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 thinks 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.