Lesson Openers to Excite & Engage

I read once that Albert Einstein remarked it is a miracle curiosity survives formal education. This observation has stuck with me: a pesky stone in my shoe. 

Somehow, amongst all the curricular demands, standardised testing, graduation requirements, examination preparation, and everything else which pulls at me, I desperately want to instill a sense of wonder, curiosity, and excitement in my students. I desire for them to love learning, to ask questions, to be curious about what they see, read, and hear. 

And one of the best – and simplest – ways I have found to do this, is the use of lesson openers which excite and engage. Inspired by the concept of provocations in the Reggio Emilia Approach1, I open learning experiences in an open-ended way which provokes student exploration, discussion, creativity, and ideas. This way, when we move into the content of the lesson, students are already engaged; their curiosity is hopefully piqued, and they’re more receptive to learning. 

Below are five simple ways I open classes in order to provoke engagement, discussion, and curiosity. Click here to get a downloadable version to stick in your daily planner, or on your desk as a reminder when lesson planning! 

INSTRUCTIONS: Place an object (which links to the lesson content) in the center of the room. For added intrigue and curiosity, place it under a cloth to ‘reveal’ when students are settled. Then use the exploration of this object to springboard into the lesson of the day: through a discussion, writing exercise, word association game, etc. For example: for a writing class about using varied sentence types, the object could be a bowl of sweets, and students write about the experience of eating one for the very first time. Or, it’s an informational text lesson, using a newspaper article on how social media impacts beauty standards, the object might be a pile of make-up, and students discuss their personal associations with these products. [Nouvelle ELA has a similar lesson for analyzing symbols: get it here]

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Wait a while before you explain the presence of the mystery object: perhaps even have students spend time thinking about it and making predictions for why it is there (you may want to give them one or two clues). Equally, if appropriate, have the desks arranged in groups and place different objects on different desks. For example: in an introductory lesson for a unit on ‘Identity’ place different pieces of fruit around the room, and have students move to the one that most represents them, and then encourage them to explain their choice.  

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Any time you add a little mystery or present something unexpected in the classroom, it will pique students’ curiosity. When they are intrigued and curious, they’re primed to engage and learn. Indeed, the emotion of curiosity has long been recognized as a vital motivating factor driving learning2.

INSTRUCTIONS: Write a provocative statement on the board which links to the lesson content. (e.g. If you’re studying Romeo and Juliet: It is possible to fall in love the first time you meet someone. Or reading Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’? What about: Your dignity is always within your own control.) Then place tape, or indicate an imaginary line, across the room, with one end as “Completely Agree” and the other as “Completely Disagree.” Give students a minute to consider the statement and then have them stand on the line to indicate their opinions. [You might also want to check out the Daring English Teacher's blog post on Introducing Complex Ideas to Students]

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Once students have taken their places, ask a couple of students on opposite ends to speak to each other: to debate and defend their positions. Or, have students turn to the person next to them and discuss, seeing if they really are in the right places, or if they should switch (if they feel stronger than their neighbor on the line). Finally, at the end of the lesson, why not do the activity again and see if any of them have changed their positions? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: This not only gets students thinking critically about key themes and issues, but it is also an effective way to make their thinking visible, and to push them to take a stand. Moreover, requiring students to give reasons for why they picked where they did, helps them back up their opinions with evidence and reason. 

INSTRUCTIONS: Think about the content of the lesson, and then try to mimic something of the mood/setting/theme in the classroom environment. While pinterest-worthy classroom transformations are wonderful, that’s not what I am talking about here. You can set the mood in quick and easy ways, which will engage students’ senses when they walk in the door. For example: when studying Lord of the Flies, visually project a jungle screensaver on the board, with ambient sounds. This doesn’t have to be just for literature lessons: if you’re spending the lesson writing, have students enter with ambient coffee shop sounds, or stormy weather (great for writing horror stories!). Check out the website A Soft Murmur for this: go play around with their sound settings. 

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: If possible, engage more senses: play with lighting, images, smells, touch, etc. Or – to really engage students’ imaginations – before playing the ambient noises, have them settle down, and close their eyes. Then give them a scenario to imagine as you slowly turn up the volume on the ambient sounds. For example: in a lesson on Emily Dickenson’s “The Railway Train,” start by playing the sound of a train and ask students to imagine this sound as an animal: what would it be and why? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Engaging the senses is a powerful learning tool: when we create a multisensory experience in the classroom, not only does it pique students’ curiosity, but it can also make the learning more memorable. Indeed, when engaging multiple senses, we optimise the learning mechanisms in the brain, and tap into the many different ways different students learn best3

INSTRUCTIONS: It is as simple as this: play a current song or music video, show an extract from a current TV series, use a trailer for a recent movie: anything which links the content of the day’s lesson with students’ interests and lives outside of class. For example: before we studied The Great Gatsby (click for resources), I played Lorde’s Royals and asked students what the song meant to them. Before telling students anything about Lord of the Flies, we watched the trailer for The 100 and discussed what such a situation would be like.

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Have students suggest the media you present: at the end of a previous class, explain the broad content of the next class (themes, main topic, etc.) and ask students to suggest appropriate songs, video clips, games, etc., which would make for engaging lesson openers. This way, they too are making connections to their learning, and you are making sure the references are highly relevant! 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: When we incorporate students’ personal interests and entertainments in the classroom environment, their learning becomes more relevant, engaging, and multi-dimensional. The key here though is making sure it is really something which students’ are currently interested in: not just what we might assume they will be interested in! And the best way to ensure this, is to really spend time building relationships with students, finding out their interests, and knowing what’s currently popular.  

INSTRUCTIONS: Before class, think about the key theme, topic, or skill which you aim to explore or develop. Then, think of 3-5 key words related to this; write these on the board, or around the room. When students enter, draw their attention to these words, and instruct them to work in pairs to construct a question using the words. For example, before a lesson on Fahrenheit 451 (click for resources), you might use “knowledge” “future” “technology” and “books.” A possible question students might generate: In the future, will books become useless, as we use technology to access knowledge? And this doesn’t have to be limited to lessons on literature: in a lesson about essay writing, words such as “style” “structure” “opinion” and “voice” might generate some engaging questions. 

IDEAS FOR GOING FURTHER: Once students have formed a question, provide the means for discussing or answering the question: this might be through small-group discussions, through accessing online sources, or through analysis of a text. The key here is you need to be flexible and open to going where students’ questions take the lesson. Why not even ask them how the class should proceed in terms of answering their questions? 

WHY IT IS EFFECTIVE: Too often, by the time they reach middle/high school, curious questioning has been replaced by incessant answering: students become adept at answering questions, but often lack opportunities to inquire and question. Developing this ability to ask questions will help with developing critical thinking skills, and engaging discussion proficiency. Moreover, students will be hooked from the start of class, and invested in finding out the answers to their questions. 

So that's it: if you have ANY questions, please feel free to reach out: come find me on Instagram, or email me at staceylloydteaching@gmail.com.

Looking for other high-interest, provoking lessons to excite and engage? Check these out: 

1Strong-Wilson, T., & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilia's environment as third teacher. Theory into practice, 46(1), 40-47.
2Markey, A., & Loewenstein, G. (2014). Curiosity. In International handbook of emotions in education (pp. 238-255). Routledge.
3Shams, L., & Seitz, A. (2008). Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(11), 411–417. 

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