When a student is enjoying their classroom experience, their tendency to learn increases exponentially. Does that mean we need to cater to their every whim? Of course not, but there are things we can do to meet them half-way.
1. Entertain and educate
An effective teacher must be an effective entertainer. It’s not what you say that matters in the end; it’s what your students hear and remember. Think about workshops, conferences, or even weddings you’ve attended and which speakers you found engaging and memorable. Attention is a scarce resource, with lots of competition for your students’ eyeballs and ears. If you can get your students to pay attention, you have won half the battle as a teacher. Don’t be a clown, but humor can go a long way to create this entertaining and positive learning environment.
How can you do this? Maybe you’re not the type of person who jokes around and you really don’t feel comfortable making light in the classroom setting. Well, this is what I do. I understand that at times it’s important to be self-deprecating and not take yourself too seriously. It’s often about making innocent jokes, mostly at your own expense, to break the ice and create a more relaxed atmosphere where your students can learn effectively. For example, I am a terrible artist, but in my class I don’t shy away from drawings. In fact, I emphasize them and we all have a good laugh. As you will see in this next example, using the shock factor is another excellent way to capture your students’ attention. When I start teaching my students about projectile motion, I decided to lighten things up. Instead of introducing the topic through a series of facts or explanation, I got my students to think about something else: projectile vomit. As soon as I said it, they came alive. I’m sure they were wondering what I was doing. I bet they’ve never had a teacher who talked to them about projectile vomit before. I explained that there are four kinds of projectile vomit: straight down (downward vertical vomit), straight up (upward vertical vomit), straight-out away from you (horizontal vomit) and away from you at an elevated angle so that it gains some height before splatting down on the ground. I used a series of pictures depicting what I was saying and I’ll tell you something, not a single student was doing anything other than looking at me and paying full attention. Some were giggling, but that’s fine. You don’t giggle when you’re bored.
2. Know your subject/material
I’ve just said that you’ve won half the battle if you can capture your students’ attention. The other half is knowing your stuff. Kids are smart and they know when their teacher doesn’t really know what he/she is talking about. When kids know that you are an authority on the matter, you will keep their attention. When they think you’re clueless, they will tune you out, misbehave and/or walk all over you.
3. Create interactive lessons
Nothing kills a topic faster than a teacher who stands at the front of the room and lectures for an hour. Get creative and mix things up. The way I do this is to chunk my lessons into three or four segments, each being very different from the last. For instance: You start a lesson by giving a 15-minute PowerPoint note (segment 1). You end the PowerPoint with a question that the students need to look up on their smartphones or talk about in small groups (segment 2). Following this, you begin a class discussion surrounding the question looked at in segment 2 (this is segment 3). Lastly, you get your students to perform a hands-on activity that allows them to learn the material by doing (segment 4). Perhaps segment 4 is the start of a larger task such as a project that can be carried over to the next day.
As an aside, I further segment my lessons by linking to short videos within my PowerPoint. These videos help reinforce the information that I’ve conveyed, but also provide a change of pace and give my students a break from hearing my voice. I’ve attached a screenshot of how I do this in my PowerPoint. This video is found about 2/3 of the way through my lesson on Invasive Species and automatically opens once I click the image while in slideshow mode.
4. Create engagement through demonstrations
Nothing hooks a class like a demonstration. I use demonstrations both at the start of the lesson to get my kids excited about what we are about to do and also during the lesson to provide a visual of the content and/or its application. Demonstrations don’t need to be complex. They don’t even need to take up much of your time. They can be done by you in front of your class or via a video found on YouTube. Either way, they should accomplish your goals of breaking up the lesson and providing some real applicability to what you are talking about.
5. Encourage students to participate in class
Maybe the hardest things to do as a teacher is create classroom participation. Kids mostly are wary of participating because it means they need to put themselves out there, exposed. Now by this time you should have created a safe learning environment. But, still, kids are kids. Many are reluctant to participate for fear of ridicule or simply because they are unsure of what to say. A big reason why they lack confidence is that they are hearing this information for the first time and now, all of a sudden, they are being asked to talk about it in front of their peers. Too often I’ve seen students put on the spot, who are understandably nervous or flustered or both. The solution: When looking for student input in the form of their answer to a question or their opinion on an issue, you should provide them with some time to think about what they want to say. Give them time to think. You know the answer since you asked the question, but they need to process and connect it to the learning they’ve just done. Providing sufficient time for reflection means that every student will think about the question, not just the confident student who always volunteers first. Often when I ask a question in class, I tell my students how much time they have to think about their answer and whether they should be writing the answer down, working in groups, etc. For example, I say, “I’m giving you five minutes to think about your answer and write it down. You are to work with the person beside you and be prepared to explain your reasoning after this time.”
This approach allows them to:
- take a breath which, we hope, reduces their anxiety.
- understand how long they have and what specifically they need to do (i.e. write the answer down after talking about it with the person next to them).
- look over what they have just learned and formulate a logical answer.
6. Give your students something to do while you are teaching
Here’s how I learned this one. I looked around the room during a particular lesson and I saw these blank faces looking at my PowerPoint, barely focused on what I was teaching. This was year one of my career and I was naïve. I thought that when students came to class they would naturally listen and become engaged simply because what I was saying was so very interesting. As teachers, we naturally think our students are just as engaged in the subject material as we are. We don’t always consider that there are lots of reasons why students are distracted—time of day, personal problems, low blood sugar, and so on. So how do you engage your students when you really need to get a lesson across? In a perfect world, you would get them out of their seats and physically doing something, but unfortunately, this isn’t always an option. If I’m teaching French verbs or the Civil War, I need my students to have something they can refer to later (i.e. a note of some kind). What many teachers do is either: a) have their students copy everything out from a PowerPoint, overhead, or chalkboard (this is what I did in high school); or b) give their students a pre-printed note, so that they can listen to their teacher talk (this is what I did in my example above). Neither of these approaches work as effectively as what I’m about to tell you and here’s why. In the latter example, we give our students the note beforehand and allow them to listen to us. I thought this was a great idea since the students could spend their time listening to what I had to say and not have to waste time copying everything down. Turns out, they didn’t really care about what I had to say because it was all there in the notes. So all they did was stare blankly ahead and pretend to listen while slowly slipping into oblivion. Option a) requires the students to copy out the note letter-by-letter, word-by-word for themselves. This certainly keeps them busy but leaves very little time for discussion or assimilation of the information. What I suggest is a hybrid of the two methods. Provide them a note (I do this by posting it on my class website) that is partially filled in, this is called the student version. I then teach my lesson via PowerPoint using the teacher version that has everything. The words that fill the blanks on the student version are clearly identified by bolded and underlined text.
Example: The following are screen shots from my PowerPoint on Invasive Species.
The students quickly learn, that in my class, they need to come prepared with the notes pre-printed. Now, why is this effective? It keeps them busy and therefore, requires their focus in order to copy down the notes. Furthermore, it requires only a short amount of time to do so, leaving more time for discussion. Lastly, you might be asking, “What if they don’t print off the notes?” In that case, I have them copy the blanks down on a separate piece of paper and then fill in their notes at home. This note-taking practice is enforced as each week I have my students submit a summary of the previous week’s lessons. This way, I ensure that each student has a complete set of notes in his or her own words and writing style.
7. Always start your lesson/day with “The Hook”
The Hook is something of high interest to students that may or may not get them out of their seats and moving around. It’s called “The Hook” because it hooks their interest and preferably keeps their attention for the entire period. This hook needs to be directly related to what you are about to teach. It is a means of setting the table for what’s to come. The best example of this I can think of is in the first Harry Potter movie in which Professor McGonagall begins the first Transfiguration lesson for her first-year students by transforming herself from the body of a cat into her human form. Now if anyone did that in front of me, they’d have my attention! However, I suggest you start with something less ambitious. Games are an excellent way to engage your students from the get-go. Videos related to the subject can be great hooks, but they need to be short, interesting to your intended audience and not just to you, and preferably high tempo. Please, please, please don’t play a boring, 30-minute video from 40 years ago and expect to pique your students’ interest. If you need some ideas I have a page on my site, which now has over 400 videos categorized by subject. It can be found here: https://teachwithfergy.com/science-videos/. Another means of hooking students’ attention is starting with a relevant news article. Get them to read it (again make it short) and then ease into your lesson with a class discussion. Because these articles need to be relevant and generally current, you should check your newspaper or online news source regularly and file away stories you think might be useful.
8. Don’t rush your fences
This point, which is a bit of a pet peeve with me, is especially important. Don’t rush through your material at top speed just to get it all covered. You may have said it, but who has taken it in or understood it? So many teachers skim through their content because they feel pressured to get through it all. It’s true, one of the most difficult things we need to deal with as teachers is the amount of content the students are required to know when they leave your class. However, you need to take your time (within reason) and make sure that students understand before moving on. Getting through most of the material well is better than getting through all the material with your students understanding very little. End of the year projects I find are an excellent way to cover some of the material you didn’t have time for.
9. What to do when things go wrong, because they will
Be flexible. As Colleen Hoover put it, “Life happens. Shit happens. And it happens a lot. To a lot of people.” You just need to be there, be open, and be the best you can be for your students! Sometimes things don’t go the way you envision (most times actually) and that’s okay! You don’t have to be perfect! If you screw up by, say, teaching something that is wrong, just admit to it. People, including students, appreciate it when others admit to their mistakes. In Chapter 2, I mentioned a specific example regarding bond strength and poor mentor-teacher tact (can you tell I’m still bitter). If you don’t know something don’t BS your way through the explanation. Just say that you don’t know, but you will find out. Nobody knows everything. Say, “That’s an excellent question, and I will need to look into that for you. You’ll have your answer by tomorrow.” Then make sure you follow through.
10. Show applicability
Here’s a useful exercise to keep your lessons on track. Think about what you are about to teach and answer the question, “Why do my students need to know this?” Your answer should never be, “Because they need it for the test.” That’s a terrible answer! If you want to keep students’ attention, at the beginning of each lesson, you need to show your students why they need to know what you are about to tell them. My best example is when I was teaching trigonometry. At the start of our very first lesson, I explained how I used trigonometry to convince my wife how mathematically, we needed a bigger TV based on the ratio of distance from the TV: TV size. This they could appreciate.