George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

The 8 Minutes That Matter Most

Like a story, lessons deserve compelling beginnings and endings. From pop culture connections to finishing with a level-up, here are eight strategies for holding students' attention.

I am an English teacher, so my ears perk up when writers talk about their process. I've found the advice handy for lesson planning, too. That's because both writing and planning deal with craft.

In writing, you want your audience to be absorbed. You want them to care about your characters. You want them be delighted by the suspense. That's not easy to pull off, and it's just as hard in the classroom. So when writers pull back the curtain on what they do, I pay attention. I look at the ways in which they create drama and tension. I study how their twists and turns pace a story much like the transitions of a lesson. I am also fascinated by rituals.

John Irving, the author of The Cider House Rules, begins with his last sentence:

I write the last line, and then I write the line before that. I find myself writing backwards for a while, until I have a solid sense of how that ending sounds and feels. You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin.

That is the crux of lesson planning right there -- endings and beginnings. If we fail to engage students at the start, we may never get them back. If we don't know the end result, we risk moving haphazardly from one activity to the next. Every moment in a lesson plan should tell.

The eight minutes that matter most are the beginning and endings. If a lesson does not start off strong by activating prior knowledge, creating anticipation, or establishing goals, student interest wanes, and you have to do some heavy lifting to get them back. If it fails to check for understanding, you will never know if the lesson's goal was attained.

Here are eight ways to make those eight minutes magical.


1. Trend With YouTube

YouTube reaches more 18- to 34-year-olds than any cable channel. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to it every minute. There's something for every grade, subject, and approach on YouTube. Not only does it make learning HD visible, it also allows teachers to make connections that could never happen before. I had my students draw comparisons between Carl Sandberg's poem "Chicago” and the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem. Fifteen years ago, I would have had to keep my finger on the record button of my VCR remote and pray for it to air. YouTube makes anticipatory sets a whole lot easier.

2. Start With Good News

If you want to create a safe space for students to take risks, you won't get there with a pry bar. Edutopia blogger Todd Finley starts his classes with two minutes of sharing good news. Classrooms that celebrate success build the comfort necessary for students to ask critical questions, share ideas, and participate in honest and open discussions. Starting with celebrations is a short, easy way to get there.

3. Cross Disciplines

Toss a football around the class before you teach the physics of a Peyton Manning spiral. Play a song that makes a classical allusion for your mythology unit. Measure the angles of a Picasso painting in math class. Integrating other disciplines teaches students that ideas and concepts do not stand alone but rather exist within a wider web of knowledge. Starting with another discipline can open their senses to deeper learning.

4. Write for 5

Kelly Gallagher says that students should write four times as much as a teacher can grade. Students need to write -- a lot -- if they are to improve. One way to achieve that is to start each day with an essential question that students must spend five minutes answering. If done day after day, it becomes ritualistic and builds stamina. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have a diverse list of essential questions.


1. Level Up

GameStop operates 6,457 retail stores throughout the world. It's no secret that kids love video games, partly because of the constant reward for reaching new levels and earning higher rankings. This creates a sense of accomplishment, competency, and worth. Teachers can play upon this need and develop levels of proficiency based on standards. At the end of a lesson, have students chart their own progress toward mastery based on standards. A popular game offers beginner, heroic, legendary, and mythic as levels, and they may be just the right motivation to get reluctant learners to overachieve.

2. Exit Tickets

Robert Marzano classifies exit tickets into four different categories: formative assessment data, student self analysis, instructional strategy feedback, and open communication. However they are used, they provide quick and comprehensive bits of data and feedback. Wiggins and McTighe also have a comprehensive list of checks for understanding.

3. Mimic Social Media

The digital world's spirit of collaboration and connection can be replicated in the physical classroom as bulletin boards become mock social media spaces to share ideas. Erin Klein has written about the positive ways to use of Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram in the classroom. In the final four minutes, you can challenge students to compose a tweet or find an image best capturing the learning that occurred.

4. Post-It Power

Another way to create a positive classroom climate beyond the "good news" start is to end with notes of influence. Have students write one thing that they learned from someone else in class on a Post-it note and stick it to the chalkboard. At the start of the next day, read these notes aloud. This affirms that a classroom is a community of learners and validates participation because it does so much more than answer a question -- it helps others understand more deeply.

How do you begin and end lessons in your classroom?

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Scott Rosenkranz's picture
Scott Rosenkranz
Teacher and Ed Tech Developer

I start with a prompt that creates disequilibrium in the minds of my students. While they wrestle with that in writing, I use the Oncore app to do formative assessment on some of their work. This maximizes my time and theirs.

Jennifer Santiago's picture

Thanks for the ideas. Always trying to find more ideas to use in the classroom so that things don't get too monotonous and the same everyday. I feel like I am in a rut then and so do the students.

Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

Your ideas are very impressive and very helpful when it comes to education. Thanks a lot for sharing.

Scott Tuffiash's picture

Found your post after reading an article about the 8 minute lecture:

I typed "8 minute lecture from a high school teacher" in a Google search and your blog was the top hit. I am so glad it was - and that you took time to share these excellent strategies for teaching in 2016, especially being an AP English teacher. Great boost for me as a fellow English teacher and soon-to-be AP Eng Lang teacher as well. Knowing your work load is likely the same as mine, constant grading and commenting on student writing for instance, makes your advice extremely practical for me as well. Thank you.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

If you need any help getting started with AP Lang, please let me know. I'd be happy to share some resources with you.

judyd123's picture

YouTube is an excellent activating strategy for younger students. I use YouTube with my kindergarten students. You can find all kinds of videos to cover a wide range of skills. Exit tickets are a great way to check for understanding. This is a good article.

Eric Summers's picture

This was a great. I agree that the beginning of the lesson and ending are the most important aspects of a lesson. If you can't grab your students attention at the beginning you will lose them and the lesson will be almost pointless. You gave some really good idea to help draw their attention. The ways that you describe especially relate to them by using things like YouTube, and mimicking social media since this is what students are generally enthralled with at this point. You have definitely given me some great ideas to carry over in to this school year and I appreciate that!

Aryah Fradkin's picture

Have you ever used content aligned computer games that teach content as a hook or a formative assessment? Do you find that there are any literature content aligned games that serve this purpose?

worldhistoryteacher's picture

I get the point, and it's certainly not bad advice; quite the contrary, but I disagree.

The classes high point should be somewhere in the middle towards the end or near the end of class. (Yes, if you lose them before then the point is moot.) My point is what is the big takeaway? Where should it fall? The closer to the end, without being right at the end, the better. Think of a novel.

If you're going to have something fun, I suggest placing it at the end - as a coda or a fun reward and not the beginning. So, I might suggest moving some of the beginnings suggested to the end.

One thing not to do is start with a bang followed by a 50 minute whimper. I would fear that some of the beginning suggestions would do that. If one did this type of lesson day after day the students turn out.

Would love to hear from those who agree and disagree.

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