Student Engagement

Re-Energize Your Classroom in the New Year

Inviting student agency in the New Year encourages buy-in during the long winter months. Student ownership inspires new ways of engagement and more meaningful lessons.

January 4, 2016
Photo credit: Bruce Matsunaga via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The New Year is a wonderful time to start trying some new things. You've spent a good amount of time with your students and feel more comfortable exploring new strategies and practices that are more tailored to their learning needs. I want to share some great ideas that you can use to change things up for the second part of the year -- and that can also help beat the winter blues.

Student Interest Project

A great way to bring energy back into a classroom is to let students have more say in what's going on in the class. One way to do that is by giving them an opportunity to research a topic that interests them. This doesn't have to be a very long process, but it could turn into something much larger if you want. Just giving students the time to look up things of interest and share out with the class is a great way to develop their research and speaking skills. If you want to go the extra yard, have the students blog about their research. This gives them the opportunity to read and comment on their classmates' blogs as well. Young people are always excited to share things that they find interesting, so taking class time to validate what they care about can go a long way toward building strong student-teacher relationships.

Student as Teacher

One approach that I always use in the New Year is giving my students the chance to teach a portion of a particular unit. After seeing me teach for the first part of the year, they have a strong sense of how I deliver information and encourage discussion. I ask the students to take a topic in our unit and prepare a lesson for the class. They like the chance to show their peers -- and me -- what they think is important to know in the unit, and I get an opportunity to see how well my students understand information on their own. In this model, the teacher acts as a guide while students work on their topics, helping them with any comprehension issues that arise, but the students generally fly solo for this unit. It's a great way to build student confidence and work on organization and presentation skills while giving them some responsibility.

Genius Hour/20 Time

Edutopia has tons of great resources you can use for implementing 20 Time or Genius Hour. For example, check out:

Some might think that starting 20 Time or Genius Hour would not be possible this late in the school year, but that's far from the truth. There is always time for Genius Hour. Giving students a set time to explore something that they're passionate about is a great way to get students excited in the New Year. This approach goes beyond just doing a day of research and sharing on a blog post. It's designed to have students immerse themselves in a subject in every way possible. The teacher can tailor this time however he or she needs to get the most out of it. Maybe students could research a local problem and come up with a solution. The focus of Genius Hour might be design. There's plenty of room for flexibility, and the students are sure to be excited about an opportunity to take what they have learned in class and use it in a way that's meaningful to them.


Breakout rooms have been trending up in the past year, and teachers can now set up a breakout room in their own class thanks to BreakoutEDU. A breakout session is a complex set of puzzles that people need to solve in order to break out of a room. There's an underlying story that goes with the clues to tie everything together. This activity is the ultimate task in collaboration and problem solving. The BreakoutEDU box costs $99, but you can assemble your own box using their open-source list of goodies. I've done this with my students as a nice break, and they loved it! I also did this with the staff, and we all enjoyed ourselves. After sharing this activity with students, we had a fun debrief by discussing the ins and outs of how they were or were not able to break out of the room. BreakoutEDU gives you access to game narratives that you can use in the classroom and a template that allows you to create your own stories. When looking to change things up and inject some energy into the classroom, this is a great way to go.

I have found that turning things over to the students at the start of the New Year is a great way to get their buy-in during the start of the long winter months. When they feel a sense of ownership, they begin to engage in new ways that will make the lessons more meaningful in the long run. For many teachers, it might be a weird change to see their students taking so much more responsibility in the class, but this change of pace can be really helpful to young people looking for something different at this point in the school year.

All of these ideas can be adjusted for all grade levels. If you have any suggestions for spicing things up in the New Year, please leave them in the comments section below.

Happy New Year from the Nerdy Teacher!

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