Here is an example of a school assignment sent to me by an inventive high school psychology teacher:

“To gain a better understanding of Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, you will go to a toy store and choose one toy for each stage of development. In a paper, you will discuss what aspect of the toy corresponds with what developmental milestone in Piaget’s theory. Additionally you will discuss the issue of gender identity formation, based on your visit to the toy store.”

It is one of many such ideas that pop up on my Class Struggle blog. The teacher who forwarded the assignment, Patrick Mattimore, suggested an activity in which readers send in effective teaching strategies. He and I would select the best entries. Knowing the state of newsroom budgets, Mattimore suggested a reward of some value but no cost: publicity for the winner.

That sounds good to me. If you want to participate, post your ideas as comments on my blog or e-mail them to and patrickmattimore1@
with “teaching strategy” in the subject line. We will announce the results in a month in this column. Readers will be involved in the final choosing.

It will be a fun way to consider what makes a good teaching strategy and what doesn’t. Even if you don’t want to enter, we hope you will post your thoughts on what classroom approaches work best for you.

Mattimore, a former lawyer who writes about education, gave me several samples of engaging assignments for his San Francisco Bay-area students. He had students make videos parodying the research of a famous psychologist. He suggested they pick scholars at universities they wished to attend, an attention-grabber that might enhance their admission prospects. That seemed risky to me, but after the videos went on YouTube, several students won recognition from the American Psychological Association.

Mattimore likes forcing students to take their textbook knowledge into the outside world, where scholarly concepts come alive. In a sensation and perception unit, he told them to watch a scary movie and explain their feelings with psychological terms.

The classroom strategies that stick in my head are those that excite and unite an entire class. Often they involve games that everyone can play at once. The suspense and competitive drama are irresistible. My high school U.S. history teacher Al Ladendorff often devoted Friday class to 20 Questions. He thought of a historical person or event. Taking turns, we had 20 questions to identify the subject. If he came out ahead, we had an extra assignment that weekend.

At the KIPP D.C. Key Academy, a middle school in the District, I watched math teacher Sarah Hayes Campbell thrill a fifth-grade class with a fast-math competition, an old favorite called Around the World. One student stood next to the desk of another. Whoever answered her question first moved to the next desk for another high-speed contest.

Rafe Esquith, the famous Los Angeles teacher and author, has his fifth-graders play a game called Buzz. They count to 100, each student calling out a number in turn. If it is a prime number, they must say “buzz” instead. The game, with many variations, is riveting to students and visitors such as me.

School must have its dull moments but not as many as usual. Teachers have an advantage in this contest. They know what works and what doesn’t from experience. But former students, which means everyone else, can remember the days that class time flew by and they never forgot what they learned.

Tell us about those days. Maybe we can figure out how to make them more common.