They’re in every classroom. Those one, two or three students sitting at the back, eyes glazed over, not listening to a word you’re saying. Or, if you’re really lucky, it’s the whole class that’s got that glazed look, and the only thing you hear are the cars whizzing by outside and students’ bored sighs.
Teaching older students, especially secondary school students, is like trying to entertain a bunch of people who just don’t want to be entertained. When people ask me how I have the patience to teach the little ones, I explain that as challenging as that is, to them everything is still fun. Use the right tone of voice, dramatize a bit, and they are excited to be involved in the lesson or activity. Secondary kids…it’s like pulling teeth, though it sometimes seems like they’d actually rather have their teeth pulled.
So what do you do when that’s the case? How do you engage your students and keep them engaged…?
Start the Lesson with a Bang
Setting the tone for the lesson is crucial. If you get those kids interested as soon as you walk through the door, it makes it so much easier to maintain their interest. Getting them excited about doing something halfway in, when they’ve spent the first five to ten minutes bored, is much harder.
- Mystery Box: I learned about this one from a grad school professor. He had a box on his desk and every day he would put something in it related to the topic they’d be studying. The kids had no idea what was in it, but because of the air of mystery around it, they were always interested in coming to class. If you teach science, put in something related to what you’re studying. Give the kids clues, have them see if they can guess what it is. Spend the first few minutes of class doing this, then lead into the main lesson from there.
- Warm Ups & Icebreakers: You often think icebreakers are only for the beginning of the year, but they can be used all year round. Get the kids up and moving. With blood flowing, it’ll get them more focused and energized. How do you do this without them going bonkers? Well, if you do start this in the beginning of the year, you can set up routines so they know what to expect. If you’re going to introduce them mid-year, make sure you set clear rules first, and if you have to, practice first with a small group of students demonstrating in front of the whole class. Most of all remember that consistency when managing the class is key!
Competition & Gamification
Who doesn’t like a little competition to spice things up? Some ideas:
- Divide the class into teams when you’re doing activities. Split the class into two, or fourths or sixths and the group with the students who answer the most questions correctly wins (stamps, stickers, or for secondary kids, candy. They go bananas for candy no matter how old they are).
- Smack a big old timer on the board and have students answer as many questions as possible within the given time.
- Pair off students and have two sets of pairs compete with each other, then correct the opposing team’s work.
When we are teaching something as dry as grammar, pop culture is the way to go. Relate it to something or someone they know and immediately the kids are into it.
- Look up celebrity interviews, intentionally add grammatical errors, and have students correct them, then act it out.
- An oldie but goodie; fill in the missing lyrics. Print out the lyrics of a song with some phrases missing, and the kids fill them out as they listen. Afterwards have them write their own songs.
- Play scenes of movies with the volume muted and have students write their own dialogues based on the scene then compare it to the original dialogue.
Make it About Them
In upper primary and lower secondary these guys love to be the center of attention. Getting them up in front of the classroom frequently can be fun for them and get them more interested. Just be sure to set clear rules and guidelines for how they behave during their peers performances. If need be, spend an entire class going over the language of positive feedback.
The best source for ideas? The students. If you have a shy group give them options and suggestions to get the ball rolling, or turn it into a lesson and have them create a survey about likes and dislikes and interview each other.
Chances are if you have the majority of the class engaged, interested and excited, those one or two kids in the back will eventually want to join in as well. I had one student who all other teachers had given up on, but I greeted him and checked in on him individually every day and two months in, during a great icebreaker that all of the kids were thrilled about, he got up and participated. I was floored. He would sit sullenly in the back all day with a look of death to frighten away everyone.
Oh and just remember, not every single class is going to be fun and not all students are going to enjoy every activity or class you have. And that’s OK. Not to be an old school grump, but sometimes the kids just gotta sit down and do their work. So, if you have a couple of lessons that bomb don’t be too hard on yourself.