Today I was working in a busy kindergarten classroom. I arrived to a room full of activity, bustling with energy, teaming with learning. The students were engaged at play, active and joyful with the noise of conversation and materials interacting. A group of boys had build and obstacle course/pathway and they were challenging themselves to jump between the blocks while staying balanced. Another group was using a mirror to draw self-portraits. Other children were playing with puppets, painting, and reading.
After a period of observation, we asked them to leave their play and to join us at the carpet for some music and storytelling. The teacher tapped the outside of a singing bowl to get their attention and the children slowly began to make their way towards the carpet. I love singing bowls so I took the opportunity to use it as a way to draw all the students in, playing it by rubbing the outside edge and then slowly moving it across my body so that the sound moved through the room. The students, familiar with this sound, were transfixed and watched me as I raised and lowered the bowl, moving it from right to left as it vibrated in my hand.
It was a bit of theatre, a gimmick perhaps. I use all of my performance skills in these transitional moments; I draw myself up to full height, exaggerate my gestures, and use my voice to effect: when the sound of the singing bowl faded away, my voice was a whisper. Later in the lesson, the children went and gathered items that they could use to make soft and loud sounds in the room and I conducted their found-sound-orchestra with the nearest pencil, using flourishes and facial expressions to indicate when I wanted each group to play.
So many times when I watch teachers who are struggling to maintain students’ interest and to manage a group, I notice that, while the may have a good grasp of the content they’re teaching, they’ve forgotten (or have never thought about) that teaching is a performing art. While I am absolutely an advocate of teacher as guide on the side and meddler in the middle, I am noticing that many teachers don’t know how to grab onto those ‘on stage’ moments and make the most of them.
So, in the spirit of building dramatic tension please imagine a drumroll as I give you my top five tips for creating student engagement through performance.
1. Body Language
If there was one thing I would give new teachers, it would be an awareness of their body language. Women (who occupy the majority of elementary teaching positions) have, in many cases, been taught to take up less space with their bodies, to be quiet and unobtrusive. Good performers take up space. They occupy the room with authority. They plant their feet and square their shoulders. Their spines extend and their heads lift. They don’t fidget; their gestures are purposeful and clear. The maintain eye focus. They make no apologies for their presence in a room. Be aware of your own physicality and what it's telling your students. What messages are you sending? Is the subtext of your body language sabotaging your teaching?
2. Use your voice.
We use our voices all day in the classroom but rarely do we think about how we use them. Too often, teachers’ voices maintain a consistent range, which starts loud and gets louder when the noise level in the classroom increases. I almost never hear a whisper or a change in pace, tone, or intonation. The brain loves novelty and children’s ears will generally perk up when the teacher starts speaking in a very low tone or starts stretching out her words. Not only does it help students to pay attention, it will also help to save your voice, which brings us to my next suggestion…
Think about that moment before a concert starts, when everyone settles in and leans forward, straining to hear the first notes. That is a beautiful moment. Dramatic pauses are sadly underused in teaching. There are few techniques more effective than a short pause. To wait. For the next. Word. Try it.
A few times in my teaching career, I’ve had parents request that their child sit closer to the front of the class due to challenges with attention, vision, or hearing. These requests have caused me to ask: “Where is the front?” I very rarely stand in one place in a classroom. Unless I’m sitting down, I’m walking. Movement is another way to help students pay attention; it forces them to track you through the classroom and gets them to move in their seats. It also demonstrates confidence and allows you to touch base with every student while giving you something to do if you’re prone to fidgeting.
Transitions are the tip of the sword in teaching. They can absolutely ruin a good lesson. Every transition is an opportunity to loose the students’ interest. Think about performances you’ve seen when the scene changes are clunky, when the lighting cues aren’t in synch or when the performers are under-rehearsed. Those transitional moments are agony for an audience. People start to shift in their seats, check their phones, or whisper to their friends… and these are fully grown adults, presumably more capable of self-regulation than the kids in our classes! Practice your teaching transitions, make sure you have all the materials you need, give the kids something to do during the transition, sing a song, tap dance, 7th inning stretch… anything. Being aware of transitions, cutting them back to the bare minimum and smoothing out the ones that remain will make a huge difference to your classroom management.
Break a leg!