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April 28, 2023

Engaging Students in the First Few Minutes of Class

Transitioning from the hustle and bustle of moving from class to class to sit down at a desk is a major challenge for students. Students are lively and engaged in the hallway as they talk with their peers, but when they get to their classrooms, they perceive a drastic change to their situation: here is where I have to get quiet and stop having fun with my friends. Or worse: now I have to sit through a class I don’t like accompanied by a dose of anxiety. This is why engaging students in the first few minutes of class is vital.

They deal with this perceived decline in their situation in a number of ways. Some don’t let go easily and continue chatting with their friends regardless of the bell. Others immediately shift into another activity they find interesting, like whipping out their phones, opening a game on their computer, or gazing out the window.

How do we harness all that energy and direct it positively toward the exciting content of our classrooms? There are a great number of possibilities, but one I am fond of is to engage student opinion. Students can shut down when they are afraid of being wrong or being laughed at for a “dumb” answer. If we draw students in with open-ended questions that engage their passions while igniting their analytical, creative brains, we can harness that excited social energy.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

For elementary science

Ask students where they think the ball needs to start to get it in the bucket. Every single student can answer this question:

A Pear Deck slide with an illustration of a slide and bucket with different colored balls on the ground. It reads Where would you place the green ball on the ramp to get it in the bucket?

Ask follow up questions to engage that social energy — why do you think starting it too low wouldn’t work? How come no one put it waaay at the top?

Now you can try it out and make a ramp with cardboard, run experiments, and get deeper into the material. But within the first few moments of class, you had every student thinking and debating the central question of the day.

For middle or high school social science

At this age, students are starting to be aware of injustice as well as political debates. Many of them have opinions already, though often they are hand-me-downs from the adults in their lives. Jump straight into the middle of those debates with open ears and compassion for different opinions.

Display a political cartoon and ask them what they notice. Again, asking the question so broadly allows students to think and observe without the tension of “being wrong.” You are just asking what they notice.

A Pear Deck slide with a political cartoon of a Native American saying "show me your papers" in front of a sign that says Arizona. A couple walks their dog next to him. The slide reads What draws your attention?

Once they have thought about that, follow up with questions about what they think the illustrator intended. “Why do you think they wanted you to notice that?” “Why did they put that label on the illustration?”

Then you can move into the actual issue being highlighted. Right from the first moments of class, you have actively drawn out their opinions and experiences of the issues that surround their lives.

For high school ELA

At this age, students are quick to point out hypocrisy or inconsistencies. They have realized authority figures don’t know everything and disruption to their world view can be startling and intriguing. Ask them to point out the inconsistencies they notice in their lives. As a bonus, engage them in that question through great literature (they are not alone — people have been dealing with and exposing hypocrisy for centuries)!

A Pear Deck slide with a quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The question reads Here Frankenstein is being called out a s a hypocrite. Where do you see hypocrisy in your life?

Our students need our guidance as they transition to a focused classroom environment, but we don’t have to lose all the energy of the hallway. When we start class with broad questions, we can draw them out of the dispassion and fear of being wrong many students experience in the classroom.

Download the deck

Download our Engagement Deck to see great examples of getting students engaged in the first few minutes of class.


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