Engage Their Brains Before They Even Know It: Stealthy Activators Every Teacher Needs!

The classroom buzzes with energy at the beginning of each lesson. As an educator, I’ve often wondered how to harness that energy to lay a solid foundation for the day's learning. Enter stealthy activators, and these aren’t your typical lesson starters. They're subtle yet potent tools that engage students’ minds before they realize they're knee-deep in a lesson.

Research has shown that our brains are wired to respond to novelty. When we encounter something new or unexpected, our attention sharpens. In my first year of teaching, I'd often start directly with the lesson content. Over time, I learned that on the days when I introduced a curious or unexpected element at the start, the classroom energy shifted dramatically. Students were more attentive, engaged, and ready to explore the material. The science backs this up: starting a lesson with engagement can significantly increase retention, focus, and participation.

During my third year as a teacher, I stumbled upon the power of images. I displayed a perplexing photograph related to the day’s lesson and watched as my students’ curiosity was piqued. A photograph from a recent event, an abstract piece of art, or even a meme can spark questions and drive engagement. Short video clips, a two-minute intriguing video grabs attention and leaves students yearning for more context, setting the stage perfectly. Once, I showcased an infographic about water usage, and the room lit up with questions, setting the stage for our lesson on conservation. Connecting to what students already know can make new information more accessible. I recall using a quote from a famous scientist at the beginning of a lesson on ecosystems: a mystery quote. The quote led to lively discussions and guesses about its relevance to the day's lesson. Another activator is a content map, whereby I've given students a central idea and had them expand on it with their knowledge; it is always fascinating to see where their minds go.

I often say, “The best lessons begin with a question, not an answer.” My experience in the classroom echoes this sentiment with open-ended questions. I asked, “Why does the sky change colors?” The debate and discussions that followed were electrifying. Or “What if?” scenarios. In a history lesson, proposing hypothetical situations can lead students to analyze events critically.

Prediction challenges whereby sharing a story's beginning and having students predict the following steps can also be engaging and insightful.

One of my most memorable lessons involved playing a mysterious sound byte. The students speculated wildly about its source when using sound bites, leading seamlessly into a lesson about urban wildlife. For instance, bringing in artifacts when teaching history makes the past come alive. After a trip to Egypt, I had a collection of items to start off my 6th graders on our history unit of Ancient Egypt. This coincided with Emotive storytelling. I initiated a topic with my own personal story that helped anchor the lesson in real-world relevance.

Starting a lesson with a well-placed, stealthy activator is more than just an engagement tool but also an invitation to wonder, explore, and delve deep into learning. Educators have the unique opportunity to shape how a lesson unfolds. With these activators in our arsenal, we can ensure that every lesson begins on a note of curiosity.

Remember, as with any teaching strategy, adapt and tailor these activators to fit your classroom's unique dynamics and your students' diverse needs. Every class, every day, is a new adventure in learning. For one of my all-time favorite activators, please click here.

For those eager to further refine their teaching techniques and explore additional activators:

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink

“Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for    All Learners” by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison.

EngagingBrains.com: A treasure trove of resources, articles, and tools for educators.


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