Do you ever feel like teaching is a dog and pony show? I know I do. Wouldn’t it be great to have a classroom full of students who come in prepared and ready to focus only on the lesson you’re presenting? All eyes are on you and they’re only thinking about the math not who Bobby was sitting next to on the bus, or if Lebron’s going to score 60 points tonight. But the reality is we’re competing with so many factors for our students’ attention. Some of these factors we can’t control, but it is important that we try our best to hold our students’ attention. This week for my grad class I read a lot about memory and how it’s related to attention. In her book “Human Learning,” Jeanne Ormrod states that attention is “critical for long-term retention of information.” We often say to our students when they miss something “Were you paying attention?” but we need to make sure we use strategies to ensure they are paying attention. I know that it’s hard to make every lesson the most exciting lesson, but I want to share with you a few tricks that have worked for me.
A lot of time when students walk into my room they are carrying what appears to be the entire contents of their locker. They get locker breaks, I don’t know why they need to carry around everything. I find their gigantic binders and reading books can be a big distraction. “Look at this huge packet of work you get in Social Studies.” “Isn’t this narwhal I drew on my binder hilarious?” When my students come in each period there are directions on the board for them to follow. They almost always start with “Clear off your desk except for… ( a list of what they need to start class).” I really stress these directions at the beginning of the year. I will even show pictures on the board of what their desk should look like. I find I rarely have to say “Put that away please,” or take an item because students just know it’s not supposed to be on their desk.
I love memes. Some of them are really clever. I do not love using power point to teach, but sometimes its just the easiest way to present typed information. So I like to jazz it up with memes. Here’s an example of a recent slide I used in class to give directions and the agenda:
I used MemeGenerator.net to create the meme. It’s pretty easy to use. The kids really like the memes and have even emailed me some they think I should show. (Sidebar: The memes can also help with visual imagery (also in Ormrod’s book) of important information. I even had a student tell me on a following quiz that she remembered Grumpy Cat and read the directions twice to make sure she followed them correctly!)
Students hate to be called on in class if they’re not paying attention, and truthfully I don’t love calling them out. I’ve tried the popsicle sticks, but wanted more student involvement. I tried letting the students choose the next person to answer. When going over answers in class, I’ll choose the first person who volunteers, then that person chooses the next student. Then the second student chooses the third and so on. They are not allowed to vie for selection out loud and students have to pick a different person each time. This method has increased participation in the beginning (because if they’re first they can get it over with), but also attention has increased because they know a friend might call on them. Even after they answer they pay attention to see if someone will get caught not paying attention. Also it’s taken some responsibility off of me and I can circulate while they answer.
This one definitely doesn’t work in every classroom. Some kids just can’t handle it. It’s all about setting up parameters for it. If I find my kids are tuning out, or getting out of control I will say “Awesome Possum.” This is their clue to play dead. This usually involves flopping over on their desk, and there shouldn’t be any talking. I try not to say it when they’re standing so I don’t have kids throwing themselves on the floor. They do not like to be the last one to play dead. So it usually gets quiet pretty quickly. Then I say “Awesome job Possums”, we let out a few giggles at the last ones to play dead and we get back to work. It’s a nice brain break, and it gets everyone back focused on me without calling any one student out. It’s really effective for coming back together after group work, but I like to randomly throw it into instruction to get their attention. But like I said, some classes can’t handle it so we don’t play.
There are a lot of other great strategies out there for getting and holding the attention of middle school students, but I gave you these four because they are easy to incorporate and don’t require any singing or dancing. I know there’s not a lot of time in our busy schedules to create amazingly engaging lessons every day, but if you’re bored teaching it, chances are they’re bored learning it. It’s okay to say to students “This may not be the most exciting lesson, but we’re going to get through it so we can apply it to basketball (or some other more exciting topic your students are into).” We have to work at creating memorable learning experiences for our students, and that starts with getting their attention. Do you have any great strategies you use for getting attention in your class? Share in the comments!