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Engage and Motivate Your Students Before the Holiday Break

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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It's the Friday before a holiday, and despite all your efforts, the students just don't want to sit still and listen to your exciting lesson. Before I learned better, holiday seasons were the hardest times for me as a teacher. I had to exert extra energy to get students motivated to finish their work.

Because of the additional effort -- and little return -- it is no wonder that some teachers resort to showing movies and holding class parties the day before a long weekend or holiday. But the incessant pressure to have our students achieve makes these sort of activities difficult to justify. This leaves us with the question, "How do you keep students going, even before the holidays?"

Certainly, in normal circumstances, nothing beats an effective and well-thought-out lesson plan for engaging students. But even the best lesson can be snowballed by the excitement of the upcoming holiday celebrations. Embracing the holidays by weaving it into the themes and topics of study is one thing I have done that stretches the learning a bit longer. I am a fan of thematic instruction, and if you would indulge me, I will demonstrate what I mean. For example, snow can be connected to almost any subject:

  • The geometry of a snowflake
  • The environmental conditions necessary to produce the crystal structures
  • The weight of snow and how it affects the construction of houses and buildings
  • The effect of snow on the water levels year-round
  • The physiological effect of cold snow on bare skin
  • The geographical locations that have the most snow
  • The insulating effect of snow in cold climates
  • The change in the volume of water as it turns into snow
  • The customs of people that live in the snow
  • The effect of winter and snow on the Revolutionary War
  • Music that has been inspired by snow

I could go on. Designing learning around a theme provides additional incentive for students to stay interested and engaged in learning.

Thematic Projects

Project-based learning is the next level of student engagement. It has the capacity to wonderfully and miraculously shift the burden of catching and keeping students' attention from the teacher to the students themselves. Given the same theme of snow, students could discover what areas of the world get the most snow and establish the relationship between snow pack and available water during the year. Students could create a formula for predicting lean years. They can also design efficient homes and buildings to catch and store snow for the summer months for water and cooling. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Investigate the best way to make snowballs.
  • Devise a way to create snow crystals.
  • Investigate how many battles have either been won or lost due to snowy weather.
  • Experiment with different types of snow to find out which is the fastest for skiing and tobogganing.
  • Devise ways to predict and prevent avalanches.
  • Design new forms of transportation on snow.

As with any project-based learning lesson, for success, it's important to carefully design the intellectual box in which the students will be learning from. This box includes a time limit, available materials and resources, as well as clear expectations of the final project goals. A well-crafted rubric or criteria list will not only tell students what elements need to be included in their project but it will also inform them of what the differences are between a good project, a mediocre one, and a poor one. The rubric is not a recipe or set of instructions on how to do the project. It is a vision of what the final product could look like, but the way the students get to the final product is up to them and their design.

Projects designed to embrace holiday and seasonal themes -- and timed to coincide with the holiday schedule -- can relieve pressure on the teacher, enthuse students, and keep them learning and engaged up to the last moment.

What have you found that works well for helping students stay on track during the holiday season? Please share in the comments section below.

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