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Starting Strong: The First Five Minutes of Class

Small Teaching Book CoverThis summer I read a book called Small Teaching by James M. Lang. Even though I have been teaching for 28 years (gasp!), have a Masters degree in Education and secondary school teaching certification, I learned a ton from this book. I thought maybe I would dedicate the rest of my 4×4 posts to suggestions Lang makes.

He argues in his book that by making small adjustments to what we do in the classroom, we can make big changes in our students’ learning.  One of those changes is how we use the first five minutes of class. He says that we need to grab our students’ attention right away, using those key first moments to focus their attention on the content or activity for the day. Here are two of his suggestions:

1) Have students remember what happened and was learned in the previous day’s class without the help of any notes. They could do this individually or in pairs, writing down as much as they remember, and then share out. This activity activates their prior knowledge so they are ready to learn new material. It also gives their brains practice in retrieval. I have been trying this in my College Success classes this semester. It’s hard for students at first, but they have been getting better at it. I think it could even be a better activity for a content-heavy course.

2) Start with questions on the board or screen that will be answered throughout the class. This could be something like “What are some effective ways to help yourself pay attention?” or “What does the rate of change tell you about a function?” or “What was Martin Luther King Jr. trying to achieve in writing his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail?'” At the end of class come back to these same questions and see if they can answer them with a deeper understanding. It might be helpful here to have students write out the answers to these questions both at the beginning of class and at the end. They will see themselves how their understanding has grown.


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