Every morning before work, I stop by Yahoo with the intention of checking my email—and only checking my mail. Without exception, this is what happens: In the half second it takes me to move my cursor over the email icon and click, it’s all over. Suddenly, I find myself halfway into an article entitled “Nike pulls poorly timed t-shirts from stores.” “How did I get here?” I think to myself as I polish off the last paragraph of an article about Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Of course I never want to read these articles, but the power of an enigmatic, well-written headline can get me to read just about anything.
So what can teachers learn from the power of a well-written headline and how can they harness it for engaging students? Here are a few ideas we gleaned from one of our favorite authors and educators, Dr. Richard Curwin. We highly recommend checking out his blogs here.
Headlines always use teasers. Teachers should too.
Regardless of what you teach, try beginning each lesson with some sort of provocative statement—something that will make your students go, “huh?”
Which of these two questions do you think would work best for engaging students?
- “Please take out Kevin Jennings’ essay, “The American Dream.”
- “I have a question: What does Kevin Jennings have in common with Jay-Z.”
You went with the second one, yes? How about these two questions:
- What did you think of Carrie McClaren’s essay on television commercials?
- Have any of you seen that pistachio commercial featuring Keyboard Cat?
We bet you went with the second question both times. Why? Because Jay-Z and Keyboard Cat are interesting. At first glance, they also seem completely unrelated to the essays you asked your students to read. This will not only capture their curiosity, it’ll force students to think critically to make a connection. Here’s another tip for engaging students that comes courtesy of Dr. Curwin.
Use Compelling Questions
Have you ever forgotten the name of a song, a book title or even someone's name and spent the whole day trying to remember it? It was under your skin, so to speak, and the need to remember was compelling to the extreme. The same is true when you begin a class with a question that creates a compelling need for students to know the answer. This strategy is based on the principle that questions should come before answers. Typically, teachers give information and then ask questions about it. Hearing the question first, especially a great one, radically increases the need to learn the information just to find the answer. Great questions have these things in common:
- They are related to the subject you're teaching.
- They amplify the students' natural sense of wonder.
- They challenge the students' belief of the way things are.
Here is a sampling of compelling questions that teachers from various content areas have shared with me:
- Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with Algebra? Answer: they both are concerned with equality.
- First grade science (studying particles): What is the smallest thing you ever held in your hand?
- Upper elementary history (studying the Pilgrims): Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
- Elementary art: If humans had to be a color other than any color they already are, what color would you choose? Why? Draw some people of this color.
- High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
- High school social studies: If Napoleon spread nationalism, how did nationalism bring him down?
- Middle school English: Why don't "good" and "food" rhyme?
Questions like these begin your class with energy, excitement and most importantly, a desire to learn.
Photo credit: Adam Sundana at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cukuskumir/