Academic Engagement in the Home Stretch

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.You’ve made it to the last few months of the academic year! From spring fever to state testing, there are lots of reasons why students might need a nudge to stay engaged in academics around this time of year. Here are some tips that can help!

Keep things moving

Attention can easily wane when students sit still for too long. Although it may feel like there’s too much material to cover to make time for movement breaks, there are plenty of ways to incorporate movement into your lessons. And doing so will likely help students absorb and retain the material better. Some ideas to try:

  • Have students act out what you’re teaching. If they’re learning about magnets, they could pretend to be magnets, attracting and repelling each other. If you’re teaching them about the geographical features of Brazil, they could use their bodies to make the shapes of different landforms and arrange themselves into a map. Or, give each student a sheet of paper with a letter printed on it, and have them line up to form vocabulary words.
  • Say it in song! Make up new lyrics to well-known songs, and have students do motions along with the words. For example, you could sing “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to help students learn about insect anatomy.
  • Make it a game. How about a game like Simon Says where you reinforce vocabulary words by having students raise one hand rapidly or take one hesitant step forward?
  • Pause for an energizer or brain break—without pausing the learning. Try an energizer such as Spelling Stroll: Have everyone stand up at their desks, and call out a vocabulary word. Together, the group spells out the word, taking one step for each letter. At the last letter, students and teacher all sit down in the nearest chair. The person left standing calls out the next word on the list, and the stroll begins again. Or use a brain break like Group Charades to have small groups of students act out vocabulary words, historical events, or other content they’re learning about. (Find more activities in our books Energizers! 88 Quick Movement Activities That Refresh and Refocus and Refocus and Recharge! 50 Brain Breaks for Middle Schoolers.)

Not only do activities such as these help students stay energized and ready to learn, but motions or music incorporated into lessons can also serve as mnemonic devices to help students remember content. That can be particularly valuable to English language learners and any students who learn well by doing.

Get collaborative

One of the guiding principles of the Responsive Classroom approach is that great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction. By getting students working with each other, you can help them both learn content and reinforce critical academic and social-emotional skills. Some tips:

  • Try mixing up your interactive learning structures. For some lessons, a partner chat might be just the right thing to help students develop their ideas. Other times, breaking students up into groups of four or five is helpful for brainstorming or doing a group project or skit. Try different types of learning structures to get students interacting with a variety of peers. (You can find many interactive learning structures in our books The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Students K–6 and Middle School Motivators! 22 Interactive Learning Structures.)
  • Add some academic choice. Students could form small book club groups to discuss a book of their choice. Or, they could work in small-group “science circles” to research and report on a topic they choose that’s related to your current unit of study.
  • Have students interact—from a different point of view. Have each student learn some facts to become an “expert” on one famous historical figure, scientist, or other person connected to a unit of study. Then, everyone can share facts in character as their person and answer questions for their classmates.

Here are several other tips and things to keep in mind to maintain academic engagement:

  • Think about how Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting can lead into academics. You could incorporate some content from the day’s lessons into your meeting activities to provide a warm-up and get students ready to think about the learning ahead. Also, consider the types of lessons you’ll be doing early in the day. If you have a lot of movement built into these early lessons, you might want to choose meeting activities that are calming. On the other hand, if you know students will be sitting for a math test, you might choose a group activity with a lot of movement to get the jitters out, followed by a morning message that will help students get focused.
  • Make test prep fun. Teaching to standardized tests and drilling students on content may not be what you’d prefer to do with your classroom time. But test prep can be more enjoyable for everyone if you make a game out of it. Try quizzing students with a Jeopardy-style trivia game (giving them the topics to study the previous day).
  • Consider your own mindset and language. If you talk about content as something to “get through so we can do something fun later,” students will pick up on your feelings and take on the same attitude. Try using envisioning language to get them (and yourself!) excited. For example, instead of simply telling students to “turn to page 62,” tell them that they’re about to discover the secrets of the solar system, or that they’re going to explore how the world changed because of the Industrial Revolution. Remember, you can make any topic seem fun with the right mindset.
  • Plan for academic engagement from the start. Rather than thinking about movement, collaboration, and energizers as add-ons to your already full school day, try building your lesson plans with these things in mind. Remember, you’ll be saving time in the long run if you help students get energized and ready to learn! Also, keep in mind your students’ developmental stages and personalities when planning activities. At their current stage, do they need breaks more often to rest? Are they especially interested in debating different ideas? Is this a group that likes wordplay and humor? Use what you know about your students to plan lessons that will excite them and maximize their learning.

These tips and ideas can help you boost students’ energy and engagement—and your own!—and help students continue to enjoy learning and stay successful through the home stretch this spring!

Tags: Last Weeks of School

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