Student Engagement

Your Lesson’s First Five Minutes: Make Them Grand

April 15, 2013
Photo credit: jonas_in_china via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If you have ever lived with another person and come home to find them in a bad mood, how long did it take you to figure it out? Hours? Minutes? Seconds? Most people say "seconds," and some can tell before they even enter the same room. That's how children feel when they enter your classroom. They can tell within a minute or so whether they will like it or not. Research says within the first five minutes, but I think it’s faster.

Once that attitude is formed, it takes a lot to change it. So teachers are best served by following the example of television shows that often make the first five minutes the best of the show so the audience won't change the channel. Great writers write so you will turn the page and not put the book down. Here are three of my favorite ways of beginning lessons to make them grand. Most of you already do some of these sometime, but I suggest that you do more of them more often.

1. Do Something You Love Every Day

Find either something you love to teach or some way you love teaching it if the topic doesn’t excite you. Do this every day. Think twice about looking forward to doing it: once when you leave the house and once when you enter the classroom. If you teach more than one subject, then do the same for each one. Energy is contagious. The students will read your positive energy as: "Today is going to be a good class." It's the opposite feeling from walking into your home and finding the one you live with in a bad mood. That should be reason enough to do it.

2. Use Teasers

I learned about teasers by watching the news on television. After every segment the announcer says, "Coming up . . . " with the hope that viewers will be interested enough in finding out what's coming up that they won't change the channel. "Coming up, a world figure has just died. Stay tuned for details." Some younger readers might not recall the best teaser I ever heard, but those who heard it will never forget: "Coming up, the Vice President shoots someone, right after a word from our sponsors." The Dick Cheney hunting incident occurred on February 11, 2006. This was followed by the announcement that Dick Cheney had an accident while hunting quail, but I misunderstood and thought he shot Dan Quayle. "Why did he try to shoot an ex-vice president?" I wondered. It really grabbed my attention.

Teasers work the same way in the classroom. Start with a provocative statement about the upcoming lesson. Sometimes they can be used to end the previous lesson. "Tomorrow we will learn an amazing thing that happens when you touch the belly of certain African frogs -- see you tomorrow."

Which of the following math and English class beginnings would motivate you more?

  • Today we are going to learn about functions. Take out your math books and turn to page 87.
  • Today we are going to see how functions are used in making computer games.


  • Today we are going to start a unit on Shakespeare. Please take out Twelfth Night, and we'll begin reading.
  • Today we're going to see why some people think Shakespeare is sexier than Madonna. Let’s start reading.

Teasers have two requirements to work effectively. First, there must be a tease that is related to the subject. A boring or irrelevant teaser is useless. Secondly, your teasers must deliver. After two or three that don’t live up to their billing, students are no longer motivated by teasers. If you say you're going to connect mathematical functions to computer games, then be sure to deliver. Great teasers take a while to develop, but I have found that once I started using them, they became a normal part of my teaching style, and now I can think of them on the spot without pre-planning.

3. Use Compelling Questions

Have you ever forgotten the name of a song, a book title or even someone's name and spent the whole day trying to remember it? It was under your skin, so to speak, and the need to remember was compelling to the extreme. The same is true when you begin a class with a question that creates a compelling need for students to know the answer. This strategy is based on the principle that questions should come before answers. Typically, teachers give information and then ask questions about it. Hearing the question first, especially a great one, radically increases the need to learn the information just to find the answer. Great questions have these things in common:

  1. They are related to the subject you're teaching.
  2. They amplify the students' natural sense of wonder.
  3. They challenge the students' belief of the way things are.

Here is a sampling of compelling questions that teachers from various content areas have shared with me:

  • Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with Algebra? Answer: they both are concerned with equality.
  • First grade science (studying particles): What is the smallest thing you ever held in your hand?
  • Upper elementary history (studying the Pilgrims): Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
  • Elementary art: If humans had to be a color other than any color they already are, what color would you choose? Why? Draw some people of this color.
  • High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
  • High school social studies: If Napoleon spread nationalism, how did nationalism bring him down?
  • Middle school English: Why don't "good" and "food" rhyme?

Questions like these begin your class with energy, excitement and most importantly, a desire to learn.

I can’t wait to submit my next post -- because it will be based on one of my favorite topics, and one that will change the way you think about teaching. It's coming up next month.

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