Easy Add-ins improving Student Engagement

Do you have your preferred teaching style down? So do I.  Are your students reaching academic success? So are mine. Like any good teacher though, I am actively seeking to improve. So are you. Rather than completely overhaul what works, let me take the good base that I have and build upon it.Hand Raising Desk Slapping

What experience tells me: 
Passive students tend to
fall behind in my class.
What do you add into your lessons to improve student engagement?  Here are two, tried-and-true routines:

Hand Raising (non-traditional sense)
Are students really thinking about what is being said in class?  
Force students to commit to an opinion: Raise your hand if you agree. Raise your hand if you disagree. Raise your hand if you don’t know but are participating. It’s good to participate.

Check their pulse:  Raise your hand if you love your momma. Raise your hand if you’re breathing. Raise your hand if you want to go home.   Can you visualize the hands that go up on that last line? What academic purpose does it serve to have students admit to wanting to go home?  Little, unless you value that the majority of students just responded to a verbal prompt and voluntarily chose to be actively involved in the lesson. Perhaps the student zoning out suddenly sees the entire class putting their hand up, raises his as well, and mentally ponders/chides, “Why are we raising our hands? I better start paying attention.”  Perhaps the platform for student voice (albeit canned and highly structured) earns the exercise a point.  Running these type of statements in trios hopefully provides everyone with an entry point. Personally, knowing that students are still listening and processing what is being pushed out is reassuring.

Do you ever sense that your secondary students get tired of raising their hands?   Surely an active response can take other forms.  Our elementary counterparts mix it up with clapping.   Poetry units at the secondary level often welcome snapping.  In my high school Algebra class, a resounding slap of the desk does the trick. Clapping, Snapping, Slapping — it really is all on the same train.

Desk Slapping
In my opinion, slapping requires the least investment of the student (only one hand, no fancy finger configurations), has sound appeal, and is less socially taboo for teenagers (perhaps because of its affiliation with violence).
One rule: No repetitive slaps.
Some of the more refined 9th grade classes give their desk a little love pat.  However, a few classes will truly SLAP their desk with oomph.  This almost in unison thunder clap invigorates both teacher and students.  As I like to say (and my students groan), it supports the learning momentum.  Weak slappers sometimes improve at this request:  Slap your desk if you were right.  A prideful nature should be exploited.  Are you considering trying out the technique for the first time? Use in conjunction with a question that has a high probability of correct response in the middle of a difficult lesson. (Don’t explain, just call it out. Repetitive slaps can be channeled later on. Sales pitches can be given later as well.)

Like any novelty, either of the above techniques overused will lose its charm.

What easy student involvement techniques do you use in your classroom?  

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
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Making Vocabulary Fun with Quizlet!

Slide1Finding ways to make my English Language Arts class interactive can be a challenge. I like having students up and moving but need to make sure that the movement strongly correlates with the learning objectives for a lesson. One option I came up with dealt with learning the common vocabulary that appears on our state achievement tests.

My students had been working with a long list (50 words) of literary terms that show up over and over on our state test. Many of my students were performing at a non-proficient level so my hope was that if they at least reviewed all the words they’d have a better chance of understanding the questions.

After they had defined the words and found examples I put each word and it’s definition into a set on the website Quizlet.com. I shared the link with all the students so they could study at home. (You can set up a class and invite each student- there are even apps for the site!) But, more to the point, I was able to project the games onto my interactive white board and have students come up in pairs to race! The game that worked best was called “Scatter.”
Students had to match the word with the term by dragging them across the screen. Each group got really into it and tried to beat the time of the other teams. I think students like a sense of competition. Everyone is successful because you get as much time as you need and if a match doesn’t work you get to try again. I think this helped students who were struggling to still have a sense of success.

We also used the flashcard feature to review as a whole class.

Overall, this technique of studying seemed to work well and was a good way to mix it up. We played other games and did other activities with the vocabulary, but the students got the biggest kick out of this one.

How do you get students up and moving in your classroom?

TPT ProfileSara Fuller is a 5 year veteran English teacher with an MA in literature who has experience teaching students ranging from the middle school to college level. She blogs about her teaching adventures at Ms. F’s Teaching Adventures and young adult books at YA Lit, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly!
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Active Learning with Stay & Stray

When-we-keep-studentsWhy do so many teachers expect students to sit and listen to lectures when the research shows the strong connection between physical activity and learning? In fact, Eric Jensen, author of the book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, says, “When we keep students active, we keep their energy levels up and provide their brains with the oxygen-rich blood needed for highest performance. Teachers who insist that students remain seated during the entire class period are not promoting optimal conditions for learning.”

Maybe teachers are reluctant because they think it will require more time to prepare lessons that involve movement, or perhaps they are worried student behavior will get out-of-control.  However, in my experience students are often more engaged and well-behaved when they are allowed to get out of their seats in my English classroom.  Here is any easy activity to get students moving and also working together.

Stay and Stray:  Lots of teachers activate background knowledge before starting a new concept, and this is just twist on the traditional KWL chart.  First, students work individually to write a list for what they already know about the topic.  After they write their lists, they then turn to a partner sitting next to them and share their ideas.  Next, they square with another pair of students and create one long list that complies all of their information.  At this point, they choose one student to stray and circulate to all of the other groups in the room, collecting new information from all of the groups.  In the meantime, the remaining group members stay so they can share their lists with the visitors from the other groups.  When the student who has strayed returns to her original group, she adds the new information to the group’s paper, and all read a text on the concept together.  After reading, they do the following with the information on their lists:  put a check next to any information they found to be true, circle any information that contradicts information they thought to be true, add two – three new facts that were not already on the lists.  Finally, the each group chooses at least one thing to share from its list and reading to share in whole-class discussion.

I often use this at the beginning of a unit in American Literature to provide context for the time period.  For instance, my students would do this activity at the beginning of their readings from the Civil War era, and our textbook has several sections with nonfiction reading at the beginning of each unit.  Since our students also take United States History around the same time as they take my class, they often come with facts they have learned in social studies.  It reinforces their learning from the history class and helps them construct knowledge as they prepare for literature in my class!


OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.
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Movies in the Classroom

Showing movies in the classroom can be a controversial issue.  There are some teachers who believe it takes away from better learning opportunities.  Others who just don’t feel they have the time to spend (or waste) on movies.

But, movies in the high school classroom can have great benefits for our Movies in the Classroomstudents.  Please hear me out (and not just because I created two semesters worth of the hugely popular Movies vs. Books course for my reluctant alternative high school students who “hate” English class.  I made these kids slog through Frankenstein… and they did so happily! )

Movies in the classroom must have purpose to be beneficial to the students. With purpose, movies can add active learning and higher level thinking.  Plus, it helps to get students interested and engaged.  Movies do not have to be treated as a treat or a waste, but rather as an alternate medium for learning.  Reactions to a video can be a part of active learning, as students enjoy the process and can apply what they have learned.  (Some times a snippet will suffice.  Sometimes a longer section or whole movies is better– the ending of a story can change everything).

And the movie doesn’t have to be accurate.  Some of the most engaging discussions in my aforementioned Movies vs. Books was when the movie version was so far from the book, that the students are appalled (the 1931 Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein, for example).  And without any prompting from me they would being to discuss the differences, the characterization, mood, and more.

These discussions– active learning and student directed– are only one of the ways a movie can foster higher-level thinking.  In my classes, I honed my Movie vs. Book comparison activity for students to evaluate which version is better– any why?   Some of my students really struggled with supporting their preference at first (resulting in many revisions to this activity to guide and push them to do so anyway).  But they rarely complained about the work that went into making the comparison or taking a position– which is in contrast to the complaints about all the other work in the class.  (And yet, they would regularly sign up for a second term!)

It’s not just the ELA classroom where movies can be useful to begin discussions, get students interested, and provide a medium to apply what they have learned.  One of my science colleagues would show The Day After Tomorrow and have students explain all that was wrong with the weather, for example.  There are plenty of horrible inaccurate history movies to chose from as well.

Plus, shhh… movies are great for those highly distractable times, like before Winter or Spring break.


CDickson Profile PicClair Dickson, high school English teacher, likes free eTexts and Project Based Learning to stretch her meager budget.  Visit her store High School English on a Shoestring Budget to stretch your budget.

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Friday Feature – Trashketball

I hate to admit it, but the truth is that there have been times during my 16 years as an English teacher when someone could hear a pin drop in the classroom. Although this might seem like a good situation, the silence wasn’t because my students were enthralled with their learning. In fact, an observer might have seen a few heads down on desks, and maybe even heard a little snoring.
But as most English teachers know, making grammar an exciting topic to learn can seem like a Herculean task. While grammar may be fascinating to fellow English teachers (we can talk about comma splices for an entire lunch period), most secondary students (and many adults) could care less about parts of speech, kinds of sentences, types of phrases, or innumerable other grammar concepts. And in the past, it didn’t help that I had resorted to boring lectures and worksheet practice.
However, happily this all changed a few years ago with the help of a student intern. He told me about a game that he played in his science class called “Trashketball.”


Image Copyright © 2014 Craig Costantino

It is brilliant! Students review concepts and shoot baskets into a trash can! My students love it because the game gets them out of their seats and motivates them with their love of sports. In our school, we have 90 minute class periods, and anyone who has had to sit for an hour and a half, can most likely commiserate with my students.
Additionally, the game encourages friendly competition because the teacher arranges the class into teams. This team approach is an excellent way to meet the needs of all students when they are arranged in heterogeneous groups. The rules also encourage students to work together on their teams to solve the answers; they can keep trying to find a correct answer even after they have made a mistake.
The game doesn’t require many materials, and my Trashketball products make it easy to play! I provide power point Trashketball games that include detailed rules and explanations for both the students and the teacher. Furthermore, each game provides a brief review of its topic and includes several rounds of practice exercises. My top-selling game reviews verbal phrases, but there are a variety of games to play addressing multiple concepts. Here are a few:

Pronoun and Antecedent Agreement       SAT PracticeAntecedent hhAkgr  nneeme
Pronoun and Antecedent AgreementSAT Practice

Or even get a bundle that can last 8 weeks!
CoverGrammar Trashketball Review Bundle

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.
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Active Learning: True/False Chairs

Really, could I help being nosy when I happened upon Master Teacher Lisa lining up chairs in the hallway? Were her students going to play musical chairs?  This I had to see.True False chairs pin image How fortuitous to come back early from lunch! My wait wasn’t long as eight students filled the middle chairs.  The end polar chairs had true and false distinctions and remained empty.  Each side of four comprised a team.  Each team was required to select a name dealing with money.  Credit Captains and Money Thug$ listened skeptically as the directions were explained.

Directions: The back-to-back pair in the blue seats would compete.  A true or false question would be read.  The first runner to sit in the correct answer chair would score a point for their team.  Each team would then slide down a seat so that a new pair was sitting in the hot spot.

The first student run was halfhearted, I admit, but the seasoned teacher simply smiled and continued as before.  By the third question, the spirit of competition kicked in, and the race was truly on.  Prior to the game, a student had to be admonished by the instructor to get their feet off the locker.  Now to create a clear path, teammates were saying, “Tuck in your feet.” Students in the hot seat stretched out their legs toward one chair and leaned forward. With no incentive, no carrot prize dangling at the end of the game, one of the Thug$ began chanting (very unthuggishly), “T-H-U-G, Thug,” each time a point was scored.   Students automatically slid down without being asked.   The student population you wonder?  A mixed ability CTE class of high school sophomores and juniors.  Where were the other students? Diligently playing a game with special cards in the nearest classroom. Differentiation and Active Learning — Teaching at its best!

Could this game be used in other content areas?
Well, would a large bank of True or False questions be useful to other subjects?  The questions were delivered orally somewhat limiting the complexity of the question. (Should the first three questions be fairly easy, almost sample questions to get the game going?) Why limit the chairs to True or False? Interpreting the discriminant Do you have topics that require snap determination? For example, in Algebra students must interpret the discriminant of a quadratic equation. There are three rather than two possibilities, but why couldn’t we add a middle section. Obviously a normal chair wouldn’t work in the middle, but a stool or square on the floor created by masking tape would. Students could make a snap decision about Linear Systems. There are three types of systems: consistent independent, consistent dependent, and inconsistent (or intersecting, parallel, or coinciding lines). Why not Evaluating Expressions? Create a series of expressions that simplify to either 0 or 1 [Ex: 3^0, 3^2-3(3), 0/(pi + 4)]. Another possibility is perhaps Simplifying Radicals. Are these radicals simplified as far as possible: Yes or No? For Algebra, a visual representation of the question seems imperative but easy to add.

new possibility

Could you expand to include four teams?

How could this game be used in your subject area?

Thanks Lisa for sharing!

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
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Active Learning?

Active Learning Mash-up
Active Learning mashup
Mozilla Popcorn Maker is a nifty online tool that allows you to mash-up online videos. The above is my first finished mash-up. Let’s see if WordPress will allow me to share! Hint: Pause the video and let it render a minute before watching. This mash-up is live streaming four different videos.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
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