George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Engagement

3 Ways to Be Less Boring

To avoid turning into that boring teacher, try waiting longer for student responses, teaching "do not call on me" signals, and enjoying these young people for who they are.
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"Be less boring." That's a low bar for us as teachers. However, improvement is implicit in this command. Face it: some days, trying to be slightly less boring is all we have, while on other days, we feel like we could make the study of prairie grasses fascinating to fifth-grade kids. I've been on both ends of the spectrum.

Here are three ideas that might help you be less boring.

1. Use Wait Time Two

We all know what wait time is -- ask a question and then give students time to think before calling on someone. If we increase wait time from one to three seconds, student responses become 400-800 percent longer, speculative and predictive thinking increase by as much as 700 percent, and low achievers contribute up to 37 percent more. Joseph P. Riley II shares his research about this in "The Effects of Teachers' Wait-Time and Knowledge Comprehension Questioning on Science Achievement."

If you're already good at wait time one, try wait time two. Wait time two is the amount of time that you allow after a student's initial answer before speaking or calling on another student. I'm terrible at wait time two. I know this because when I force myself to wait for three seconds after a student responds, my class starts looking around to see what's wrong. If this wait time were typical, then students would be building on one another's answers instead of waiting for me to validate the previous response. Again, we have good intentions for not giving wait time two. We want to encourage the student who has responded, build on it, and bridge to the next concept or question. However, this stops good thinking that might be going on in the classroom and tacitly communicates that teachers are the purveyors of all knowledge.

Closing my mouth makes class much more interesting for students and me. The evidence? I hear far more about their thinking.

2. Try "Do Not Call On Me" Signals

Teachers have a Pavlovian response to hand raising. When we see a hand go up, we want to call on that student. Many of us have learned to fight that urge so that we increase wait time or include other students, but we still struggle with what to do about those students who don't raise their hands.

I implemented a policy that required students to signal when they don't want me to call on them. The signal was making eye contact with me and giving me a smile. Anything else (e.g., looking out the window, making eye contact with a friend, scratching a head) was a signal to be called on. This put the onus on unready-to-speak-up students to engage with me while reducing their own anxiety about being called on -- they were already giving me eye contact.

In an era of learning walks, instructional rounds, and unannounced observations, this method has another interesting advantage. When my principal would enter the room during any type of whole-class instruction, she would see me asking numerous higher-order questions. Sometimes I overestimated what students would know or be willing to share in these interactions. On two occasions, she complimented my classes for being particularly attentive and engaged because all of them were making eye contact and smiling at me while I asked questions. When she left the room, after a slight delay to ensure that she was out of earshot, my students erupted in laughter because they knew the reason why they looked so engaged -- none of them knew the answers to my overzealous questions!

3. Enjoy Your Students

Your enjoyment of teaching is essential to being less boring. I spent a good portion of this past February and March observing in high school classrooms. At least in Midwestern middle and high schools, these months can feel like the educational doldrums. Teaching the same content class after class, year after year, in cold, gray February can be as soul-sucking as a Dementor's kiss. . .

. . . if our focus is on the what rather than the who.

Students can be an endless source of entertainment for teachers. The way they understand and apply new concepts is what keeps teaching fresh for me at whatever grade level I'm teaching. When middle school science students ask, "Doesn't organic mean plastic?" or "I thought inertia was a disease," I am fascinated because I'm seeing my teaching through students' clouded eyes. To remain humble and entertained, I have a journal filled with 20 years of fascinating "insights" from the elementary to college students that I've taught.

Never lose your sense of humor -- it will make you less boring and is probably essential to maintaining your sanity.

Do you have any suggestions for being less boring? I'm certainly interested. Please share in the comments below.

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Gray Rinehart's picture

Nice post. I always found that silence was my friend in terms of wait times. And I appreciate the admonishment to enjoy the students -- it's best when the process is pleasant for everybody.

Thanks,
G

Theresa Rodriguez's picture

I had a hardy laugh at your students smiling while they made eye contact with you, and your principal misreading the situation. It supports your 3rd point of enjoying your students!

Bill Fischer's picture

I'm going to try those tips with my college students! At KCAD our faculty and students partner with k12 teachers to create engaging educational media that supports teacher-student interaction. Check it out at www.epicsite.org. It's all free for use.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

My motto has and always will be that I am more than happy to make a fool of myself if it helps my students learn. I think that high school kids especially, while they seem jaded on the surface, appreciate that willingness to just put myself out there. (This sometimes means a little dance to display a grammar point--you should see my colon explanation!)
LOVE the point about the wait, and I also am so positive that I don't do that.
Now, I'm struggling to conduct discussions with a group of mixed age elementary students. A whole other beast.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I don't know if this is "less boring," but when I want my students to be ready to participate in any kind of discussion, I try to make sure that they first read and annotate some kind of text. Prior to the discussion, they highlight a couple points from the article and their annotations so that they are ready to participate when called on. If we are reading a novel together, they take a few minutes prior to the discussion to list questions and topics from the novel that they think we should discuss. Cold-calling on students just sets them up to freeze!

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