two breaths. I shouldn’t be surprised that the procedure is in constant flux, we’re talking about life and death here, we’ve got our best people working on it. In other words, it’s not sufficient to simply put the time in, you’ve really got to pay attention.
It worked, after this two-hour training, I felt confident about my ability to provide CPR and rescue breathing if called upon to do so (God forbid, my mother would’ve insisted I say that out loud after the preceding sentence). After training, we took a quiz. If we passed, we received a card certifying us as “Cardiac Lifesavers” by the American Red Cross. I’m pleased to report that every administrator passed the quiz and successfully recertified.
Above, I have described several variables of effective instruction: the “feeling-tone” of the classroom setting, the expertise of the instructors, the relationships developed in the workshop, the use of media, modeling, cooperative grouping, and independent practice. Given the subject of this workshop, you might ask, “Why was any of this necessary? You were learning to save lives!” You would think that we could have mastered these techniques even with horrible teachers, in a lousy environment, with no videos and no opportunities to practice on dummies. But this isn’t true. If none of these factors were in place, we likely would not have successfully recertified in first aid procedures.
As important was the content of this training, the success of this learning experience was due more to the pedagogical factors and the human capital of the instructors than the to the (quite likely) possibility that we may one day have to use these skills to save somebody’s life. Put simply, if a group of dedicated, experienced, school administrators don’t automatically engage when the content is a matter of life or death, how much do you think your 12-year-old learners are going to engage with a discussion of Shays rebellion or a poem by Dickinson. Regardless of how “essential” we feel the content we are teaching is, kids won’t engage unless we focus on the essentials of learning.
All great teachers have singular passions for their disciplines. As a teacher of English language arts, I know that I did. No one needs to convince us of the importance and relevance of our content. But that’s not enough. Even though we teach our content as though the lives of our kids depend upon it, they won’t learn unless we purposefully employ techniques to ensure the engagement of students.
What are you passionate about in your content area? How do you ensure that your students “engage”?