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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

13 Ways to Engage Students from Beginning to End: Active Lesson Openers and Closers

A lesson which features a focused initial activity is more likely to produce active participation, focused learning, and intended learning outcomes. The lesson openers, or anticipatory sets, that follow are designed to immediately engage the student in the learning process. 

The closers, or closure activities, describe how each opener can be revisited in some form at lesson’s end, thus providing students with a quick review and closure, while providing the teacher with some small measure of student achievement of the desired objective. 

1. Prior Knowledge
Opener: Students discuss and list on a flip chart or in a journal all they know about the topic to be covered in the lesson. While this might be a traditional KWL type chart, with older students I prefer a bulleted list or a T-chart showing opposing viewpoints. At the teacher’s discretion, students can add ideas which their peers share (we call this crowd sourcing). 

Before reading a nonfiction article about privateers, for example, or well-researched sea yarn such as Privateer's Apprentice, students might be asked to list all they know about pirates. Walking the plank and burying treasure are sure to top such a list, and most students will likely agree that pirates were lawless, ruthless renegades that roamed the oceans. They would be surprised to discover, then, that many "pirates" were in fact privateers, commissioned by royal powers to attack ships under enemy flag. In Privateer's Apprentice, author Susan Verrico provides a students with a compelling narrative that not only keeps them reading, but also dispels many of our most common misconceptions about "pirates." (Visit Peachtree Publishers for a free teaching guide for Privateer's Apprentice).
Closer: At lesson’s end, students place a + sign by those listed items which were addressed or confirmed, and circle any issues about which questions remain. In some cases, the "facts" students know may not be confirmed or denied until a large portion, or even the entirety, of a book is read.

2. Presort
Opener: Each group of three to four students is given a number of index cards to sort according to set criteria. A stack of mixed cards, for example, may contain factual and ten fictional statements drawn from a historical fiction text. The group sorts them, relying upon prior knowledge alone.
Closer: The group’s sorting is later confirmed or emended through information provided in the lesson or reading. These cards can be saved and used by the group for later review before testing. As students become accustomed to this strategy, you can assign students to make similar card sets, to be swapped with a partner for purposes of review.

3. Rules
Opener: Have small groups create a list of rules pertaining to the lesson subject.  You can specify that rules begin with prompts such as

  • Always...
  • Never...
  • At least once a day...
  • If you want to succeed, you must...
  • If you wish to guarantee failure, always...

For example, you might say to students, “Thinking about The Witch of Blackbird Pond, pretend you are a colonial mother giving advice to her daughter on the proper behavior of a young woman. Make a list of rules she must follow.” (In the case of Kit Tyler, headstrong ideas and odd behaviors directly oppose the rules governing her present circumstances). This activity would be followed by a group reading of a colonial era journal, or by students referencing relevant passages from the novel. Realize that with this activity you’re likely to receive as many humorous as serious responses!  

For other books such as Animal Farm (where the rules mysteriously and malevolently shift) and Devil's Arithmetic (where obeying Rivka's rules are as important to survival as obeying the Nazis' rules), this activity might be adapted somewhat and revisited over multiple class periods. 
Closer: For that reason, this strategy is a great closure activity if each group’s rules are shared after the lesson is formally conducted. Another possible closer is asking, "What is likely to happen to a member of this community if these rules aren't followed?"

4. Pretest
Opener: Similar to Presort, but here each student is individually given a quiz which they answer to the best of their ability. Students check their answers as the lesson progresses.
Closer: Formally review the answers to the pretest, and have students provide the reason for, or additional information regarding, each answer. These can be saved for test review.

5. Share a Goal
Opener: Each student jots down one goal he or she would like to see addressed in the lesson. These are posted by group and addressed at lesson’s end as a form of closure. The same procedure can be done with “questions to be answered.”
Closer: Review questions/goals to see what has been accomplished, and which items remain as “burning issues” for future lessons.

6. Sentence Starter
Opener: Each student responds orally or in writing to a sentence prompt.  Some effective prompts might include:
• A successful student prepares for a test by...
• When checking over your writing, always check to see...
• The most tragic character flaw a character can possess is...
Closer: Have students with at least three other students in paired sharings. Then ask students to share with the class the best answer they heard, whether it’s their response or another student’s.

7. Describe the Best...
Opener: Students brainstorm a list to describe their best teacher, class, learning experience, etc. for the purpose of finding common attributes which point out good teaching, learning, etc. Another possibility is to show video excerpts of three to five exceptional public speakers, asking students to take notes on what makes their presentation style so compelling.
Closer: Have students choose one trait they will focus on during a specific role play, during the next day, or as a semester long goal.

8. Think Tank
Opener: Ask a number of general knowledge questions which all students should know, but may not (capital of Bolivia, number of teams in the NFL, the meaning of the word tsunami, Mark Twain’s real name, three sports which celebrate “hat tricks,” the most common animal from which we get pâté, etc.). Have each student complete the quiz independently, then form groups of 4 to 6 and let students share information. They will learn that the more people involved, the more informed the process, or, in a more cliché mantra, Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM). This can lead into a discussion on shared problem solving, communication, etc.
Closer: The teacher, widely known as Mr. or Ms. Know-It-All, might be challenged to answer similar general knowledge questions generated by the students.

9. Read Aloud
Opener: The teacher asks students to listen to a piece being read aloud, with a specified objective in mind. The literature piece can be a poem, fable, excerpt of a historical diary, example of a specific genre or literary device, top ten list (David Letterman style), a news article, a fictitious letter, etc.
Closer: Closure depends on the type of literature used. Groups can be encouraged to create their own “top ten” lists, read a related article or story for discussion at a later time, or write their own “You Were There” letters. A fictitious letter from a Civil War mother, for example, can be answered from the point of view of Abraham Lincoln, or from an “enemy” soldier who has found the body upon the corpse of a man he has killed in battle. A book such as On Enemy Soil: The Journal of James Edmond Pease provides ample historical background as well as personal narrative to provide students with both a contextual frame and a writing style suited to the task. Or does it? Is James' terse, narrative style of this journal the same type of writing in which a letter to grieving parents would be written? Can such a letter celebrate a life, without glorifying the hell which ended it? Author Jim Murphy provides some answers to all of these questions by book's end.

10. Metaphors
Opener: Divide the team into small groups of 4 to 6 people. Have each group discuss and identify an analogy for a topic being discussed. It can be a metaphor or a simile. For example: “Eighth grade is like a three-ring circus. We have so many things going on at once that it’s both frightening and exciting.” Allow five minutes to discuss; then have teams share. My students enjoyed taking novels with large casts of characters and identifying each character with an animal.
Closer: Sharing is a must. You might also provide students with a metaphor of your choosing, such as a metaphor for learning. Explain how that metaphor should be extended throughout the school year.

11. A Picture is Worth...
Opener: Have each small group draw a diagram, picture, map, etc., depicting how they view a recent topic. Have groups post their pictures, but then have a member of a different group interpret a group’s drawing for the audience (without any help from that group beforehand). The group which created the picture is not allowed to speak during the presentation. Some students like the idea of trying to represent complex story relationships with mathematical symbols and imagery (some modeling might be needed here).
Closer: Time allowing, groups can compare/contrast their true “visions” with the interpretations offered previously.

12. Review through Competition
Opener: Upon completion of the content portion of a lesson (whether the content was presented by the teacher, through a reading, or other means), challenge each group to list, within five minutes, all they learned from the lesson.
Closer: Give a follow-up quiz, and allow groups to share notes to complete the quiz.

13. Sandwich Boards
Opener: Each person in the group writes on newsprint, “Things I Know” (about the content of the lesson, areas of personal expertise, etc.).
Closer: On a second newsprint sheet, students write, “Things I Learned.” The sheets are joined with tape, sandwich board style, and one member of the team wears the completed piece.  All students mill around, non-verbally, reading the contents of other groups’ sandwich boards.

Other Opening Methods
Other short lesson openers include sharing:
• an unusual fact,
• a personal experience,
• a quotation,
• a statistic,
• an amusing or thought-provoking anecdote,
• a rhetorical question,
• a relevant joke,
• a story, or
• a reference to a current event.

Other Closing Methods
The following closure activities can be used regardless of the lesson’s anticipatory set.  Some require more time than might be permissible in the classroom; they can either be truncated or assigned as homework

Got You Covered

Google image search reveals an incredible assortment of book cover art for many novels. A book like A Tale of Two Cities has been represented in countless ways via cover art, especially if you consider foreign editions. In the case of Linda Urban's Hound Dog True, the cover art was changed from a simple, "pretty princess" type design to a photograph. How does this change a reader's approach to the book? Does it change the potential readership of a book? One of my sixth graders recently read this book, loved it, and recommended it to me. I can say with some certainty, based upon other books she read, that she wouldn't have chosen this same book given its original cover. 

To get the most bang out of this method, make predictions based upon the cover art (as you'd usually do). Then, at some point in the middle of a novel, show students several cover art versions and allow them to pick their favorite and describe why. Repeat the exercise at book's end and see if any opinions have changed. Your students may even be up to the challenge of designing their own covers! Another interesting discussion begins, "If a book was made into a movie, should an image from the film version be used as cover art?"

Group Question
It is usually fruitless to ask, “Are there any questions?” after intensive learning of a new topic.  Instead, upon completion of a session’s content portion, separate participants into groups and ask each group to form the “two best questions” they can.  Only one is asked; the other is generated in case someone “takes” the group’s first question.

Quick Toss
Use a small stuffed animal, bean bag, or Nerf toy to toss to students.  Each person shares one thing he or she learned, and then tosses the object to another student.  Greater control can be exercised (particularly if this is adapted for use by younger students) if the speaker tosses the object back to the teacher, rather than another participant.

What Now?
Each student jots down (or could share) one specific strategy or skill he/ she learned and how it will be used in the immediate future.

So What?
After reading a select text excerpt, students write a “So What?” statement, explaining in their own words the importance of the passage to plot, character development, problem resolution, etc.

New Knowledge
When designing the lesson, jot down 4 to 6 key questions that each student should be able to answer by lesson’s end.  Pass out one of these questions to each student at session’s end, and have them answer the questions aloud in small groups.  You can also use students’ questions which were gathered at lesson’s start.

Learning Map
Have each individual, or group of  3to 4, draw a diagram, picture, map, etc. symbolically representing the concepts just covered.  These can be shared with the group or posted for all to view.

Game It
Use an online word search or crossword puzzle creator (such as to create a puzzle containing relevant information from the lesson.  In order to make this a group-oriented activity, puzzles can be enlarged into posters.
Some Final Thoughts on Lesson Openers

• Don’t confuse your opener with the content or skills of your lesson.  The opener is meant to assess prior knowledge, engage the learner, and raise energy levels.  Once the lesson is successfully “kicked off,” more substantial content must be introduced.

• Reward risk-takers.  Enthusiastically welcome and thank the first student who volunteers or asks a question.  This will encourage others to participate.  Too many teachers act as though student questions and comments are an intrusion upon their time.

• Keep the openers short. Do this by being prepared. If note cards are required, hand them out as students enter. If charts are required, set them up ahead of time.  The one exception here would be hand-outs, which will only distract students if they are handed out too soon. 

Credit Where Due

For many of the above methods I owe the late Mel Silberman a great deal of credit, as his ideas about active participation greatly influenced my own teaching at schools and summer camps. I recommend you check out some of his books, including 101 Ways to Make Training Active and Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples, and Tips.

Another huge influence on my teaching and presentation is Bob Pike, another master of active training. His extremely successful training company has a terrific archive of articles. His 50 Creative Training Openers and Energizers is highly recommended for any teacher looking to motivate students and move them toward positive action.


Susan said...

I'm not a teacher, but if I was, I would totally use some of your suggestions. It's so important that kids learn to love reading! I'm glad you and other teachers put so much thought into getting students engaged in books. Awesome!

Glad to have found you via the Hop :)

Elizabeth said...

The Wednesday Wars sounds good. Good you enjoyed Okay For Now.

GREAT POST on how to teach a novel...I am going to forward this to a few teachers.


Happy Hopping!!

Silver's Reviews
My Blog Hop Answer

fakesteph said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'm totally glad you did, because I'm actually seeking my license in secondary English. :) And I've been meaning to read Okay for Now for about forever. :)

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, all for visiting.

Susan- I keep 'em reading so that someday they'll move onto the stuff that you're reviewing.

Elizabeth - Thanks for forwarding to any teachers you know. The more the merrier.

Fakesteph - Best wishes for your studies! Teaching is fantastic for those called to it!

Jenni Elyse said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. I read The Wednesday Wars last year with my book club. It's a great story. I hope you enjoy it.

Keith Schoch said...

What I didn't get is that Okay for Now is a companion book, so I'm pretty much reading them in reverse order. Hope it doesn't matter!

The 5th sister said...

I am on a school board so reading and teaching it is always of interest to me.

thanks to the hop I have now seen your site.

Renee LaTulippe said...

Hi Keith,

Thanks for visiting me on No Water River! I am loving your blog(s)! I used to teach high school English, and your suggestions are just wonderful. I'm a kidlit writer now, so I'll be hopping over to your PB blog and following all of them.

How in the world do you find time to keep up with THREE blogs?? I only do one post a week, and it takes me hours! :)

Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers said...

Thanks for sharing these with me on the English Companion, Keith! I've added a link to your website at the bottom of my blog post!

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