Engaging Students at the Start of Class
Observing student teachers has been an interesting and rewarding experience so far. Sitting at the back of the class and watching students from the rear certainly gives you a different view-point than being the leader at the front. I am reminded of how crucial it is to get students engaged in what they will be doing right at the beginning of class. It seems that if students are not given a reason to give their attention and focus within the first five minutes, the struggle to get them on task may continue for the rest of the class.
There are several simple tricks or techniques that can be used to help with successful class start-up. These basic strategies may not seem like rocket science but they can make a positive difference in focusing the class as a whole and getting every individual involved right at the start.
Write the agenda for the class on the board or post it on-screen.
When students enter the room, they can immediately see what they will be doing for the next hour or two. This helps them to mentally adjust to what’s coming and to start refocusing their minds to the new class topic or activity. It also prevents students from overwhelming the teacher with questions like “What are we doing today?” “When are we going to talk about . . . ?” “Will you be checking our homework?” Less time spent answering those questions allows the teacher time to set up for the lesson or to make meaningful connections with students as they enter.
Have a seating plan and change it when necessary.
It seems pretty basic but a seating plan is fundamental to classroom success. It is a waste of time, and very boring for the class, if the teacher has to read out the names of every student for taking attendance. With a seating plan, a teacher can see who is there or not there with one glance. The new or substitute teacher with a seating plan in hand can actually take attendance with the same efficiency and refer to students by name to get their attention. Changing the seating plan can create a whole different atmosphere in the class. Separating two or three students who tend to continually chat in class might solve that problem without having to discipline.
Start the class in an ‘Official’ Way.
Picture this scene. . . the bell has rung, most of the students are in their place, the teacher is now standing in front of the class. What happens next is crucial. It is important for the teacher to take charge at this point, greet students, announce the agenda of the day or do something to set the tone for the class. If the tone is not set at the start, it may not be possible to regain the cooperation ten or fifteen minutes later.
It may seem logical to hand out quizzes or papers right at the start, but this creates a few more minutes of time when students become disinterested. If they have arrived ready to engage, they may become bored as 30 papers are being handed out and students are asking individual questions. A better time to return tests or assignments is near the end of class when students are finishing up and nearing the end of the assigned work.
One of my most memorable teachers started every class with a joke of the day. These jokes were not that funny, they were often total groaners, but the class always arrived in expectation of this attempt at humor. If humor is not your strength, there are other little ‘hooks’ that can be used. A puzzler of some type, a unique photo of the day, a youtube video, or even an inspirational quote can be something that helps your students to look up and focus their attention forward. Choose something that fits with who you are as a teacher, and also something that will not be time consuming to find. There are many books or internet sites that might provide what you need. If you can incorporate a current use of technology for this activity, you will be have an added edge for getting their attention.
Use Warm-UP Activities.
If your subject or topic allows for it, start class with a mini activity that immediately engages students. The type of activity you use depends on the age or grade level, but here are are a few that I have used with grades 7 – 12:
1. Hangman or Wheel of Fortune: Simply put blanks for every letter of one key word or phrase on the board. This phrase could have something to do with your current lesson or topic. Students guess individual letters until they figure out the phrase. Your own unique version of this can be created. For example, a teacher I know, who is almost bald, uses his lack of hair to create class humor. Instead of the typical stickman drawings used in hangman, he draws 10 squiggly hairs on a head. If the students guess wrong, a hair is erased from the head. When the head is bald, the game is over, the teacher has won.
2. Loto: This game is played exactly like Bingo. Students choose 4 words from previous notes, a diagram or a list of vocabulary. They simply draw a horizontal line and a vertical line through it creating 4 squares. They write their 4 selected words in each quadrant. The teacher picks words randomly and when all four words have been chosen from a student’s prepared loto game, that student wins.
Prizes? One of the most coveted prizes I have given to students is a “Get out of Homework” pass. These were simple cardboard circles that stated “Homework” with an X written across it. Students loved to win these; it meant that if they were caught with homework incomplete, they could hand me the pass and there would be no consequences.
If the activity is played with you vs. the class, this might provide an excuse for a pizza party (or another healthy alternative) when the class reaches a number of wins. If you win, the class must all chip in and buy; if they win, it will have to be the teacher’s treat. A little bit of friendly competition goes a long way to engage students on a daily basis.
3. Twenty Questions: This game works well with current events or language classes. The teacher chooses one item of news from a local or provincial paper that the students might be familiar with. The students try to guess Who? What? Where? and When? through a process of elimination. When the key points of the story have been discovered, the full news story can be shared.
Tip: When studentsare familiar with the routine, they can take turns being responsible for planning and conducting the warm up activity.
If your class agenda is just too full for these types of activities on a regular basis, they can be used as a treat or a reward on Fridays.
I realize that it takes time for new teachers to find routines that work for them, but I hope that the suggestions in this post provide some ideas to try. Any veteran teachers that read this post are most welcome to add to this topic of engaging students at the start of class.