If your teaching style were a movie genre (don’t worry, this isn’t a Buzzfeed quiz), what would it be? Maybe Comedy? I once knew a trigonometry teacher who somehow combined math with an ongoing stand-up routine – every year he’d dust off his headdress and be Chief Socatowa (Something about sines and cosines? Luckily I survived trigonometry many years ago, and don’t have to remember it any more). Or would your genre be Drama, like the gifted teachers whose readings of classic children’s books can hold a class spellbound? Maybe you’re the history teacher who can bring long-ago battles and campaigns to life – the Action/Adventure type. I hope you wouldn’t put your teaching in the Horror category! (Though we all have those clench-your-fists-and-try-not-to-scream days!)
My teaching style would definitely fall under the heading of Suspense. I teach young children, who, contrary to popular opinion, have ginormous attention spans – they can watch a buzzing fly or argue about “who started it” ( though they may be fuzzy on the details of exactly what “it” was) for impressively long periods of time. They simply don’t always choose to turn their attention to the grownup chattering away in the front of the room.
Now, I’m lucky in that I’m a music teacher, and I have lots of intriguing sounds at my disposal. Most young children will look up at the jingling of a bell or the rattling of a maraca. But all teachers have ways of getting children’s attention – rhymes, clapping, hand signals like the peace sign, things like that. It’s not so much the getting of attention that’s the problem, it’s the holding of attention. It’s keeping them curious, involved and engaged. That’s where my strategic use of suspense comes in.
Want to know how I do it? You do, don’t you? And I’m going to tell you… right now!
Even stringing out a statement like that can keep a roomful of four-year-olds’ eyes on you for a few moments… useful when I need to bring an instrument out of my bag, or otherwise turn away from them briefly, which they often interpret as a signal to “Let the wild rumpus start!” as Maurice Sendak put it in “Where The Wild Things Are.”
Here are some other ways I use suspense in the classroom.
Before… The suspense begins before I even take out the book. (I keep it in a bag until it’s time to read it to the class.) I tell the group something like, “As soon as I saw this book, there was something that made me curious about it.” Maybe it was a funny or strange title, like “The Cow Who Clucked” by Denise Fleming or “Bringing Down the Moon” by Jonathan Emmett. Or perhaps it was a silly or eye-catching cover, like that of “The Enormous Potato,” by Aubrey Davis, which features a huge potato looming over some small people, or the cover of “Don’t Copy Me!” by Jonathan Allen, with a colorful puffin looking down with disapproval at three adorable little gull chicks. I tell the children that this title or cover made me wonder what the book was about. At this point children usually start calling out ideas. “It’s about a potato!” “How did it get so big?” “A cow doesn’t cluck!” (And no matter what the title or cover, someone practically always asks, “Is it about dinosaurs?” or something equally improbable.) And of course, to all these, I reply enigmatically, “You’ll see.” They’re already engaged in the story – before we’ve read the first page.
During… Just before the “big reveal” of the story, when you’re about to discover who has the cow’s moo (that’s the mystery in “The Cow Who Clucked”) or whatever, pause. Say, “And then… and THEN…” or, “Oh, maybe we’ll finish this story tomorrow.” They’ll be jumping up and down (often literally), demanding to hear the ending.
Or if the climax of the tale is more on the sinister side, one of those where the protagonist might get eaten by a troll, like in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” pretend to be scared. “Oh, I can’t stand to look. Should I turn the page?” Your students will invariably inform you that YES! You should TURN THE PAGE! TURN THE PAGE RIGHT NOW!
And of course you know to occasionally ask, “What do you think is going to happen next?” This is a classic line to keep children interested, but beware. Young children have their own agendas, shall we say. You might hear that the next animal the cow meets will be a unicorn, or that Spiderman is going to swoop down to save the billy goats. Whatever the prediction, don’t shoot it down – “Spiderman isn’t in this story” – because when you do that, you’re shooting down their enthusiasm, too. Just shrug and say, “I don’t know. Let’s see what happens!”
And after… If the story had unusual animals in it, you could say, “I didn’t know what a real wallaby (or badger, or javalina) looked like, so I checked it out on the computer and I brought in a picture. Would you like to see it?” Let them clamor a bit before you bring it out!
If the children really enjoyed the story, tell them you’re going to read another book by the same author (or another book about Froggy, or Curious George, or whoever) … in a few days. They’ll be so excited when you bring it in!
For learning skills or information
Young children love tricks, and they love to learn to do tricky, fancy things. Whenever you can present a lesson as a “trick” (especially if you announce you’ll be teaching it tomorrow, or next week), it builds suspense and interest. For example:
The backwards alphabet. Most fours and fives can learn to sing the alphabet backwards. There’s even a song for it, like the regular one, but beginning with “ZYXWVUT,” and ending with “Now I know my ZYX’s, Guess that’s not what you expected!” Children are always thrilled to master a trick that most people haven’t learned.
A “trick” to count to ten. Count the fingers on one hand – five. Now the other hand – oddly enough, also five! Hold them up together and have someone in the class count them (or for extra reliability, you could count, on a child’s hands). It’s ten! Every time! Like magic! Young children will be amazed.
Letter tricks. Printing letters can involve really cool tricks. A capital M is two mountains – and mountain starts with M! How many lines stick out horizontally from a capital E? Three! “An E has three!” That rhymes! Isn’t that a cool trick? This trick especially helps those children who generously give their capital E’s as many horizontal lines as they can fit in.
Basically, if you have anything at all to teach a four- or five-year-old, you can make it into a fun trick she can’t wait to learn!
The sneaky challenge. This can be a lot of fun, but be careful. You can only use this if the task is one they haven’t done before, but you KNOW they’ll be able to do. Preface your directions with “Now, I don’t know if you’re ready to do this, it’s really hard… (or “it’s really fast”… they LOVE going fast).” Most children will jump at the chance to prove you wrong. One kindergarten boy breezily responded, “Hey, we’re kindergarteners. We know everything!” Gotta love the confidence!
Guess What! Guess what young children absolutely love to do? They love to guess! And this can be a fantastic teaching tool. Yes, I know it’s not always good to guess. When you ask about something you’ve taught them already, you don’t want them to guess, you want them to remember. If you spent all last week on the letter P, and you ask them what letter “penguin” starts with, you don’t want to hear an enthusiastic chorus of “L!” “R!” “B!” “8!” I get that. But if you’re simply introducing an interesting fact, the “guessing game” can be an excellent way to stir up the suspense.
For instance, if I’m reading a story with clouds in it, I might say, “Guess what? I found out what clouds are made of. Can you guess?” You might get some interesting responses – “Cotton puffs?” “White?” “Are they painted on?” and they’ll usually be astonished to hear the real answer – tiny drops of water and bits of ice. How can water and ice stay up in the sky? Tell them we’ll look it up later! They won’t forget, and will pester you to look it up all day.
Or if you see geese flying in the sky (a common sight where I live in central New Jersey), ask the children, “Guess how far geese can fly?” Let them guess for a minute before you tell them. Geese can fly over five hundred miles a day – pretty impressive!
Of course, the guessing game, like every “suspense strategy,” won’t make you a better teacher – but it can help your young students become better learners – more excited, more inquisitive, more eager to follow their individual quests for knowledge.
The physicist Richard Feynman had a wonderful phrase – “The pleasure of finding things out.” On hearing he’d won the Nobel Prize, he remarked, “I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out.” Let’s nurture children’s curiosity so they each can experience learning, not for grades, not for tests, but for the pleasure of finding things out.