Some years ago, when I was still working as a teacher, I had a student come to me in a state of distress. Like many young people her age, she was having trouble fitting in. Everything from her hair to her clothes to her overall demeanor made her stand out, and as a result, some of her fellow students had taken to calling her a “weirdo.” I am not proud of everything that I’ve done in education, but I am proud of what I told her next. I told this student the truth.
I told her that she WAS weird – and that all of the best people are. I told her she was one of my favorite students because of what made her unique. I told her I would do everything I could to make the school safer for weirdos like her, and that in the outside world, all the great advancements came from people who didn’t fit in.
Every educator knows that weirdness is what makes our students grow. After all, curiosity, creativity, and critical thought don’t bloom in a stagnant mind. So instead of wringing our hands over the social ecosystem, let’s encourage our students to think weirder.
Here are just three benefits to letting students embrace their inner weirdness:
- Innovation: Innovation requires weirdness. All creativity is, by definition, different from everything else that’s out there. One method for promoting innovation in our own classrooms is by encouraging students to find alternative pathways to answering a question. For instance, once they know that 35+17=52, see how many other ways they can come up with the exact same sum (35+20-3, 35+10+7, etc.). Or, if you really want to shake things up, ask students to think of the best wrong answer to a question — the answer that is the most incorrect or which highlights a common misconception. This approach teaches students to seek out new perspectives and approach ideas with an outside-the-box mindset.
- Authenticity: Your students are all unique. Letting them express that uniqueness helps you understand them more deeply and allows them to be their authentic selves. One way we can accomplish this is by being open to their diverse gifts and interests. Show your students that you see their talents and that you value them and save yourself some time and energy while you’re at it. For each student, identify a few of their gifts, and then think of ways you can put that gift to work in the classroom. You can also be proactive by having students share what’s on their mind with an Ask-It Basket and allocating time to follow up on these curiosities.
- Understanding: We pay attention to and remember things that stand out. Put that fact to use by injecting novelty into your classroom to boost student retention and understanding. One of my personal favorite strategies is something I like to call “The Baboon Effect.” Take a normal, ordinary, boring task and inject a little levity by adding a baboon, a weasel, a poodle, some mayonnaise, or a supervillain named Fred. Little tweaks and twists like this make things more fun and keep your students in that weird frame of mind. (Here’s just one strange way to bring baboons into your class.)
Of course, you have your own authentic ways to inject weirdness into your classroom — to show students that you value their differences and diversity. So, let’s celebrate the strange, make room for the unusual, and most of all, let your students know that your classroom is a place where it’s safe to be a little different. After all, history is full of weirdos who went on to explore, discover, invent, and thrive. Who says our students can’t go on to do the same?
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