We all have those days! Those days when the students arrive with no energy or interest in whatever it is that you have planned. Whether they are tired or hungry, bored and apathetic, they simply want to literally or figuratively put their heads on the desk and zone out. Those are the days when we need all of our own energy and passion for learning and for them as students to kick in, taking what we know about pre-teens and teens and putting it into action.
Our students are active and social beings, focused on the world around them and especially on their peers. We need find ways to wake them up and engage them in their learning, continually recapturing their interest as distractions occur. So what will it take to move students from passivity to engagement, from boredom to curiosity?
My most successful strategy is to combine movement with the possibility of social interaction. Sitting at a desk for minutes and hours on end shuts down any energy they might have brought to school or that bubbles in the hallways before class, so I get them up out of their seats, regularly. Here are some of the activities I use:
Small group work
Always have them out of their desks to do this. Anytime they are talking in groups of 3-4, assign each group a location around the room that requires them to move. Set a time limit: “You need to be in your groups with your supplies in 7 seconds.” Make it a game and time them, either using a smartphone or a digital timer that you project. Then set a time for the work to be done in the group.
Work at the board or on large Post-its or butcher-block paper
Designate 4-6 locations around the room; write a task at each location. The tasks need to be ones where student inquiry is required: Most important character in this chapter; best way to solve a problem; most significant event in a time period. Have them brainstorm their ideas at their desks, and then go and write their response on the board. At this point, there is often talking. Let it happen. Their social interactions now will help them focus for the coming discussion. Give each student 4-5 post-it notes to leave comments. What is interesting? What is new? After they finish leaving comments, they return to their initial spot and read their notes. Now is time for a class discussion or written reflection.
Take a walk
I pose a question, asking students to talk with their partner. Then I tell them we are marching. The first time, I have to herd them like cattle, out the door and down the hall, even outside if the weather is good. I make sure they are walking at a brisk pace, but not at a run, which quickly becomes silly. I want their brains engaged in thinking. According to the Franklin Institute, “Walking is especially good for the brain because it increases blood circulation and the oxygen and glucose that reach your brain.” As they walk and talk, some about the problem they need to solve and some about their crazy teacher, they become energized and engaged, laughing and curious. The entire exercise takes no more than 5-7 minutes, but it completely changes the energy in the room when we return. They are upbeat and engaged, much more ready to do the work at hand.
The school day for every student is long and full of demands, as they move from class to class, tackling endless assignments and requirements. As teachers, we need to think about how to help our students have the stamina for the work that we require of them. Getting them up and moving, getting the blood circulating, while providing them with moments to interact and connect, can make that happen.
Hadley Ferguson is a middle-school history teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. Ferguson is co-founder of edcamp philly and a board member of the edcamp Foundation. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter at @hadleyjf.