I love roller coasters and the mechanics of coasters. I love how on the newer coasters, linear-induction motors use electromagnets to launch the passengers in their cars quickly up the first hill. You get that moment to look around, eyes wide, before gravity and momentum do their work.
I think of the beginning of my school year in much the same way. How will I launch the students quickly and excitedly, so that their enthusiasm continues their trajectory toward deeper learning? In the project-based learning world, this is called the entry event. But in the wider world of education, there’s also a place for an entry event, not just to catapult students through the introduction of an individual project, but through the introduction to the school year itself. After all, the students’ year is its own roller coaster of learning.
The Entry Event Launches the Five Cs
In education, we talk about the four Cs of 21st-century learning: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. I’d like to make a case for adding a fifth: curiosity. According to the Harvard Business Review, one’s curiosity quotient is as valuable as one’s IQ. An entry event helps blast the students off into learning, and can be compared to the hook in an essay or article. An entry event is about exposing students to something that gets them generating questions from minute one. It’s about getting students excited and curious to see what happens next.
By beginning a unit with an entry event, you’ll trigger both rigor and engagement right off the bat.
Examples of Entry Events
Starting a unit of study with an entry event makes for an explosive start, an academic Big Bang, as it were. It’s that metaphorical opening curtain that unveils the start of the learning in a way that generates questions, discussion, and excitement.
Imagine knowing that your students will be working on biomes first quarter and starting the unit by introducing them via video chat to a guest speaker from a local national park.
Before beginning reading Lord of the Flies with your students, imagine them entering the classroom to find that there are fake vines dripping from the ceiling, and the desks have all been overturned to form forts and barricades. Trevor Hershberger, a high school English teacher from California and a member of the California Writing Project, started his literature unit in just that way.
He recalls,“My students came in the room with uncertainty. Some had their mouths wide open, some were beaming from ear to ear, and still others had eyes like saucers. The word on all of their lips was ‘Whoa.’ They looked around like they had just stepped into a whole other world. This was not the same English classroom it was yesterday.”
Imagine launching a unit of study with the theme “What makes a hero?” and exploring the concept of heroism by comparing a picture of Superman with one of Mattress Mac, the real-life hero who opened up his mattress warehouse to people made homeless during the 2017 floods in Texas.
Examples of entry events include: a clip from a movie, an item that students have never seen before, a guest speaker, a commercial, an image, and an atypical classroom environment.
You can also launch with a website or informational reading, of course, but remember that the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text alone. Visuals can also activate emotions and feelings far more quickly and with greater force than mere text. And with students, if you can attach strong emotions to the content area, you’re more likely to engage them from the start. I encourage you to save the informational reading for the research, not the entry event. Remember, the goal of the entry event is to engage.
Use Entry Events All Year Long
What are ways you can launch your units by setting an engaging and rigorous tone that causes a buzz in the classroom from the get-go? Keep a list of entry events that you might want to try throughout the school year. Going back to the roller coaster metaphor: That initial linear-induction motor only gets the passengers so far and over so many hills and gravitational challenges. Have other entry events in your toolbox so that when you feel engagement lagging or the rigor of your class starting to really inspire some sweat, you can whip out that event and catapult students up the next hill.