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How To Engage Students in the First few Minutes of a Lesson

I have a wonderful friend who is currently a student teacher. I absolutely love chatting to her about her experiences and questions, as she challenges me to reflect on my own practice: to re-evaluate my strategies; to work out what it is I do and why; to tweak what isn’t working. Her questions are always intelligent, thought-provoking and full of exciting curiosity – she is going to make an exceptional teacher.

A few weeks ago she asked me how to get students to ‘come to the party’; how to entice them to engage and participate in the learning experience so that it wasn’t a one-sided affair.

Yikes! What a question.

This got me thinking and I came to an interesting realisation: In the first five minutes, I can tell how a lesson is going to be received. Really. If, after the introductory minutes, my student have already slumped down into their seats, are gazing out the window or surreptitiously texting under their desks (yes, we do realize that is what you are doing; we don’t think that you are just staring at your crotch), then I know my job for the next 45 minutes is going to be a lot more difficult.

I set the scene for my lesson in those first five minutes. Somehow, I need to ‘hook’ them in, pique their interest, give them a reason to be invested in what they are going to learn.

I realise this is no small feat, so here are 5 tips for breaking with routine and shaking things up at the start of the lesson:


1. Rearrange the desks.

It really is as simple as that: play with the layout of the room. The school day is habitual and routine and students become lazy in their comfort; so shake them out of it! Move the desks into pairs one day, into groups the next, in a circle the following day. I find that whenever I do this, the students come in and do a ‘double take’. Almost every student stops and asks, “What are we doing today?” Already they are invested; they are primed for learning.


2. Tell them not to take out their books.

As with the first point, this one is about defying their expectations. They expect the settle-down-and-take-out-your-books comment. They expect the lesson to start with shuffling and murmuring and general commotion. So surprise them; tell them to leave all their things packed away, to have a clean desk in front of them. They will be curious (and possibly quite excited at the thought of no ‘real work’), and they will be listening for what comes next. So make it count.


3. Ask a thought-provoking question.

After perhaps starting the class with the first or second point, you might consider throwing out a thought-provoking question, or writing a quotation on the board which relates to what you wish to cover in that lesson. For example: If you are planning to study Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, you could ask students, “Do you think one ever gets to a point when one is ready to die?” Anything which gets students engaging with the topic, so that when they come to the poem (or whatever the lesson is about), they are already invested in the topic, interested to see if their ideas were valid or echoed by the poet, and they are more likely to engage.


4. Play a video clip.

Students these days are visual learners; they spend so much of their time in front of screens (TV, cell phones, computers etc.) and using technology, that if they walk into a classroom devoid of these methods of engagement, they immediately shut-off and are disinterested. So incorporate technology in a meaningful way in the classroom. Start with a video clip which relates to the lesson: a recording of a poem being read; a TEDx talk; a music video; a scene from a play acted out – there are a variety of ways to do this and I promise you, it will make your students sit up and take notice.


5. Play a game.

I hear you: “What? Waste valuable instructional time playing games? We already have too much to cover.” I agree. But I don’t mean a game which will take twenty minutes to play and I don’t suggest you do this every lesson. But every now and then (again with the element of surprise), start the lesson with a quick game, which takes less than five minutes. Perhaps play Hangman with the topic of the lesson as they word they have to guess. Pick a few students to have a quick game of Word Tennis. Play Two Truths and a Lie about the poet/author whose work you are studying. I find this to be a great way to start the class as it gets my students in a good mood; helps them switch off from whichever class they have just come from; gets the endorphins flowing from the laughter.

These were my initial thoughts when my friend posed the question to me. I won’t stop thinking about this and will continue to look for new and exciting ways to entice my students! I would love to hear any ideas you have, or what has worked in your classroom.

For more engaging lessons which stimulate learning and engage students, check out my lesson plans by clicking here.

Now, you have their attention, how do you keep it? CLICK HERE TO GET 5 TIPS FOR KEEPING STUDENTS ENGAGED.  Slide1

40 thoughts on “How To Engage Students in the First few Minutes of a Lesson

  1. Thanks, it’s helpful to think along these lines. You sound like a thoughtful, careful educator, so you should know that you “pique” someone’s interest, or excite it, stimulate it. It doesn’t make sense that you would peek at, or take a quickly, sneaky look at their interest, does it?

    1. Would you “take a quickly, sneaky look”? Perhaps you would “take a quick, sneaky look” or “quickly take a sneaky look” ?

      Really good post though. I like to use “snow storm” at the start and/or end of topics. Students write their names at the top of the page, then have 2-5 mins to write everything they can remember/know about a topic. They then scrunch the paper up and throw it someone, read their ideas then add their own. We usually play three rounds and the threat of being taken out of the game is usually enough to make sure they are sensible. I have middle years students.

      1. Thanks for this addition of the snow storm idea. I like all the ideas, and I can vouch for changing seating. Since I teach music, I don’t usually have desks in the room, but I move seating arrangements at least a couple times in a quarter. Sometimes for discipline issues, it’s a life-saver. i also use youtube clips frequently. It’s very effective. This is great creative juice.

  2. These are great ideas, and ones which I will remember to put to use this year. Some I’ve done, but really, unless the activity/lesson specifically required it, I wouldn’t have thought to rearrange desks just for kicks. Saving this post – thanks!

  3. Hullo, hullo! I found you via Pinterest – ah, interwebs! – and I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to quote you verbatim on my own blog. It’s a style blog, yes, but I’m also a high school English teacher and every Sunday, I have a feature called “5 Things” where I showcase 5 random things that have nothing to do with style or fashion. As we are starting the new year in a few short weeks (Eep! So not ready to surrender my summer!), I think this would make a great feature. And I would definitely credit you and link to your site, of course.

    Would love to hear back from you! 😀

    Maricel @ My Closet Catalogue

    1. Hi Maricel, thank you for your lovely comment and I am honoured that you would want to share my post. Absolutely you can feature it on your blog – however, as you say, please do make it clear that it is written by me with the appropriate links and credit. Thank you so much for your interest! Warm regards.

  4. When someone writes an article he/she retains the plan of a user in his/her mind that how a user can be aware of it.
    Therefore that’s why this piece of writing is great. Thanks!

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  6. Thanks for sharing Stacey! These are great tips, most of which I do at times.
    I’m a high school English teacher and am very passionate. Love the rearrangement of the classroom!

  7. This is a very helpful list. Some really interesting leads into what I could be a difficult day. The suggestion of quotes or poems quite good. I am Leary of starting a day with a video . I would definitely need to do my homework for this one.

  8. I am finishing off my second year of teaching third grade on an Indian reservation. Keeping the children engaged and interested is a daily challenge. Having rearranged my classroom 10 times this year, I love that idea. There is so much content to get in during our short 180 days with these children and trying something new keeps them on their toes. Kids are always shocked when I tell them that I don’t want them to take out their books. I find it to be even more fun if I can teach through the content without my book.

    I will be sharing your lovely ideas with all of my peers!

  9. I just found your blog through PInterest. I love it. Thank you for sharing these tips.


    p.s. I love all of your products and resources. I am a music teacher, but I know I can use some of your books and worksheets for next school year. Perhaps we can even review some of them on my site.

  10. Thank you for your fabulous insights. I am new to teaching and struggling a bit. Your ideas are something I shall absolutely try in the new term.

  11. Great post! I have heard variations of student engagement in the past, but they often have lengthly lists. This one is just long enough to attain goals to try them all. I am a behavior coach and work with teachers on best practices to decrease behavior problems. We all know that as engagement increases, behavior problems decrease. So I would like to use your ideas to get my staff started for the year, with credit going to you of course. I’m also going to check out your other resources to see if we could use those as well and see how they will fit into Marzano’s 41 elements (our district’s major HS initiative).

  12. Great Tips & Adice for new and up coming teachers.
    I will put these to work and assess their effectiveness.
    Thanks Again!!

  13. Great ideas! I couldn’t agree more – every time I move desks, they walk in and freeze! It definitely raises their awareness and enthusiasm. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I find so much on warm-ups for English, history etc.. does someone have them for a high school science class like physics. I find a lot of labs or whole class period activities but very few warm-ups. Hang man only goes so far. I have created about 315-20 or so on my own but could use some fresh ideas. Thank you in advance for the help.

  15. Why didn’t I think of that (as I smack my forehead)? I love the rearrange the desks idea! There are many great ideas here that I will be implementing during the Spring. Thanks for sharing. Found this via a Pinterest link…

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