Tangible props are a ‘never-fail’ attention grabber, particularly when they are abstract or novel and are presented in a creative way such as the example below (mystery bag). They can also be used to amuse and entertain, keep the mood upbeat and break the monotony of teacher- talk and demonstrations (think Elvis wig or clown’s nose). Additionally, they can be used as an aid to learning to make explanations easier to understand, focus attention and demonstrate abstract concepts in a visual and concrete way.
One of the most interesting props I’ve ever had the privilege to use in a lesson was a genuine relic from the Titanic. No, not Kate Winslet – but a broken pocket watch belonging to a young bellboy on one of the first class lifts, before he tragically drowned.
My students had been working on their research project for a few weeks and were fascinated by the whole Titanic story. To see this piece of living history up close, after previously only having access to pictures, videos and reference books and that awful drone by Celine Dion, was simply amazing for them. They had already discovered the exact time the ship was documented as taking her final plunge – 2:20am – and had filled this time in as the last entry on their timelines. When they saw that the watch had actually stopped at precisely 2:20am, they were, understandably, completely spellbound. It was a tremendous example of how powerful props can be, and a great ice breaker for getting the lesson going.
Obviously this was a one-off. The chances of getting your hands on priceless relics are slim and any efforts to procure them from your local museum may not be viewed favourably. I was lucky as a friend of mine knew the lady who owned the watch (and several other artifacts). She had never shown them to anyone outside her home up to that point but was thrilled to be able to enhance the children’s education by coming in to school to display them. I was lucky indeed, but we all have friends and relatives and you never know, it’s possible that one of them has, or knows someone who has, a suitable prop for your next lesson.
Subject-related props can literally bring a subject to life. As an introduction to a lesson they can grab attention like nothing else. The Titanic watch, for example, was actually introduced to the group through the activity described below – ‘Mystery Bag’.
When the students entered the room, the bag (one of the original sacks used by the authorities to hold passengers’ belongings retrieved after the accident) was waiting ominously on the centre table. They were instantly attracted to it and were desperate to find out what it was. Job done; we had their attention.
The Mystery Bag activity is a tried and tested way to introduce a prop. You won’t be able to use it every lesson but as a one-off method to get attention it takes some beating with any age-group.
It’s surprising how much intrigue can be built up with nothing more expensive or creative than an envelope with ‘Mission Instructions’ written on it, handed to students as they enter. We all love to receive letters and parcels through the post – the unknown contents creating fascination and appeal – which makes this humble piece of stationery the ideal delivery boy for a host of quick, intrigue-inducing activities.
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