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Virginia Journal of Education

Become a Media Magnate

Engaging students the way TV and other media do.

By Peyton Anderson

I didn’t want to be the guy in the lunchroom complaining about my distracted students and how they won’t engage with teaching methods that are supposed to work, so I decided to create my own approach. My goal here, though, isn’t to sell you on my teaching methodology. Rather, I hope you’ll find an idea or two for the creation of your own method. Here’s a little of how I use media in the classroom:

“Teach Like TV”
Have you ever noticed the ratio of programming to commercials when watching television? Usually, there is a strong pattern of about eight minutes of content and two minutes of commercial time. This may differ among individual channels but, in my research (I took a scientific approach in my recliner with a beverage and my remote), the “8 and 2” rule seems to be about average. 

So how does this relate to the classroom? Well, I know that my middle school students can hold their attention for around 8-10 minutes. Really smart people who do studies and use really big vocabulary tend to present this kind of information while wearing sweater vests and thick-framed glasses. If you want to read the research, go right ahead. I encourage you to do so. I have. This is why television people create shows the way they do and why YouTube videos rarely go over eight minutes. They know what they’re doing and how to engage others, and they’re doing a better job of it than we are. So, my answer to television is, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!"

When you’re planning lectures, keep television’s approach in mind. Break your material up into workable 8-10 minute chunks with “commercial breaks” thrown in to allow for some relief from the content. How you break these chunks up is strictly up to you and your teaching style. For me, all of my “lectures” are PowerPoint presentations packed with a lot of sound, animation and general sensory overload (this will be discussed later). My “commercial breaks” are usually one of the following:

1. An open-ended driving question on the day’s lesson.

2. An open-ended driving question on previous lesson (Usually a remediation opportunity.)

3. A current event. (Works well in a social studies class.)

4. A phone check. I actually allow my students a couple minutes to check their messages and whatever else they need to do on their phones/electronic devices. I have much better device management when I give them time and they know it.

5. Get up and stretch. I’ll get everyone to stand up and follow me through some silly stretches and physical activity. Moving and laughing gets blood flowing and naturally perks up the participants.

6. From time to time, when I have video or meme projects from the students, I’ll show those during this time.

There are many more you can come up with that are content specific: math problems for review, a new word or phrase in a foreign language class, a quick chemical reaction in science. Allow yourself some freedom and experimentation. All classes are different.

This may seem a bit awkward or forced at first. Feel it out in a few of your lessons to find places where you think a break should happen. After class, look back and see where they were. That may give you your best timeline for finding effective commercial breaks. After doing this for years I have an established pattern in my delivery where I can make it up on the spot. If you are a bit more technical, then make it as obvious as possible. Your students’ curiosity will naturally allow you to try. They’re curious creatures and will want to experience this “surprise” along with you. Don’t worry that “my kids can’t handle this.” I’ve been successful with this approach with my special ed kids in a collaborative setting as well as kids in a Center-Based Gifted program.

Note: This does not fit every lesson. I’ve always been wary of those who claim that anything is perfect for everything.
I mentioned PowerPoints. Here’s how I do them:

You hear about the importance of using “technology in the classroom,” but there doesn’t seem to be much funding for the really cool stuff you read about in all those education magazines. So you scrape together an LCD projector by bribing your librarian with free coffee until Christmas break. Then you spend a Thursday night creating a wonderful presentation, your I.Q. glowing in all its academic power.

You strut into your classroom for a cool Friday lesson; the kids are poised for greatness, and you start the presentation that would have gotten a perfect score in your college computer class. But your Avatar kind of day quickly turns into outtakes from a Ken Burns documentary. The class is not impressed, not engaged, and not caring about the effort you put in last night. Frustration sets in, you decide “technology” is a dumb idea, and vow to become a Chalkboard Cowboy (which will also be discussed later).

It’s not your fault. You were taught how to make a “successful” PowerPoint by people twice removed from an actual classroom. This is nobody’s fault—at least there’s some kind of training going on. 

Remember this: Throw out your list of “don’ts” and leave room for imagination. Things I do:

• Solid backgrounds and no weird font colors. Remember, eye strain stinks. White is always my background and black and dark blue are usually my font colors. Remember LCD projectors can make colors look dull.

• Less is more. I hate that saying, but it fits here. Do not put a huge amount of words on each slide. Chunk it to go over a few slides. It’s less intimidating for students and allows the font to be bigger.

• Make everything move and make sound. Watching moving objects goes all the way back to the caveman. Use more than the stock sounds. Search free sound effects, movie quotes, etc. You can find several free sites from which to download these things. Do it. There is only so much cash register, clapping and whooshing sounds someone can take before they feel like they’re in Guantanamo Bay. We know when we hear certain sounds on TV it connects with certain products or events. Assign sounds to specific actions. I have sounds that lead to extra credit, test questions and more. I tell the kids and let them listen for it. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. 

• Pictures are a good thing. Bing, Google, Yahoo and whatever else you use has an image search feature: Use it. Make sure you follow copyright rules if you’re putting your presentation out there to the public. Talk to your librarian. They are a wonderful resource and are some of the smartest people in your building.

Adapt your material to fit your students. Ask for feedback and actually listen to it—they’ll tell you what they want. My PowerPoint style puts me in charge of the distractions. If I control their distractions with actions, sounds and “commercial breaks,” I can control their attention, as well.

Technology in the classroom is here to stay, despite what some may think or hope. I am quite entertained by the reactions of people in our profession to it. Here’s my take on how different educators react to technology and its changing uses in our classrooms:

True Tech Grit
I hate it when people label others and group individuals based on stereotypical observations. That being said, here are some groups that I have labeled based on stereotypical observations I have made over the years.

1. Chalkboard Cowboys. Folks in this camp are still a little bitter about indoor plumbing and wish kids still walked to school uphill, both ways, in a hurricane while milking the family cow and writing President Roosevelt a letter. Don’t fall into this trap. To some, technology is about as welcome as a fox in a hen house, but bitterness and sourpuss attitudes do nothing but ruin the outlooks of other educators. Don’t argue with them: Let them make their stand during trainings and faculty meetings. There is also no age requirement for this camp. I have seen them as young as a 23-year-old first-year teacher and as old as a 70-something, award-winning teacher.

2. Urban Cowboys. You know who they are—the ones who wear the boots and the hat, but have never mended a fence or even have seen a horse close enough to see the beauty in its patient stare. These folks can also be tricky to spot. They broadcast themselves with their stories of technology in the classroom, but only when they are at the community coffee pot with at least one administrator within earshot of their slightly-louder-than-normal conversation with the new teacher. These guys may be friends of the Chalkboard Cowboys, but usually don’t have the fortitude to be so outwardly negative. So they play the system a bit. Technology comes into their lessons when it counts: an observation, or maybe a required cross-curricular project with another teacher.

3. Town Crier Cowboys. This is where you find all the teachers who love to email the entire school a random website, app or some other nonsense. The reason for this is simple: Everyone now knows they are tech-savvy and maybe now their name will be mentioned next week in the faculty meeting! These guys haven’t learned how to be “Urban” yet. Don’t go here. Those who stand on tables and beat their chests to get attention for doing what is expected of them do  nothing more than create a short fuse to a huge problem.

4. The Real Cowboys. These are the ones who work hard every day, help those who need help, raise the herd, and go to sleep each night staring into the campfire allowing the embers to comfort them to sleep. There are more people like this in every school than many seem to believe. It’s easy to overlook the people who quietly do the job, take on the new tech challenges, and figure out what works for their kids. It can be difficult to spot these in your building. The best way is to listen to your students. Ask them about the projects they’re doing in other classes, and what and who they’re excited about working with. The Real Cowboys are perfect poker players and can carry a blank face when the “Urbans” and “Criers” are wasting good oxygen in faculty meetings and file space in your inbox. Once you find one of the Real Cowboys, go talk to them, face to face, alone, and without any intent to draw attention to what awesomeness they are doing.

Actually, each camp has value. Appreciation for anything only comes when we can truly see all sides of it. Listen (with restraint) to the Chalkboard Cowboys; most of them have the experience that will give you insight into the “latest and greatest fad” that overwhelms education like the relentless winds on the prairie. The “Criers” and “Urbans” will usually use and promote the easiest stuff that gets them the desired result. They will have good sources, just check your spam folder and pack some ear plugs.

We are given the task of being educators in a world of technology that is advancing faster than the laws that regulate it. We are members of one of the oldest professions and must remember to be timeless in our approach in being relevant. To be life-long teachers we must first be life-long learners. Have the “true tech grit” to make your classroom a place where your students can help keep the camp fires burning bright for years to come.

Anderson, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, teaches civics and government at Manchester Middle School. He’s the county’s current Gifted Teacher of the Year. You can learn more about his teaching methods at his website,; his blog,; or his Facebook page,


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