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Active, Engaged and Learning

Helping Your Classroom Buzz with Excitement

By Jeri Asaro

Early spring is inching its way towards us. If you followed the advice listed in my last column, you know my belief is that January is for "taking back your classroom." Your school year is more than half-way over. Now that you have brought order back into what you do every day, March is a great month to try some new teaching ideas. Your students probably long for some surprises, and you could do with a step outside of your comfort zone. Undertaking new strategies during this time of year helps you to sample different approaches to add to next year's tool-kit. It keeps your teaching fresh, and you continue to learn.

It is a common belief that as teachers we should teach. The idea makes perfect sense. However, I urge you to reconsider that statement. Our role as teachers is to help our students to learn, and that does not necessarily mean we need to stand-up in front of a classroom and teach. Teacher-centered learning has a place, even on a daily basis, but a classroom where students are learning, takes the time to use student-centered strategies. Students need to be involved in their work, whether that means a lab experiment or an essay assignment. Teacher-facilitated and student-centered activities bring energy to the classroom. In the eyes of your students, you are showing them the benefits of the lesson in a more concrete format. Due to television and commercials, we are all trained for breaks every eight minutes. If you teach high school sophomores, you should not lecture for more than 15 minutes without an activity. Keep in mind; the average attention span of your students is the average age of the class. Most K-2 teachers use active learning strategies naturally as they are a necessity for survival. I encourage each of you to divide your lessons into smaller intervals mixing some teacher-centered ideas with student-centered activities so that students truly learn the material.

When you add tangible value to what is happening to your room, your class becomes enthusiastic to be there. Being in touch with your learners' perspectives makes any subject come alive to them. Achieving objectives becomes a student goal, rather than a teacher goal. Life skills are developed and expanded when communication skills are emphasized. As an educator, you become more alert and responsive to the needs of your students, and ultimately, the transfer of learning is more likely for them. Your subject comes alive to each and every learner. Simply put, the students enjoy it!

What are some strategies to consider? Let's start broad and simple.
  • Stimulate discussion. It is one of the most common strategies in promoting active learning. It helps to motivate students toward learning through application of the information within a new setting. It develops critical thinking skills. Successful discussions are not always easy. Here are some ideas to consider:
    1. Manage your classroom so that it is a supportive environment where students are encouraged to take risks without fear of being chastised or rejected.
    2. Use open-ended questions to persuade students to answer using higher-order thinking processes. At the end of this column, please find a listing of good websites based on Bloom's Taxonomy.
    3. For truly thought-provoking questions, give students a few minutes to write down their thoughts (how about a do-now activity as they enter the room), and then begin the discussion. Sharon Bowman, author of many books filled with active learning ideas, calls this activity the "One Minute Paper." (See a listing of her helpful books at the end of the column.) Some sample question starters include: "How does ?", "What is ?", "What are the differences between ?", and so on. Another good use of the One-Minute Paper is at the end of the class to ask questions like "What was the main point of today's class material?" "What was the "muddiest point" in today's lecture?" "What (if anything) do you find unclear about the concept of ?" You can take the same idea and use "the clearest point."
    4. Consider small-group dialogues before whole class discussion begins. When students speak in small groups first, they gain some confidence in their ideas. Sharing with the whole group, later in the lesson, becomes more likely.
    5. Use wait time when you ask the whole group a question. Give all students a chance to think for a minute and then join the discussion. Wait time is essential for both encouragement and achievement. Research shows that when wait time is increased to four-seven seconds, students respond more often and in a more thoughtful manner. Sometimes those seconds seem like hours, but they are worth the wait. Encourage all hands to be up and ready to share.
    6. After giving students a chance to think about your question, consider calling on students using a random method like popsicle sticks with students' names. This idea prevents you from always calling on the same three students.
    7. Allow your students to include you in the discussion, and do not be afraid of being caught without knowing the answer. You are human.
  • Try visual-based or audio-based instruction. It can be helpful in creating focal points for students. Use audio-clips or video-clips, and ask students to report their reactions to some facet of the material. If using a written response, ask students to provide an emotional or evaluative response. When using a video, or a long video-clip, this idea works great at a climatic point in the movie. Stop the movie, and force students to react or predict.
  • Mix lecture with active learning methods. As I said before, there is definitely a place for teacher-centered instruction in every classroom. Sometimes it is even appropriate every day for a short period of time, but if you want students to listen to the lecture, they need to take some ownership about what you are going to say.
    1. Try providing your students a list of important questions in advance of your topic, so they can take practical notes during the lecture process.
    2. Have students jot down their questions during the lecture, and take breaks from time-to-time to discuss those questions.
    3. During your lecture, ask students pointed questions which force them to make connections to prior knowledge.
  • Ask questions all throughout any lesson. Effective teachers do not ask all of their questions as the end of the discussion, class period, video, chapter, novel, lecture, or meeting. The same is true for your students' questions. Do not make them hold those questions until the end.
  • Use journal writing or writing prompts in all disciplines. They are a great way to settle down a class quickly, and a productive idea for involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing. Journaling ideas in all disciplines can be easily found on the internet. A great quote about your discipline is also a thought-provoking writing and discussion idea, and many of the state-mandated tests use quotations in assessing student writing.
  • Consider the life skill of reading as a way to get students involved in your topic. We all know that the more we read, the more we comprehend, the better we write, and the more our vocabulary develops into one that is age-appropriate. These skills should not be saved for English class or homework. Within the classroom period, have students read silently or in a round-robin fashion. The reading activities should be kept short and should be assessed in some fashion, but time needs to be made to show and encourage literacy in every discipline.
  • Promote problem-solving activities. When students learn to listen and rely on each other, they become a cohesive group. Brain-teasers, word-games, Sukudo, and riddles of all types work very well and can easily be found in books and on the internet. Small group, mini-activities in all disciplines can encourage team-building.
  • Facilitate cooperative learning, in the true sense of the words. Within a group, students each take on roles with separate responsibilities, and they come together to share ideas and produce a product whether it be a poster, a graphic organizer, a PowerPoint, or something extraordinary. If facilitated well, students love to work in groups, and they learn well in groups that are properly run. Teamwork skills, which will be needed in the workplace in years to come, are emphasized. But, cooperative learning should only be one tool to use in your tool-kit. Cooperative learning is a very specific strategy, and you should research how it works before you begin a cooperative group idea in your classroom.
  • Attempt some project-based ideas which often take a few class periods, but more often than not, they meet many of the state standards. Debates, panel discussions, jigsaw activities, drama, role-playing, service-learning, simulation, student creative construction or writing, peer teaching, peer-editing, using technology and creative software programs all encourage active learning. Project-based learning is more upfront work for the teacher, but while you are in the classroom with your students, you gain the time back. Students are active and working, while you circulate and facilitate.
The aforementioned ideas are all rather broad, but what small concrete ideas can you try right away -- just to add a little spice to the classroom environment? Through my travels, I have found some great and easy-to-understand books with terrific ideas. At the end of the column, I have listed those book references for you. Below are my tried and true favorites obtained through many years of research. Trust me; I did not think of all of these ideas on my own. Observations, internet research, reading great books, and practicing what I saw in action elsewhere provided me with many great options.

Any of these easy, student-centered ideas could be added to your tool-kit tomorrow, but I encourage you to take baby steps. Try just a few in a week to see how they work, and then force yourself to give them a chance to develop. The first time, depending on the age of your students, you might see some eye-rolling and hesitation, but that reaction does not mean that students do not want to do these activities. Explain to your classes that you want to try some new ideas so that your class is more interesting for them. In my years of teaching, I have never had a class that did not eventually give in and actually enjoy the activities. But, kids are kids they are going to give you a hard time at first.

View the full list
  • Three/Four Columns Before beginning your lecture, tell your learners to fold a piece of blank paper into three/four equal columns. At the top of each column, have them draw the following pictures (small): A book: for important facts; A light bulb: for new ideas or "aha" moments; A question mark for any questions they have during the lecture; (optional) A running stick figure for action plans. At different times during your lecture, stop and tell the students to write a word or phrase in the column or columns. Initially, you can guide this activity by saying, "In the book column, write down one important fact you just learned." Later on, students can share what they wrote with other students. An advanced organizer like this one gives students a reason to pay attention.
  • Pass it! After about 10-minutes of lecture, have students write down a question or a fact they just learned on an index card. Give a few minutes so students can process the information you just said. Have students pass the cards around so they are "shuffled" in the room. Using Popsicle sticks with student names randomly choose a student to share what is on the index card in front of them. Facilitate an answer to the question or have students offer more information about the fact, etc. You can also do this activity by only asking for questions and collect the cards during a break. Skim the cards and address with common questions after the break is complete.
  • Response to a demonstration, a teacher-centered activity, or a lecture - The students are asked to write a paragraph that begins with: I was surprised that ... I learned that ... I wonder about ... This writing activity allows the students to reflect on what they actually got out of the teachers' presentation. It also helps students realize that the activity was designed for more than just entertainment.
  • Student Summary of Another Student's Answer - In order to promote active listening, after one student has volunteered an answer to your question, ask another student to summarize the first student's response. Many students hear little of what their classmates have to say, waiting instead for the instructor to either correct or repeat the answer. Having students summarize or repeat each others' contributions to the course both fosters active participation by all students and promotes the idea that learning is a shared enterprise. Given the possibility of being asked to repeat classmates' comments, most students will listen more attentively to each other.
  • Gallery Walk On the walls around the room, post chart paper. Have students use Post-it notes to answer critical thinking questions about the lesson. Allow students to use some time during the lesson to take a gallery walk. Music can be used to begin and end the activity. Students can also use markers to write directly on the chart paper.
  • Doodle it! - If the question is appropriate for an illustration, have students illustrate their response and have a presenter from the group share it with the class offering an explanation for clarification.
  • Go Fish! Before your lecture, distribute paper bags to each group of students. Fill the bags with paper strips on which you have written important questions about the topic. Every ten minutes or so, stop lecturing and tell the groups to choose a strip from the jar (or two, or three, etc.). You can choose the person who picks the strip by doing a round-robin or by saying things like, "The person with the most pets at the table chooses the next slip" or "The person wearing the brightest colored socks," etc. The group must either answer the question or explain why the fact was important. If the question or fact was not yet covered, they put it back in the jar and choose another. Groups can report after each round so that information is repeated a third time.
  • Pass the Quarter After ten-minutes of lecture, stop and ask for one question from a volunteer. Answer the question and thank the volunteer with a quarter. Continue talking and encourage good questions. When the next question is asked, tell the first person to pass the quarter to the person asking the second question. The quarter makes its way around the room. At the end of the lecture, the person who asks the last question keeps the quarter. This same idea can also work with the instructor asking the questions and students being rewarded with the right answer. If you do not feel comfortable using a quarter, any trinket or prize can be used instead.
  • Similes, Analogies, and Metaphors Stimulate creative thinking by having students compare something they just learned using one of these forms of figurative language.
  • Pass the Paper Each student takes a piece of blank paper and writes his/her name on top. He/she then writes one thing he/she learned during the lecture. The paper is passed in some order to about six more people with soft music playing. Each person must write an additional fact they learned (and not repeat any said so far). When the music is turned off, the paper is returned to the original owner and serves as a mini-review of the material. You could also be more pointed with each round of passing. For example in round one, "Write one fact you remembered from the lecture." In round two: Write one question about something you learned today. In round three: Write the answer to the question on your paper. And so on.
View the full list

If you do not want to believe me about the value of active learning, take the advice of the Educational Testing Service.
  • "Students whose teachers emphasize higher-order thinking skills and hands-on learning activities outperform their peers significantly."
  • "Students who engage in active learning on a weekly basis outperform those who engage in active-learning instruction on a monthly basis."
  • "Students whose teachers use active learning activities outperform their peers by 72% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science."
  • "This study indicates that the most effective classroom practices involve conveying higher order thinking skills, active learning, and engaging in hands-on learning activities."
Educational Testing Service 2001

The more students are engaged and enthusiastic in the classroom, the more they learn. It is truly that simple! Yet, keeping students eager to learn can be a daunting task if you do not have solid classroom management skills. Remember that these student-centered strategies will not work as effectively if you do not keep your room controlled. Having said that; please do not give up the spirit to keep trying.

If you are a novice in education, and you want to be a teacher whom students love and respect; yet from whom they receive a great education, your students need you to be in control of a structured classroom full of active learning strategies. Every time you try something new, you also learn something new about planning, observing, and facilitating. The next time you do that same strategy, your idea will work better. If you give up, your classroom will become stagnate, and your students will not want to come to your room every day. Teaching is your profession, but their learning is how you are assessed. Students master the subject matter faster and with more energy if they are actively focused on and take ownership of the educational goals set by you. Make the right choice. Be the teacher you set out to be when you chose your career. Be the teacher who makes a difference.

BLOOM'S TAXONOMY: -- Download to your computer. It's a terrific tool. -- A good Bloom's explanation -- Great question starters -- Great question starters

How to Give It So They Get It - Sharon Bowman
Presenting with Pizzazz - Sharon Bowman
Preventing Death by Lecture Sharon Bowman
Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject Mel Silberman
Inspiring Active Learning: A Complete Handbook for Today's Teachers - Merrill Harmon and Melanie Toth

Author Biography Jeryl-Ann (Jeri) Asaro loves her job as a seventh-grade English teacher. After a 23-year career in publishing and advertising, Jeri changed her occupation and became a teacher. Since that time, she has been voted Teacher of the Year, earned a Masters Degree in the Art of Teaching, and is presently finishing up her last class toward her Supervisor's certificate. Besides teaching seventh grade, she offers various workshops to novice and English teachers around the state of New Jersey, and is an instructor for Rowan University's Beginning Teacher Induction Center. In her district, she is a Team Leader coordinating a professional learning community within the middle school. During her teaching years, she has taught at all three levels -- elementary, middle and high school, but has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 13-year olds is her favorite place to be -- crazy, but true. Changing careers was the best life decision she ever made.
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