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Brown Bagging It


I want to write a book that for now I’ll call, “Where Kids Work Hard.” The idea is to promote student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered teaching. But, I’m feeling a little intimidated by the whole idea and don’t quite know where to start. Dashing off a blog post in a sitting is one thing. But a sustained masterwork of utter brilliance…

Just as Certifiable helped me eat the elephant of the National Board portfolio one bite at a time, I hope Eduholic can help me build this book. To that end, here’s an example of kids working hard(er than teachers) from the first week of school. The scene is that kids had to read a book from a summer reading list, which I wanted to bring into class right away. Another goal was to fold in some getting to know you.

The old/hard/teacher-centered way? A deadly dull barrage of book reports. Kids stand up in front of class, one by one, and drone. The “A” students bring in good show and tell items or maybe a fancy poster to spice things up. Teacher sits at a big teacher desk and takes notes (so as to appear interested). Not wanting to waste all those notes, and to show the kids who’s boss, teacher surprises students with a pop quiz about the books the next day, or maybe three days later depending how long twenty five reports take to get through. Teacher grades quizzes in the lounge with a red pen, fueled by the smug awareness that next time those kids will pay attention when he tells them to.

The student-centered solution? Brown bag booktalks.

Each kid brings in a brown paper bag with five items: four that relate to the book and one personal item, and also write blurbs for each item including quotes from the book. On presentation day, students become interested despite themselves when the bags are tossed into the middle of the room.

Each one picks a bag. “Guess which one is the personal object” is a great ice breaker. Excited chatter takes over the room for fifteen minutes. Peer introductions to the class follow, then a quick partner eval (Did they have five items? Did they write good blurbs? Did they use quotes and otherwise show knowledge of the book?). Teacher evaluation is basically done as he takes roll during the introductions. During a planning period, “grading” is completed as he writes a quick welcoming comment on each kid’s paper after reading their personal blurbs.

The first lesson has the all the hallmarks of teacher-centered teaching: one person talks at a time from the front of the room, kids sit still at desks in straight rows, and they spend most of their time listening. A few grade-grubbers shine and the rest get by. It’s kind of boring, eventually requiring regurgitation of previously recited facts. At the end of the day, the teacher can say that he has “covered” the material.

The second lesson shows the attributes of a student-centered approach. Kids are engaged in a variety of multimodal activities that are often interactive, sometimes loud, and generally fun. The desks change configurations to suit the tasks, there is a sense of inquiry and discovery, and the teacher is a coach, participant or bystander rather than the ultimate arbiter of learning.

Brown-bagging it, in this case, means less down time and a higher degree of ownership for kids, not to mention more genuine learning. Each kid constructed meaningful connections to the books by selecting and writing about his or her items. Welcome byproducts for teachers include less prep work and grading, and a higher degree of enjoyable interaction with students.

Cost of a pack of brown paper bags? $1.35. Time saved for more meaningful work by not having old-fashioned book reports or grading a quiz? Three hours. The feeling you get when a student-centered lesson really flies? Try it and see!


I crave creative ideas that engage students. But have you tried this brown bag business? 'Fess up! What was the class background? What happened? Were no objects lost on the floor or tossed in the air? Did you get any feedback? Did students remember the fun and the lesson? My experience is that memory of fun wins hands down. Just as students benefit from connections with reality, I wish ideas would cite more of what really happened. Please give me a reason to regard this student-centered technique as more than wishful thinking.

I wouldn't be so concerned about the students remembering the content of the lesson. It sounds like one of those experiences that teaches critical thinking, both in the child's individual planning phase and in participating in the lesson. The brain will remember it, even if the facts are lost. (Those this may not lend itself to test prep)
And is it the end of the world if objects end up on the floor? They can be picked up, sometimes giving themselves to a teachable moment on the importance of taking care of your property.

Before you get too excited about "Child Centered Teaching and Learning" you may want to expose yourself to the quality Level III research available on the topic. What has been proven repeatedly is that Child Centered instruction sounds great and is ear candy to all who have been indoctrinated by education schools; however it can't withstand the rigors of the scientific method of investigation (which I believe is still taught in schools). I hope the field of education will eventually cease this "Child worship" that has resulted in overindulged, overly accommodated, young people who are poorly prepared for realities of life.

I used to be a teacher and now run a counseling business. It is truly shameful what is passing as education these days.

I've used this brown bag approach for years with lots of success. The trick is to set criteria that requires symbolism and creativity. Kids must be required to connect their objects to the books and to put those connections into writing. Only then do they delve back into the book and understand it on the deeper level we're aiming for.

I teach 120 kids. I don't have the space for 120 brown bags in my room. The solution -- I brought the brown bag into the 21st century. In my classroom, kids have to do an electronic brown bag book report. We use Powerpoint with a plain paper bag as the central image. I teach the kids how to make other images "pop out" of the bag. No words are allowed on the Powerpoint, only pictures. I can have them summarize in pictures, cover symbolism, protagonists, antagonists, setting, all the basic elements of a story; and every six weeks we cover a different genre. I am no fan of random items. I expect students to discuss books based on how we analyze and appreciate them for the way a writer puts a story together. By the end of the year, the brown bag has major themes coming out of it and heady discussions. By the way, I teach 7th grade English. A brown bag report is elementary, so I just thought I'd push it up a notch and make it middle school worthy.

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Recent Comments

  • Andy Esquivel: I teach 120 kids. I don't have the space for read more
  • Julia Hanauer-Milne: I've used this brown bag approach for years with lots read more
  • Peter Young: Before you get too excited about "Child Centered Teaching and read more
  • abl: I wouldn't be so concerned about the students remembering the read more
  • G Johnson: I crave creative ideas that engage students. But have you read more




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