5 Great Ways to Spice Up Boring Curriculum & Increase Engagement
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Let’s face it – although we strive to make our classrooms the most wonderful and exciting places to be, there are just some topics and some curriculum that isn’t that exciting or interesting to us or to our students.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it!), how excited and engaged we are about introducing content to our students really impacts how excited and engaged they are about learning it.
We’ve probably all had that experience of being in a class, maybe at university, maybe in high school – when we had never really been “into” a subject or a topic before, but then we had a teacher who inspired something in us, who made that topic just come alive.
What felt like all of the sudden, we found a new interest in that subject. I had that experience the first year of university when I took my first philosophy class. I was completely awestruck by the content in that class, and my professor was such a deep, clear thinker, and brilliant – I mean off the charts brilliant – and he challenged our thinking at every turn, and it was the most exciting class I’d ever been a part of.
I found myself wanting to become a philosopher, wanting to do his job and have his life – thinking and writing every single day, asking myself the hard questions and really pushing the boundaries of what I thought I knew forward.
In many ways, I started writing a lot more because of that experience.
And, because of him and his passion and genuine interest in philosophy, I went on to read and continue to read many different kinds of books about philosophy. Because he made it came alive, I was suddenly entirely taken by a topic I had never even really considered before that point.
You probably have those subjects in your classroom – areas where you are naturally inspired and you feel like you do your very best teaching.
But, what about those areas that you are less than excited about?
What strategies can you apply to your teaching to make those subjects come alive for you as a teacher so that you can inspire your students towards their very best work in that area, too?
I think this is one of the biggest challenges for elementary teachers because we are expected, at least most of the time, to teach all subjects to our students, regardless of our personal preferences over some subjects over others.
Let’s talk about five other ways that you can easily spice up otherwise boring curriculum in your classroom:
If you haven’t heard about task cards or scoot yet, you’re going to love this. A task card is exactly what it sounds like: a card with a task on it.
They come in sets so that you can target a specific skill, standard, or subject area. So for example, if you want to work on helping students to identify the main idea of text in language arts, a simple search on Teachers Pay Teachers for “main idea task cards” will turn up a whole range of possibilities for you to use with your students (here is a fantastic example from Rachel Lynette):
One way to think of task cards is as an alternative to worksheets. Most students don’t exactly get excited about worksheets, but you can get the same benefits of the individual focus on a specific task that worksheets can provide by using task cards instead because kids love them!
Because there’s only one small task on each card, they provide bite-sized pieces of content for kids, so it keeps them from getting overwhelmed and it allows kids to feel a building sense of accomplishment with each card that they complete.
A huge benefit for you as the teacher is that you can print and laminate task cards, and then you can use them again and again, without having to do a whole lot of prep.
I think that one of my favorite aspects of using task cards is how versatile they are, so you can use them in learning centers and put a few task cards at each center for students to complete, or you can play a fun game of scoot.
If you haven't played scoot in your classroom yet, it's so much fun!
To play, you put one task card on each child’s desk, and you give each child a sheet to record their answers. Then, you set a timer, and your students are given a specific amount of time (usually a couple of minutes) to complete each task before they “scoot” or move from one desk to the next. You just have to be super careful to be clear about which direction your students are supposed to move before they start. 😊
What I love about this is that it gets kids up and moving, and it can provide a kind of skill drill for otherwise not very exciting content that is still fun and engaging because of the way that you’re engaging your students in the content. Here's another article called 15 Ways to Use Task Cards in Your Classroom to give you some information and examples of how you can use task cards in your classroom.
Turn it into a game
Along with the idea of scoot, another way that I constantly worked to spice up otherwise boring content or to review content that was especially challenging for my students is to use games.
Games are as old as time, and they are still super popular for one reason: they work.
Kids LOVE games, so anytime you can turn anything into a game, you’re winning. In fact, I did an entire episode all about My Favorite 6 Games to Play with Students to Review Content to inspire your imagination for how you might be able to add some fun and variety to your lessons, as well as to show you how you can incorporate games into your teaching that are quality, that are kid-tested, and that won’t take you hours of precious time to prepare.
So some of my favorite games to play in my classroom include a game we called “Slap,” which involves dividing your students into 3 teams, asking content questions, and then having your student use fly swatters to “slap” what they think is the right answer on the answers projected on the whiteboard. My kids absolutely LOVED this game and it's so versatile and simple!
Just click here to check out all of the games and get details about how to set up and how to play them!
Take regular movement breaks
Research has found that physical activity increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, increases the number of brain neurotransmitters, which in turn impacts students’ ability to “focus, concentrate, learn, remember, and handle stress.” In addition, exercise can positively impact memory and higher thinking.
Therefore, when it comes to content in our classrooms that we aren’t particularly excited about, building in regular movement breaks and opportunities for our students to exercise and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain is especially important and can dramatically help our students to internalize content.
I’ve gathered a list of 11 awesome, simple, and kid-tested brain-and-movement-breaks that you can try with your kiddos so you can try some of these with your students. They’re going to absolutely love it, and what used to be their least favorite subject or topic may just become their favorite once you start incorporating these regular opportunities to move into your teaching!
By the way, this list is part of a larger list that I created as part of a super fun freebie called “25 Fun & Easy Ways to Manage Spring Fever” – it’s a FREE Teacher Cheat Sheet that I created just for you, so just click here if you want to get your hands on it!
11 Simple, Kid-Tested Movement Breaks:
- Two-minute dance or exercise party (to your students’ favorite song).
- Do the Dozer Dance (from my literacy program, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed):
- Dozer’s Hip Hop (also from my literacy program, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed):
- Go Noodle
- Debbie Doo Kids TV
- Cosmic Kids Yoga
- The Learning Station
- Have Fun Teaching
- Move to Learn
- The Learning Station (32 Movement Songs!)
Make it meaningful
In today’s world, there are endless possibilities for making learning more flashy, more edgy, and more cool.
However, out of all of the approaches and strategies I’ve gathered in my teacher’s toolbox over the years, there are few more powerful than simply paying attention to what matters to your students.
Getting to know who they are as individuals – what they’re interested in, what they love, what matters to them right now at this age – and finding ways to connect whatever it is you need to teach your students with what matters to them is one of the most powerful ways to engage students.
Going back to our basic facts example, one way that I did this with my students when we were learning how to problem-solve using basic facts in math, was creating problems that had my students’ names in them. So, for example, if Jessica (who was blushing at hearing her name called beside me) brought 12 cookies to school and she wanted to share them equally with Max, Ciara, and Shanda, how many cookies would each of her friends get?
Now, this wasn’t just a boring math problem – it became a real-life problem that they might encounter at recess, right?
When I first got my little malti-poo puppy, Tango, my students were dying to meet her and begged me to bring her to our classroom. I was hesitant, of course, first because she was so little and vulnerable, and I explained all of the reasons that would likely be difficult, including potential allergies, and finding out if the principal and the parents would even allow it.
So, this launched us into one of the most meaningful language arts projects I’ve ever done with students. We wrote a letter to the parents as a class to ask them for permission to do this, which they then took home, and then if any parents were concerned, we read those letters and we, as a class, wrote back to those parents. We were learning letter writing.
We then wrote to the principal and made our case, through some very persuasive writing, for why Tango would be the perfect class visitor. Then, we brainstormed as a class what we would need to do to prepare, and what kinds of rules we would need in place for a little puppy to be able to visit our classroom peacefully. My students wrote about this during their independent journaling time, they wrote stories about what the predicted might happen if Tango visited our class, and ultimately, once she did visit, we wrote stories about our experiences with her.
So, if teaching writing is a challenge for you, I encourage you to think about ways that you can help your students to become more meaningfully engaged in writing. What kinds of writing could your students do for a real purpose, outside of just writing for a prompt, that would give meaning to the work they are doing? What kinds of experiences can you give to your students to inspire them to write?
How could you make other content in other subject areas more meaningful so that both you and your students enjoy the experience of learning that content that much more?
Set a fun class goal & reward
Although we aren’t supposed to talk about this, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you just hit a wall and you’re not feeling especially creative or excited about what you have to teach. Or, maybe your students just aren’t excited about something that you need to teach them. Right?
That’s human, that’s normal, and that isn’t your fault. We wouldn’t be human if we didn't have preferences for some things over others. Also, sometimes our classrooms can feel a little mundane, especially if it’s mid-year and the rest of the year suddenly feels a little long, and maybe both you and your students need a little extra light and positivity.
What I’ve found works really well when this happens is to simply talk to your students about it. Hold a class meeting and just ask them how they’re feeling right now about school. Are they feeling a little tired?
Ask them, “Do we all need a little something special to look forward to?” They almost always say yes, of course, and so then, I love to ask my students what that something special might be that we could all look forward to. They come up with some of the best ideas – and here’s the secret:
Kids support what they create.
So, if they’ve come up with the idea for a pirate themed popcorn party of whatever it is that gets them super excited – they are going to want to work for it. If you come up with the idea, they may or may not buy into it – but when it’s their idea, they’re much more willing to work for it.
Once your class has an idea for a fun class reward, you get to set the parameters around how they will get to achieve that goal. One of the most simple and easy ways to do that is to let your students earn the letters to spell their reward.
So, for example, if they’ve decided they’d LOVE a pirate themed popcorn party, you can trace bulletin board letters to spell this phrase along the top of your whiteboard, and then actually put up each letter as they earn it – and once they’ve earned them all, and they can earn one each day, they get their party.
When my class decided they wanted Tango to come and visit our classroom, my class had to earn the letters to spell “Tango Time” by being kind and respectful to each other over the next two weeks before she could visit. They love seeing that visual and knowing that they can earn that letter throughout the day. And, of course, there are some days when they might not earn that letter – but man, they sure work hard the following day to make up for it!
All right, so those are 5 ways that you can spice things up in your classroom and make less than enticing curriculum a little more fun for both you and for your students.
I hope you found this helpful. Until next week, remember: just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one!
P.S. Do you want a super fun way to get your students excited about working for a class reward? Check out my Mystery Motivators!
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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