Call them the “virtual generation.” Sure, they're still kids, but occasionally your students seem like residents of a strange planet — one rife with instant messaging, cell phones, and a barrage of media. While traditional lesson plans may certainly work for some of these students, others remain hard to reach. But there are ways to enthuse them all. Here are nine educators who have used their creativity as a flashing neon commercial for learning, and have found fresh ways to connect with kids better than the latest action-adventure film.

 
Dinner With a Spider
Why does first-grade teacher Candy Tennison dress up as an insect? “My first degree was in drama,” she explains. “And my first graders are so used to videogames and Playstations — you've got to be theatrical to get their attention.”
 
Tennison, a science teacher at University Heights Elementary School, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, dons an insect costume for a unit on bugs. She points out her body parts: feelers, legs, thorax, and abdomen. Later, she dresses as a black widow and sponsors a “spider's feast” for her students. “I put a cube of sugar in a cup, add water, and turn it into syrup,” she says. “Then I give straws to the kids for fangs. They eat like a spider — no chewing, just sucking.”

 

Movie Metaphors

 

While watching Spiderman 2 on the big screen last summer, Jane Lierman, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Oak Creek School, in Lake Oswego, Oregon, was impressed by the film's many motivational quotes: “There is a hero in all of us. You always have a choice. With great power comes great responsibility. I made a choice to live a life of responsibility." Lierman also noted numerous character-building themes in the movie, primarily Peter Parker's choice to either pursue his own desires or sacrifice them for the greater needs of mankind. So she decided to start off the year with the theme "The Hero Within Me."
 
"First I decorated the room with superhero posters and quotes,” says Lierman. “Then I asked my students to define hero and come up with names of heroes who have motivated or inspired them. We watched Spiderman together during lunch and read superhero books aloud." Each student created a superhero stuffed doll of him or herself, then wrote about his or her gifts, choices, and sacrifices. Lierman plans to use the theme to segue into early North American history by discussing “the choices and sacrifices that went into creating our nation.”

 

Hip Hop & Hope

 

Edward deJesus, president of the Youth Development and Research Fund, is not a classroom teacher — but then, the kids he connects with don't have much interest in the classroom. After working with disadvantaged teens in Maryland for 20 years, deJesus decided to build his program's curriculum around hip-hop music. His logic: You have to connect with kids and their interests before you can teach them anything. By analyzing the language of hip hop, designing essay questions around music videos and movies like Boyz N the Hood, and adapting music sales and profit margins into math lessons, deJesus has managed to get even dropouts excited about learning. “It's hard,” he says, “but we do it.”

 

Slam-Dunk Spanish

 

Toni Billingsley's classroom is filled with motion and intentional disruptions. “Salta y tira la pelota como Miguel Jordan” (“Jump and shoot the ball like Michael Jordan”), says this seventh-grade Spanish teacher at the Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School, in Chicago. She tosses a boy an imaginary basketball, but his dunk is weak. “No es como Miguel Jordan,” Billingsley says. She palms the invisible ball, leaps in the air, and slams it down just like one of Jordan's thundering dunks. “Eso es como Miguel Jordan,” she shouts. “The learning experience has to be fun for both the teacher and the student,” she explains of her kinetic style. “If I'm bored or the students are bored, I'm not going to be teaching at my best.”

 

Hot-Rod Reading

 

Linda J. DiPasquale-Morello, a teacher at John C. Milanesi School, in Buena, New Jersey, once found herself challenged by two second-grade boys who were non-readers — but who loved cars. “I bought a few car magazines and left them out on the desk,” she recalls. “The flashy covers caught their eye ... I told them they could look at them during free time. They did, and soon they were asking me what some of the words were.” Not long after that, their skills began to grow. One of the boys is now a diesel mechanic, and the other is an engineer. “Just maybe,” DiPasquale-Morello says, “I helped make a difference.”

 

Make-Your-Own Comic Book

 

“I want to [bring] creativity back into children's lives and into the learning process,” says Michael Bitz, founder of The Comic Book Project. Bitz helps kids create their own comic books, based on educational themes such as conflict resolution and the environment. Children are given a template to help them draw and write, come up with a title, and produce a cover. Then the Comic Book Project produces the work for $6 per student. “This was my favorite project ever,” one student reports. “I developed my artistic skill and learned how to write stories, too!”

 

Percussion Power

 

Two evenings a week, Diane Downs — who teaches music at Norton Elementary School, in Louisville, Kentucky — heads over to the University of Louisville, where she leads 7- to 13-year-olds in the Louisville Leopard Percussionists. “We listen to CDs and rip it,” she says. “I teach them how to play by how it feels. They dance and move around and then they play it. Later, they can learn how to actually read music.” To teach a song, Downs will break it into easy-to-grasp elements. It's not a chord for her, it's a “chunk-chunk.” Bottom and top notes are “boogers” and “maggots.” Her kids may not know how to read music, but they know that patterns are the building blocks of music. Proof that her method works? “We've toured the country,” Downs says with pride. “And we've made three CDs.”

 

Special Effects

 

In 1995, Mark Weaver won a $2,000 teaching award. The next year, he used it to travel to the isolated Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba (population 800) to videotape polar bears. From October to mid- November, these great white bears come within 25 miles of Churchill, making dens as they wait for Hudson Bay to freeze. Weaver kept a daily journal, posted photos on his Web site, and barraged his students at Clay Junior High School, in Carmel, Indiana, with questions. Now the presentation he created gives students everywhere the chance to recreate his experience.
 
This hands-on approach is a Weaver trademark. “Whenever I show a film in class, I create special effects to help students connect to the content: heat lamps for desert scenes, fans over pans of ice for polar vistas, and mist-blowers for the rainforest.”

 

Wall of Fame

 

Joe Martin's fifth graders loved sports — especially basketball. So Martin, a teacher at Community Elementary School 126 in the Bronx, New York, decided to teach using sports analogies. He turned the writing bulletin board in his fifth-grade classroom into a “Wall of Fame” and named his class “The Dream Team” (after the great USA Olympic basketball team). “I explained the history behind the name,” says Martin, “and that it was a collection of the very best basketball players — and that my kids were the very best fifth graders.” For students who dream of being “the next LeBron James,” he dives into the importance of math. “Well, if you score 20, 35, and 15 points in consecutive games, what is your scoring average?” he'll ask. The students quickly realize they need to calculate the mean — “and that with free throws, percentages are important, in addition to knowing what commission their agent takes.” Suddenly, kids who dream of superstardom transform into junior mathematicians.