“Why am I here?… like… what is the point of this?” Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, this question has no doubt reverberated through your mind during a staff meeting or professional development session. As adults, we value our time.
Children are no different. As members of a learning community, I believe, every child is entitled to ask, “Why am I here?” This is inquiry. More important, this question may be the only chance we get to harvest the attention of a student who has directed their curiosity elsewhere. We can do this by bookending class with the answer to the question of “Why?” At the beginning of class, instructors should establish the relevance of the lesson. At the end of class, establish the lesson’s purpose.
Introduce the lesson by establishing relevance
My intention at the onset of class is fixed on a critical question: “Why does this matter?” I think of the introduction as my hook, so I always ask myself:
“What is the bait?”
“If I am a student, why would I or why should I bite?”
Here, I try to think from the sight line of uninterested children. Not all students arrive in the classroom with high levels of conscientiousness—inherently responsible, goal oriented, persistent, ready to be challenged, and eager to learn. Most students need to be shown why they should develop those habits. The work of engagement begins with a succulent morsel (the bait), attractive to students, attached to a relevant instructional curiosity.
The easiest way to do this is by finding a theme or concept present in the lesson to connect with something relevant to the kids. For instance, in teaching middle school students to describe how characters change as the plot moves toward resolution—like Brian in Hatchet or Jonas in The Giver—I would begin the class with a set of pictures for the students to choose from, making intentional choices in representation of race and gender. I might offer Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader or Miles Morales and Spider-Man or Shuri and Black Panther.
Students respond to the images because they help to create relevance. They might think: Why does Miles Morales matter to me? Because I just saw Spider-Man last week and I have not stopped talking about it with my friends—during class, no less. Why does Shuri matter to me? Because she’s a strong Black girl, just like me, just like my sister.
Now, the instructional curiosity. This is where we can mess up a good thing by asking too specific of a question. We don’t need to lead the students. We just need to nurture an environment that allows their brains to do the work. Personally, I am a fan of the See, Think, Wonder strategy whenever using pictures as a hook. I would prompt the students to choose one of the characters and answer the following questions:
“What do you see?”
“What do you think about what you see?”
“What questions do you wonder about as you look at the picture?”
After four to five minutes of writing, I facilitate student discussion to connect their observations to the lesson of the day. If students do not arrive at the ideas about character development you would like to explore, you can ask probing questions to get there. The discussion generated from this exercise will allow you to preassess student understanding of how a character changes in relation to the plot. It will also provide you with connective tissue between student context and the literature as you explore Brian’s or Jonas’s development, which will give meaning to the time spent doing so.
Close the lesson by providing purpose
Fostering purpose for each lesson begins by asking this question (again from the student lens), “How can I use this?”
Sometimes the answer is evident. When teaching students how to introduce a claim and acknowledge a counterargument, a simple close may involve asking a couple of quick questions at the end of class:
“How many people in the room like losing arguments?”
“How many of you would really like to finally beat a sibling or parent or caregiver in an argument?”
After giving one to two minutes for the class to share out, this closing provides a purpose for the preceding class period: “Well, if you use the steps we learned today, you will be able make a stronger case the next time you want to borrow your brother’s hoodie or stay out past curfew. Have a great day, class. See you tomorrow.”
Sometimes, however, the answer is not so evident. Consider the previous example of describing how a character like Brian or Jonas develops as the plot progresses. When the answer is not so straightforward, we have to be creative and think about the holistic nature of teaching. For example, as the class examines the relationship between a character’s transformations and the circumstances of the plot, students may begin to think about shifts they see in themselves, friends, or family. You can ask questions like “Can you think of a time when someone you know began acting differently toward you? Are you comfortable sharing out?”
Again, after one to two minutes of sharing, we can close with a statement of purpose: “The next time I notice you are not the same today as you were yesterday, before I get upset or hurt, I can use what I’ve learned today: empathy. I can first ask myself or even ask you if something in the plot of your life has changed since we last saw each other. You can do the same. Until tomorrow, have a great day, class.” This kind of close entrusts meaning to a time that many students have difficulty assigning concrete value to. (As a bonus, you can even weave in questions that connect the skill being taught to the takeaway during the meat and potatoes of the lesson as a trail of breadcrumbs leading to closure at the end.)
As you are planning your lessons this year, take the extra time to think about each introduction and closing. How can you make each of these moments meaningful for students who sometimes do not want to be in school? You can effectively increase student engagement by cultivating relevance at the start and connecting the skills and content of the lesson with purpose at the close.