How To Start Your Lessons Right: 4 Proven Classroom Strategies


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Key Takeaways

  1. Explicitly teach routines: investing time to teach and practice routines with students returns time savings.
  2. Take ownership of the threshold: set the tone at the very beginning of your lesson by making time to greet students and reinforce expectations.
  3. Define and teach the entry routine: spend time thinking about how you want students to enter the classroom, teach them this and give them opportunities to ‘do it again’ if they don’t do it well.
  4. Use a ‘Do Now’ or ‘Starter’ activity: automate productivity at the beginning of your lessons with a well-designed activity for students to begin as soon as they sit down.


How To Start Your Lessons Right: 4 Proven Classroom Strategies

An efficient, productive and rigorous beginning to a lesson helps establish your classroom as a place where students consistently work hard, behave and improve their learning outcomes. This does not happen automatically though. When teachers do not clearly define and teach students how they want them to start a lesson, the first part of the lesson can quickly descend into disorganisation and behavioural challenges. Once this happens, teachers can battle for the rest of the lesson or that year to get student learning back on track.

Doug Lemov documents the specific and concrete actions of excellent teachers in his fantastic Teach like a Champion.  The book provides practical strategies for all elements of teaching, including the best way to begin lessons. Let’s have a look at 4 strategies that will help you begin lessons right.

1.   Explicitly teach routines

Routines in your classroom exist whether you define them or not. When you don’t clearly define a routine for students, they will define it themselves and usually not in a way that is less conducive to learning. One problem is, it can take time to define and teach routines, and often it seems easier to just get on with the teaching. Many teachers feel that using the time for basic routines is a waste of instructional time. Although it does take time to do this well, time spent teaching students the right way to carry out common routines in your classroom is an investment in more productive and efficient classroom culture.

Consider a typical way many secondary classes begin – the teacher arrives at the door at the same time as the students and lets them into the classroom. The teacher moves to the front to the room and begins getting her lesson materials organised, she may need to get handouts ready, set up an overhead projector, write learning intentions on the board, mark the roll and manage any students entering out of uniform, without materials, or after the bell. During this time, students may talk amongst themselves and await instructions from the teacher. In some cases students may engage in more disruptive behaviour – this often starts with moving out of their seats, moving furniture and talking across the room before escalating further. Often it can be almost 5 minutes before the teacher calls for student attention (and sometimes much longer still before she or he gets it).

On the other hand, teachers that invest time streamlining routines that define the start of a lesson will begin productive work almost immediately. Over the course of a semester or year, these teachers see huge positive returns on the investment of time they made teaching routines. Lemov uses the example of distributing and collecting-back classroom resources to explain this. In this example, a teacher works with students to explicitly define teach and practice the routine so this only takes students 20 seconds. 

From Teach like a Champion:

Assume the average class of students passes out or back papers and materials twenty times a day and it takes a typical class a minute and twenty seconds to do this. If [this teacher’s] students can accomplish this in task in just twenty seconds, they will save twenty minutes a day (one minute each time)… Now multiply that twenty minutes by 190 school days and you find that [this teacher] has just taught his students a routine that will net him thirty-eight hundred minutes of additional instruction over the course of a school year. That’s more than sixty-three hours or almost eight additional days of instruction.

So there is a big upside to teaching students exactly how you expect them to begin lessons. Let’s look at some of the specific steps you can take to set your lessons up right.

2.   Own the threshold

The first minute or two of lessons provide teachers with an important opportunity to remind students of expectations, set the tone and remind students of expected routines. Lemov suggests that teachers find a way to greet their students at the classroom door and establish the beginning of the lesson on productive and efficient terms. This is really different from letting students cross the threshold when and how they please.

From Teach like a Champion:

Ideally you will find a way to greet your students by standing in the physical threshold of the classroom – astride the door, taking the opportunity to remind students where they are (they are with you now; no matter what the expectations are elsewhere, you will always expect their best), where they are going (to college), and what you will demand of them (excellence and effort).

Lemov suggests that teachers use this time to greet students individually, using this greeting as an opportunity to build rapport. When students don’t meet the teacher’s expectations of efficient and productive entry, they should be politely but firmly asked to try again. This strategy achieves two things: firstly, it gives the teacher an opportunity to check-in on students individually and further develop positive relationships;, secondly the teacher can reinforce their classroom expectations, specifically around entry routine.

3.   Define and teach the entry routine

The classroom entry routine follows on from the teacher’s activities at the door. This routine needs to be both well-defined and well-practiced. Effective entry routines involve students entering the classroom and collecting any required material from a location near the entry (don’t hand them the materials, as you need to focus on the positive greeting and expectations-setting outlined above). Students should then know where to sit and what to do (more on this later).

Importantly, this routine needs to be clearly defined for students. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity for students about how much talk is acceptable, how they collect materials, move through the room, or what they do if they don’t have the things they need. Ideally, this is something the teacher sets out or co-designs with students in the first few lessons of the year, it’s then documented and provided to students so there’s no doubt about what the teacher expects.

Where students don’t carry out the routine as expected, the teacher should use another of Lemov’s techniques and insist they do it again. This means students need to re-start the routine and complete, or re-complete until they do it perfectly. In some cases, this may involve the whole class re-completing the entry routine, or just the students that didn’t do it well enough. This strategy provides students with the practice they need to get a routine right and can be a powerful reinforcement of a teacher’s high expectations of their students.

From Teach like a Champion:

It sets a standard of excellence, not just compliance. Do it again is appropriate not just for times when students fail to do something or do it in a way that’s wrong; it’s ideal for times when students do something acceptably but could do it better. Saying “That was good; but I want great” or “In this class we do everything as well as we can, including lining up,” allows a teacher to set a standard of excellence where good can always be better and better can always shoot for best. At its best it can drive your classroom culture by replacing acceptable with excellent, first in the small things and then in all things.

Once students have entered the classroom and have the required materials, they should have a task they can quickly and independently begin.

4.   Use a ‘Do Now’ or ‘Starter’

The final piece of the start-of-lesson puzzle is a ‘Do Now’ or ‘Starter’ activity. This gives students something productive and relevant to work on after taking their seats. An effective Do Now automates the first five minutes of your class by giving students something they can carry out independently. When done well, this frees up the teacher to manage all that start-of-lesson admin including roll marking, managing late and disorganized students and preparing teaching materials without wasting learning time.

From Teach like a Champion:

Students should never have to ask themselves “What am I supposed to be doing?” when they enter your classroom, nor should they be able to claim not to know what they should be doing. You want students to know what to do and to know there is no ambiguity there. These two goals – being clear with students about what to be working on and eliminating the excuses that lead to distraction – are the rationale for Do Now, a short activity that you have written on the board or is waiting at their desks before they enter. The Do Now means that students are hard at work even before you have fully entered the room. They are both productive during every minute and ready for instruction as soon as you start.

Four criteria characterise an effective Do Now activity.

  1. Students can complete the Do Now independently, that is without any instructions from the teacher or discussion with their classmates. Having an activity that needs the teacher to speak with students before they begin, defeats its purpose
  2. The activity should take between 3 and 5 minutes to complete
  3. The activity should require students to put pen to paper. A written product from a Do Now makes it easier to hold students to account
  4. The activity should review a previous lesson (by retrieving/checking prior learning) or preview the current lesson (by diagnosing relevant knowledge/skills or priming students for learning).

Here’s a gallery of Do Now examples if you want to see what they can look like.

Spending time defining and teaching entry routines and supporting the first five minutes with a Do Now activity will set every lesson up to begin right – helping you set a productive and efficient tone for student learning.

Key Takeaways

  1. Explicitly teach routines: investing time to teach and practice routines with students returns time savings.
  2. Take ownership of the threshold: set the tone at the very beginning of your lesson by making time to greet students and reinforce expectations.
  3. Define and teach the entry routine: spend time thinking about how you want students to enter the classroom, teach them this and give them opportunities to ‘do it again’ if they don’t do it well.
  4. Use a ‘Do Now’ or ‘Starter’ activity: automate productivity at the beginning of your lessons with a well-designed activity for students to begin as soon as they sit down.

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