Based on an article that I recently found via the brilliant Tanya Rodrigue, I’ve been spending some serious time reflecting on the incredible importance of openings. When I say openings, I’m referring to the first snippet of something larger that gives you a teaser idea of what’s to come. This can be the opening lines of a novel, opening measures to a song, or a movie’s opening scene. All the great authors, composers, and directors of the world spend an immense amount of time reflecting on how best to immediately grab you and draw you into their piece. A good opening in any mode or genre intrigues you, catches your attention, and focuses you as you wait to find out more. It’s a good tactic and it takes a lot of skill and effort to do it well.
As an educator, this idea has really been sticking in my mind. With my goal being to draw students in and capture their attention, how often do I intentionally craft a lesson with a killer opening? How often do I prime my students for engagement before asking them to focus exclusively on my lesson for the next 50-90 minutes? Answer: not often enough.
The somewhat dire lack of engagement in general in our high school classrooms is something I’ve been ruminating on for a while now as I’ve been reading Eric Jensen‘s book, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. Jensen compiles a set of fairly compelling research to make the case that the average American student is disengaged for an alarmingly high percentage of their time in school. In a 2009 report of the cumulative results from the High School Survey of Student Engagement, Ethan Yazzie-Mintz recorded that, out of 275,925 high school students surveyed between the years of 2006-2009, 82% identified that they were regularly bored in school because the material was not interesting (7). This, in my opinion, is largely the product of inadequate teaching; boring teaching usually leads to bored students.
Although the appeal and excitement of our classroom material is often patently obvious to us as educators, I, and I suspect many of us, regularly forget that our job is to convey our interest in and enthusiasm for our material as well as the material itself. In Jensen’s understanding, one of the roles of a teacher is to “sell” students’ education to them (26). School is something they have to do, so they rarely enter the classroom ready to engage. A strong teacher is committed to and skilled at quickly hooking students’ interest and making the most of the limited time available. A good lesson opening can often shoot boredom dead where it stands, setting the students up for a positive and active learning experience.
Edutopia’s Richard Curwin theorizes in his blog post that, upon entering a classroom, students need no more than a minute to determine whether they will like a class or not. As teachers, we have an incredible opportunity in those first few minutes to set the tone for a classroom of engagement, exploration, and passion. We have a small window in which to deploy an opener that draws students in and leaves them wondering what they are going to learn in the minutes that follow. This is a daunting, but exciting challenge that has the potential to effectively combat the epidemic of boredom and disengagement plaguing our high schools. It is also a challenge that I plan to explore with a little more practicality and tangible brainstorming in an upcoming blog post!