By Cindy Schwartz, Co-Founder and Director of Secondary Education
This blog post is an adaptation of “Class Starters,” an episode of the Attentive Teaching Podcast. Our podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms.
It’s a Sunday night and you are wondering how you can make tomorrow’s class more interesting.
How can you get your students to be excited about the topic you’ll be teaching? How can you psych yourself up for the lesson? Because if you’re not enthusiastic about the lesson, how can you expect your students to be?
We have some easy, practical and creative ways to motivate your students at the beginning of class regardless of grade level or subject matter. Simply tailor each suggestion to your needs depending on the subject you’re teaching and the ages of your kids.
Here Are Some Engaging Class Starters
Try, for example, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. This is certainly a great way to introduce people in an academic subject matter who have made a difference. It helps kids ponder the different paths that life has to offer and the consequences of choosing one path over another.
Start class with a song. Maybe “Let it Be” by The Beatles. Any student, at any grade level, could be engaged in a discussion about concepts like acceptance and letting go.
Ask a probing question. Try asking existential questions like, “What do we all have in common as human beings?” For older students, try, “Are there absolutes in life?”
Introduce an interesting painting to your class. Maybe show your students the “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood or something by Winslow Homer – certainly any age group would have a reaction to these paintings. If you want pure Americana art, I suggest anything by Norman Rockwell.
Perhaps you could show Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” to help kids become more empathetic to the plight of migrants and the poor – again, any age group could benefit from this viewing and discussion.
Also, try Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photo of the American sailor in New York’s Times Square kissing the first woman he sees after hearing that the Japanese had surrendered on August 14, 1945 effectively ending WWII.
Read to Them
Try reading a story or diary. Even my 17-year-old juniors have loved when I’ve read to them!
Color or Draw
When you introduce the topic for the day, ask your students to draw a visualization of what that topic evokes in them.
Alternatively, draw droodles or cartoons and ask the students to think about how they are related to your class or have students create their own cartoons or droodles that reflect the theme of your lesson of the day.
There isn’t a student, regardless of age, that doesn’t love building with Legos, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, blocks or dominos. Ask your students to visualize what they are learning through their buildings.
Play a game. Try hangman, bingo, password – this is my favorite because it’s really challenging! – or jeopardy.
Connect with Them
Ask, “How has your day been so far?” “What has been a ‘high’ of your day or a ‘low’?” Either questions will help you connect with your students and give them a chance to express how they are doing.
You can also connect with your class by being vulnerable yourself. Tell a personal story. Tell your students a story of something that happened to you when you were their age. They’ll be all ears, regardless of their grade level.
What Other Teachers Suggest
In March 2014, The Other Things Matter, an education-related blog, published “Shaken not stirred: 8 ways to start your class different” by Kevin Stein. He shares eclectic, unconventional ways that teachers can use to start their classes.
I have used most of these in my classroom with great success!
Here is what he suggests:
- Don’t do much of anything. Listen to what the kids in the room are talking about as they enter. Jot down what you hear, and use their conversations as a way to move away from the curriculum for the day or to connect their interests with your lesson. Either way, they’ll be engaged because you’re talking about something they want to talk about.
- Stein reminds us that not all kids may be ready to start the lesson at the same time or in the same way. Move to where the kids who are ready to start are and say something like, “2, 4, 6”. Then, choose another student near you to say what they think comes next. That student will invariably say, “8,” and a game has begun. Soon, the rest of the class will start to join in.
- Don’t tell the students the learning goals for the day’s lesson. Just write on the white board (or in the chat if you are teaching remotely), “In this class we will learn…” and see what they write. You may get some ideas about what they would like to learn instead of what they have been learning!
- Ask “What is that?” Stein recommends bringing in something that is novel – something the kids have never seen before or may have forgotten about. It’s uncanny how quickly the class comes together in awe! I once brought in a dial telephone, a typewriter, a transistor radio, silly putty, and a record player as a way to teach the myriad of inventions that flooded the American landscape during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The kids were beyond engaged and loved trying each of these iconic inventions. Stein says these kinds of class activities give students a reason to ask, “What?”, “Why”, or to just simply say, “Huh?”
- Give students a chance at the beginning of class to rank the day’s activities from what they’d like to do most to least. If they don’t want to do an activity, ask them to explain why in the margins of their classwork assignment or in the chat.
- Play “Where is the teacher today?” Start the class by standing or sitting in another part of the room that’s different from where you usually stand or sit. Mix it up. Put your chair in the middle of a circle.
- Give each student a marker for the white board or, if teaching remotely, ask kids to put into the chat what the most important thing was that they learned in the previous lesson. This activity is quite enlightening: not only does it force students to reflect and remember, it lets you know you know what to review or not.
- Let kids teach the class sometimes. I have done this often, and it is a winner every time. Give kids the reins. Allow them to teach something that they care about and are interested in. I teach my students how to write lesson plans, but you can certainly be more spontaneous if that is easier.
We hope this post has provided you with some doable, realistic “class starters” on how to begin your class with motivational activities that will engage and excite your students and you! Let us know if any of these tips work for you or if you have any suggestions at to what has helped you to motivate your students at the beginning of class.
How do you start class every day? What motivates your students the most? Let us know in the comments!
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