In a recent post, I spent some time reflecting and gathering insight from professionals on the importance of the first few minutes of a class period. The overall theme of that post was the idea that, with high school students’ engagement at an apparently dismal low and with research suggesting that students decide whether or not they will participate in the class within the first few minutes of the period, educators have a golden window of opportunity at the very beginning of each class to grab interest and make an impression. Just like a master writer carefully crafts her opening line, a skilled teacher has to be strategic about her opening move in the classroom!
My goal with this blog post is to explore some practical ideas for classroom openers that might set the tone for active and engaged learning. The concept behind what I am saying sounds lovely; however, I am very familiar with the electric and somewhat manic atmosphere that marks the transition between high school classes. Bells ring, boots scuffle, laughs and chatter fill the halls. I have around 4 minutes to get my life together in time for the next group of students, most of whom will most likely not automatically go to their seats and sit there silently waiting for my next move. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few of what I think are achievable, but effective ideas to wrangle student interest in the first few minutes of a classroom period. These ideas are some combination of my own ideas and ideas found in articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Edutopia.
- Start with a question. But not a boring one. You can have it projected or written on the board as students come in. Good questions are applicable, relevant, and beg to be discussed. The question can be discussed at the beginning of class, at the end of class, or both to demonstrate development of thought. Edutopia’s Richard Curwin proposes the following question as an example: “If Hamlet were a sitcom, what would be a better name for it?”
- Review the prior class. Spend a few minutes asking students to recall what happened the last time you met. Have students remind you what the most important points were. Not only does this prompt students to reach back into their memories and focus, it also allows you to get a feel for what they did and did not retain.
- Shamelessly employ teasers. There is a reason that cheesy teasers are still used in advertising and commercials: because they are effective! Market your topic. Phrases like “Coming up next…” and “You won’t believe that…” are all irresistably attention grabbing. Curwin gives the following example: “Coming up next, we’re going to discuss why some people think Shakespeare is sexier than Madonna.” The one caveat to this strategy is that your class has to deliver! If you promise to discuss the sexiness of Shakespeare vs. Madonna, you actually have to do so, otherwise your teasers will cease to be effective!
- Ask students to free-write. Low-stakes writing assignments are an easy and comfortable way for students to begin preparing to think about what you plan to teach that day. This can just be a quick journal entry or reflection. If every student has taken a few minutes to write on the topic of your lesson, then every student has engaged on some level with the subject before beginning the intellectual heavy lifting.
While these ideas I have suggested above can be adapted and applied in a variety of ways, the most important point to keep in mind when deciding how to use them is one made in Curwin’s article. Whenever possible, open with something you are passionate about. Students have an uncanny ability to sense enthusiasm levels. They just know when you’re excited about a topic and when you really aren’t. Choose something you love and build a class opening around that! In Curwin’s words, “energy is contagious.”