Maintaining momentum in the classroom comes down to how you structure your lessons, says Rob Vingerhoets.
Rob is a highly effective educator with years of experience as a literacy and numeracy subject matter expert, primary school principal, curriculum co-ordinator and classroom teacher.
He spoke to literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen on The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy about how to overcome the ‘trench of lost momentum’, where teachers ‘start digging’ and lose momentum to the point where ‘you can’t dig yourself out of it’.
He described the key components of a lesson structure that will ensure maximum engagement and momentum, especially for teachers entering a new classroom.
The first part is the warm-up activity – a vital time which can set the tone for the rest of the lesson.
“I think there’s a perception that this is like a Mickey Mouse part of the lesson … but the warm up is a crucial part of the lesson. That’s where you establish your momentum and you establish yourself and you establish the kids and you hook them in quickly with something that’s engaging,” Rob said.
Sharon added: “You’re definitely not just engaging, but you’re really connecting with kids through that warm-up. There’s some relationship building, there is interaction.
“If you’re doing that from a scripted standpoint, you’re not building those things. You’re not really creating personal entry points and personal relationships to be able to say, ‘okay, this is what we’re into, this is how we can engage with this’. You’ve just shown them just by putting a word up there, okay, we can have fun with this and we can think in ways that aren’t textbook driven ways. We can think creatively and excitedly and engagingly.”
Rob emphasised the importance of keeping the focus on your students in the warm-up, rather than yourself.
“You don’t want to be talking too much. So whatever warm-up activity I have, it’s virtually straight over to the kids … let’s find out what you know. And so I’ll use that warm-up activity to just generate interest in engagement,” he said.
“So regularly it’s just straight into it … I might draw a triangle up on the board, or I might put a number up on the board or just put an analog clock next to the white board and say, ‘okay bring it on. What do you know about this now? Now I can tell you it’s a triangle, it’s got three sides, this and that, but then it’s all about me. I want to know what you know already’.
“The art of teaching is trusting yourself to trust your kids.”
Following this warm-up exercise is an introduction into the main lesson, which Rob warned is the ‘high risk area of losing momentum’. He explained that the danger especially comes from teachers who spend too long on providing instructions.
“Where you then have a big risk is when you now talk too much and over explain, over instructionalise, over tell, and just watch your kids drop off. So I try make that introduction time a time where I add some more key words, I might outline the task, if it’s a game I might go over the rules, but then straight into it,” he said.
“I see real momentum losers. It’s teachers who give the instructions three, sometimes four times, because they see three or four kids who are looking a bit doubtful … You really only have to get 50% of the kids who understood your instructions, then let them go. Because there’s now enough people in the room who can tell another kid in the room what it was, or there’s enough people that a kid can look on another kid’s work and just say, ‘oh yeah, I see what you’re doing’.
“The key to it then is to get going and around the kids. So I’ll try to keep my introduction after the warm up five to ten minutes max, depending on the activity. Sometimes i’m going in three minutes, two minutes … and they just look at you [because] they’re so not used to this. There are some kids who are instructionally dependent and go tell me what to do. Well, ‘no, you go and find out what to do. If you’re really stuck, I’ll help you out’ because it’s not like it’s a contest.”
Sharon added: “That’s your optimum teaching time, because it’s on the spot problem solving with them right there and then, or asking the question that’s going to lead them into the deeper thinking”.
This early stage of the lesson is also a key time to utilise key words and quickly capture the rich language that will support your students’ learning.
“What I try and do from the start of the lesson is I put a space up on the board and just label key words … So it’s like a learning intention. This is what we’re doing today kids, but it’s in the form of words in a list. And we add to that list of words as we go along,” Rob explained.
“It’s just a fantastic way because you’ve written it up as a list and you can put a symbol next to it. So, if we were doing the word triangle, I’ll draw a three-sided shape.”
Another important component during the lesson is ‘explicit teaching’, which doesn’t have to be a one-sided exercise between the teacher and entire group of students.
“You [rove around], you are on the move through that classroom to get in there with the kids and see what they’re doing as they’re doing it,” Sharon said.
Rob said: “The most effective, explicit teaching is when you’re one-on-one with a kid. You will never have more effective teaching then that moment where you’re able to give the kids immediate feedback and it’s personalised.
“But of course, occasionally you have three kids who all have the same misconception, or these four kids are lacking the same skill, so I’ll say ‘quick come over here’ and I’ll take a group then and there.
“And sometimes you have to grab the whole grade [if] it’s a gap that nobody in the room can fill and it’s back to me. So then I might do that form of explicit teaching. But to think that explicit teaching only means you up the front transferring knowledge, which is just such an inefficient way to teach, no, and that momentum stays up then.”
Finally, Rob recommended that teachers maintain the momentum through reflection and celebration at the end of a lesson. He said these insights will also provide guidance into the next day’s lesson to ensure this momentum continues.
“So I want the kids to now reflect on their work, and to me that’s like a celebration. Sometimes I do it shared, because that’s a nice way to celebrate your work, but I think I would do three reflections to everyone shared, where a kid actually needs to verbalise, and most times i’ll get it written, ‘what did you find out today? What did you discover? How did you feel about maths today?’ And so it goes a bit deeper, and I’ll use key words a lot to bring them that language,” he said.