By Hope Sara Blecher-Sass, Ed.D., and Maryellen Moffitt, coauthors of See It, Be It, Write It
As the summer days get shorter, you may be wondering about your new students and the opening of a new school year. Many teachers are thinking about the Common Core State Standards and are facing—or embracing—a new teacher evaluation system. Besides these typical early year concerns, you may be asking yourself another important question:
What fun, easy way can I use to energize and motivate my students on the first day of school?
Day one is an important step in setting the stage for a terrific year of learning. We have always found that the most difficult challenge of the first day of school is getting everything done by the ring of the last bell. There are forms to complete, seats to assign, books and tablets to distribute, rules to discuss, and schedules to tweak. And that all takes place within the first hour! In addition to all the “classroom housekeeping” that needs to get done, you also have to teach.
After the excitement of seeing old friends and the anticipation of making new ones, students’ enthusiasm often begins to wane. Running free, swimming, riding bikes, hitting a ball, and playing till dark are replaced by sitting quietly in hard metal chairs attached to hard metal desks. The school calendar does not automatically change frolicking children into serious students. We have to help this transition take place. One method is to engage our students in active learning. Active learning gets students out of their seats and lets them move around to channel all that summer energy into a fun, interactive learning experience.
We do this each year by introducing the Prompt Enactment Process, a charades-inspired strategy that enables students to act out, much like an improv actor, a writing prompt. It is fun, easy, and aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Best of all, this process is easy to differentiate and is adaptable across the grade levels.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works.
Show the students a picture featuring people or other characters. You can use a document camera to project the image in front of the class. Ask the students, “If this picture could talk, who would be speaking and what would we hear?” Cup your hand by your ear as if you are listening, as if you hear the characters in the photograph talking to you and the students. Then invite a few students to become the picture—to enact the scene.
To the right is an image from page 126 of our book, See It, Be It, Write It. If you were using this image, you would have one student pretend to be the driver of a car and two others pretend to be the backseat gigglers. You can download the page here.
While your actors portray the scene, the rest of the class throws out ideas about what the people in the image might be saying and doing. As they do, you jot their ideas on a large piece of chart paper or on the interactive whiteboard. As with all brainstorming, no answer should be dismissed; embrace all appropriate responses. Keep asking questions: What is making the family laugh so hard? What are the names of the people in the car? What games do you play during long car rides? How do you feel when you laugh?
After you’ve generated plenty of ideas, give your actors a round of applause and let them sit down again. Then, use your list of ideas to collectively draft the opening paragraph to a fictional story about these characters. Depending on the grade you teach, you will need to provide more or less help in crafting sentences. Write the story on the board so everyone can see it.
When you’re done, read aloud the paragraph you have crafted together.
In the following days, spend time as a group building upon this great beginning, perhaps doing a paragraph a day. Over the course of a few days, you and your students will have co-produced a story. Have each person sign the bottom of the last page to take ownership of this text.
As a follow-up to this activity, or as an alternative, you can put kids in groups and have them take turns enacting what they did over the summer. Each group then uses their own enactment as brainstorming and drafts a separate story or essay.
How do you engage your students in active learning in the first few days of school?
Hope Sara Blecher-Sass, Ed.D., is the supervisor of language arts, social studies, and media for North Plainfield Public School District in New Jersey. She has been an educator for 24 years, teaching special education, English as a second language, and English language arts, as well as a literacy coach.
Maryellen Moffitt has been an educator for 28 years, teaching fifth and sixth graders and gifted and talented students. She coordinates the gifted and talented program of Roselle Public School District in New Jersey.
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