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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: A Warm-Up ‘Mindset’ Helps Students & Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 17, 2018 24 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are your best suggestions for Walk-In, or Do Now, activities?

Do Nows, also known as Warm-Ups or Walk-In Activities, are staples of many, if not most, classrooms in the United States and possibly in the world.

Today’s column will explore the do’s and don’ts of this activity with contributors Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Dr. Nancy Sulla, Michele L. Haiken, Jim Peterson, Rachel Baker, and Louise Goldberg, along with comments from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Matthew, Nancy and Michele on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

In my classes, I always have “Warm-Up” activities that students begin as soon (or, to be honest, fairly soon) as they enter the room. Often, it’s either reading the book of their choice (see The Best Resources Documenting The Effectiveness Of Free Voluntary Reading) or writing a response to a prompt on the board. Many times the prompt is part of my effort to facilitate “Retrieval Practice,” and you can read more about that at Here’s How I’m Trying To Incorporate More Retrieval Practice In Class.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources For “Do Now” Activities To Begin A Class.

Response From Matthew Homrich-Knieling

Matthew Homrich-Knieling is an ELA teacher in southwest Detroit. His work as an educator draws from culturally- and linguistically-sustaining pedagogy, restorative justice, and activist pedagogy. He can be reached at matthewknieling@gmail.com or you can follow him on twitter at @matt_marv:

Don’t Assume, Just Ask!: Co-creating Classroom Routines with Student

In an attempt to develop what I assumed would create a more autonomous and engaged classroom environment, I once structured my warm-ups rather rigidly. Essentially, students knew that when the bell rang, they were to begin the warm-up unprompted and finish within a prescribed amount of time (usually 3-5 minutes). While the initial guise of “self-directed” work was enticing, I quickly learned that 1. Many students weren’t thoughtfully responding to these solely content-based questions, and 2. Many students became disengaged before any actual teaching.

Drawing from Dr. Christopher Emdin’s notion of Reality Pedagogy, explained in his book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...And the Rest of Y’all Too,” I decided to hold Cogenerative (cogen) Dialogue groups, whose goal is “to elicit information from the students about the learning environment and gain direct feedback from them on all aspects of the teacher’s instruction” (pg. 67). In other words, a small group of three students and I met weekly during lunch to have candid conversations about the classroom; my students named aspects of the classroom that weren’t working for them and offered alternative ideas.

At some point during our first meeting, we started talking about warm-ups. “It’s so boring, mister,” one student unabashedly shared. “A lot of people aren’t doing the work,” another student added. Agreeing that our warm-ups were lacking and disengaging, I asked, “What can we do differently?” After thinking for a moment, one student offered, “Maybe students can take turns leading the warm-ups!” Most of us were sold. “That’s a little better,” another student shared, “but still pretty boring.” At which point the third student chimed in, “What if you asked questions that related more to our lives?” Even my skeptical student admitted, “That’d actually be cool.”

As a product of our conversations, my warms-up evolved into this:

Every Friday, students would volunteer to lead a warm-up one day the following week. The day before students were scheduled to lead the warm-up, I would show them the question so they could consider how they wanted to lead it.

The first day we implemented this, each of my cogen students led the warm-up in their respective sections. Though they were initially apprehensive, their peers responded very positively--attentive, engaged, and participatory. By the second day, one of the cogen students excitedly whispered to me during class, “This is a positive change! People are really into it.” And by the end of the week, a student (not in the cogen group) who had already led a warm-up exclaimed, “This is a great idea!” Though my students had to work toward building the capacity to lead warm-ups in their own unique ways, the shift in my classroom dynamic was evident: students were more energized, participatory, and invested.

Another part of this shift, of course, was rooting the questions in personal experiences. Here are some examples of warm-up questions (during a unit on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” and text structures) that were a result of my cogen groups’ suggestions:

  • “I loved when Dad talked to me like I was a grown-up. I didn’t really understand half the junk he was saying, but it sure did feel good to be talked to like that!”

    What does Kenny mean by this? Can you think of an example from your own life that relates to this quote?

  • Tell a story from your life using one of the text structures:

    Description, sequence, problem/solution, cause/effect, or compare/contrast

  • Choose one of the following characters (Kenny, Byron, Momma, or Dad) and describe a conflict they are facing. Have you or someone you know experienced a similar conflict?

  • Which charter do you think would most likely be your best friend? Explain why!

This change in my own warm-ups represents only one approach; however, the process of how I arrived here is what’s most important. Students are each unique; classrooms dynamics are contextualized. My greatest advice is to involve your students in the process of developing your classroom routines, and through that process, you won’t only work toward creating a more engaged classroom, you’ll work toward building a community.

Response From Dr. Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. She is the author of three books on the subject of student-driven classrooms: Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom; It’s Not What You Teach But How: Making the CCSS Work for You and Build; and Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement. You can follow Nancy’s blogand find out more about her company at www.idecorp.com:

Do you want your students to be merely compliant? Or engaged in the learning process? At IDE Corp. we use the metaphor, “Teacher as Ferry; Teacher as Bridge” (read a description or watch a video.) While both get you across water, in the case of a ferry, you are compliant while the ferry driver takes you across. This is what many classrooms look like. In the case of a bridge, you move yourself across, thanks to the amazing structures designed by the engineers. That should be the goal of classrooms today.

The “Do Now” is aimed at getting students to work immediately, and while that’s a worthy goal, it is still about the student coming in and compliantly following directions. There is one situation where this is appropriate, which I’ll discuss a little later. For most days, however, put students in charge of their own learning!

Getting Started: At the end of a class period or day, ask students to think about an assignment or activity they need to tackle the next time the class meets. Have them write their own, individual “Do Nows.” When they come in each day, they retrieve a card or sheet (left in the classroom) and get started. Given they leave their “Do Nows” with you, you can read through them and guide them in making appropriate decisions.

Getting Going: Consider giving students an activity list with a variety of ways to learn content. For each topic, include several options for individual, pairs, and/or group work and various ways through which to learn. Beyond the lessons you will the offer whole-class, let students create a schedule of what they will do. Before they leave, make sure they’ve scheduled at least one activity to start the next day. For departmentalized classes, create activity lists that span several days or a weeks.

Power Player: Allow students to recommend additional learning activities they find online that address the content so that they are also contributing to the activity list.

I promised one exception: When launching a new unit, you may want to offer your lesson at the start of class. However, since students are walking in from outside your classroom or transitioning from another activity, their heads are anywhere but with you! Use a “Do Now” that draws out a personal connection to or reflection on the topic. For example:

  • If you’re about to introduce those hard-to-spell “ough” words, ask a few question that focus students on those words, such as, “Think of some words that rhyme with puff (but aren’t spelled like it): If something is the opposite of smooth, it’s ___________. You could offer different rhymes to create a longer list.

  • If you’re about to launch a new unit on ecosystems, you might use a “Do Now” that ask students if they were part of a team to create a biodome on Mars, what would they have to take into account?

  • One middle school special education teacher was going to launch a unit on character, setting, and plot by having students design their own storyboards for video games. She opened the unit with a “Do Now” that asked students to write about a video game they’d played. What was it like? What did they like about it? What was the goal of the game?

In each case, you get students focused on the topic before presenting your lesson.

As you move to being more and more of a bridge-builder rather than a ferry, shift the “Do Now” experience to creating the structures to put students in charge of their own learning.

Response From Michele L. Haiken

Michele L. Haiken is a middle school English teacher in Rye, N.Y., and an adjunct professor in Literacy at Manhattanville College. She edited the book Gamify Literacy: Boost Comprehension, Collaboration, and Learning (ISTE, 2017). To see examples how she addresses literacy, technology, and the Common Core in her own classroom and learn more, visit her blog http://theteachingfactor.com and follow her on Twitter at @teachingfactor:

Every lesson begins with a hook. A hook (also known as a walk in or do now) is an opening activity or prompt that draws students into the lesson. A successful hook pulls students into the lesson with interest and inquiry. Below are seven different hooks to create a buzz around teaching and learning.

1. Anticipation Guides - Before a new unit or a reading develop questions about the topic for students to respond to or agree/disagree with. For example, prior to reading an excerpt fromIan Stewart’s Letters to a Young Mathematician, I ask my students to respond True or False to the following statements: Math is a bunch of numbers; I use math every day in my life; One should not have to worry about basic math because we have calculators and computers to do that for us. There were a total of eight statements regarding math on the Anticipation Guide. After reading, students returned to the anticipation guide to check for accuracy in terms of the content of the article. This became a great discussion tool for after the reading as well.

2. Gallery Walks - This idea comes from The New York Times Learning Network and is a way to immerse students into a topic at the beginning of a unit. A Gallery Walk contains a collection of images, articles, maps, quotations, graphs and other written and visual texts to offer students information about a broad subject. Students circulate through the gallery, reading, writing, and talking about what they see.

3. Quick Write and Journaling - Ask students to write down or respond to a question or statement. For example, “What would you do it if . . . ?” Students could then get into small groups or with a partner to discuss their writing.

4. Online Polls & Quizzes- Take your anticipation guide or pre-assessment online and have students use their mobile devices to answer questions regarding a topic - these questions should be true/false or agree/disagree. There are many different free polling sites likepolleverywhere and Kahoot! to easily create an online quiz or survey.

5. Possible Sentences - Give students a word splash or create a Wordleusing a variety of words that will be in the reading or the subject being studied. Students can work independently or in small groups to create possible sentences or make predictions about the words they will come across. Later, students can revisit the sentences to check accuracy.

Another idea with the possible sentences recommended in Subjects Matter by Daniels & Zemelman (Heinemann, 2014) is to have students create a “gist statement” using many of the words on the word splash which they predict will summarize the reading or topic. Finally, students list the things they hope to discover as a result of the words they didn’t understand or questions that inspired the process.

6. Dramatic Role Play - Students work in pairs or small groups to act out a situation or event they will come across later in the reading or subject. The teacher can give students a photograph to improvise and bring to life or the teacher can write out short scenarios for students to present to the whole class.

7. Read Aloud - Share a picture book, read aloud a collection of poems or an excerpt from a play or story to front-load a unit. The read aloud can even be a jumping off point for a writing prompt.

Response From Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson is the veteran principal at the school where I have taught for 15 years, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.:

During both my first and tenth year in the classroom, which was my last before I became an administrator, I was a travelling teacher, having to change classrooms after each period. One morning, during that latter tenure as a sojourner, I was packing my things up and getting ready to move on to my next period. I was running late and, as I packed, I noticed that the students were, little by little, coming into the room for the next class, taking out their things and beginning to work on an activity that the teacher had on the board. Before finally walking out the door, I saw that the entire class was fully engaged in the activity. Since I was running behind, I was thrown off by this visual, and I asked the instructor, a first-year Spanish teacher, “Wait... Did the bell ring already?”. She smiled and replied in an upbeat tone, “No, when we step in the door each day, we immediately get started with our work.” I recall as I walked out thinking “That’s brilliant.” The following year, which was my first as an assistant principal, I began studying the walk-in procedure.

During that time, I learned multiple benefits of having a walk-in procedure. It creates positive behavioral momentum and focus and opportunities for students to have more time on task. In our district, we have 180 days of instruction, which means that for every minute a student begins working before the first bell rings, the student cumulatively gains three hours of on-task time over the course of the school year. What is immeasurable, however, is the amount of on-task time that accumulates as a result of the positive behavioral momentum created at the beginning of each period. Students who are immediately engaged in an academic activity the moment they step into the classroom are less likely to become caught up in off-task behaviors, over the course of a class period, than a group of students who are allowed to relax and engage in conversation, not related to the class, during the minutes leading up to the bell ringing for the start of class.

Walk-in activities build self-efficacy and prime students’ subconscious minds. Following the walk-in-activity tenets described below will make your students feel more successful and confident going into a lesson as they will have already successfully accomplished a task going in.

Our minds create associations between an environment and the behaviors we engage in while we are exposed to that environment. This is why small children enter playgrounds and churches in different ways. We want to create an environment where your students feel engaged in the joy (though, admittedly, they may not actually feel that emotion all the time) of learning from the time they step foot into your classroom until you excuse them at the end of the period.

Please note that what I am describing in this article are the benefits and critical attributes of having a “Walk-In Activity”, which is designed to get the students immediately engaged during the passing period. This activity can be ended a minute or two after the bell rings, giving you a chance to take roll and perhaps some other housekeeping item like passing back work. It doesn’t preclude your following it up with some other opening or warm-up activity after the bell rings.

Our former principal Ted Appel would always say that a good walk-in procedure has four critical attributes, and he would use the metaphor of a basketball team warming up before a game or practice.

  1. No teacher assistance is needed. Think about the steps a high school basketball team takes when they come onto the court before a game. They jog out and take a lap around the perimeter of the court; they then begin shooting layups and then transition into shooting jumpers, followed, perhaps, by some light stretching. During this time the coach is freed up to do her housekeeping activities like checking in with the scorekeepers and the refs. At no point, during this time, does a player raise her hand or run over to the coach to ask for help. Note that a team doesn’t start off their ritual by trying to run the play they learned in practice the night before. In the same way, a walk-in activity for a class shouldn’t be something that they just learned to do a day or two prior. It should be something students can do without your assistance and gives them practice in an academic skill. This has two benefits; it allows you to perform some housekeeping activities like taking roll, passing back work or setting up materials for an activity, and it also makes a student feel more confident going into the lesson.

  2. The teacher ends the activity, not the students. When the clock buzzes to start the game. The coach calls her players over towards the bench. The players could have gone on longer stretching or shooting jumpers or free throws. They stopped not because they finished a task or ran out of things to do, but rather because the clock buzzed, and their coach called them over to her. Once you are done taking roll or passing back papers, you will be the one to interrupt the activity by saying something like, “Let’s go ahead and finish up the sentence your working on.”

  3. There’s no need to “go over it” when you’re done. When the coach calls the player over to the bench, they are not asked to reflect on their pregame or pre-practice warm up. In the same way, I encourage you to try implementing walk-in activities that don’t require you to have to go back and correct their work.

  4. And, in the same way that the basketball players are not coming out and going through soccer drills, the walk-in activity should have an academic purpose that is somehow related to the class. Having beginning algebra students solve tangle tables to get their minds engaged is appropriate as could be having them respond to a writing prompt that is open-ended and doesn’t require teacher assistance. In the case of the prompt, however, it would have to somehow be related to the subject being studied.

I always tell our staff that we are not going to make progress towards closing the achievement gap by simply following the same practices as our suburban counterparts. We need to not only make the most of every single minute of class time, but we have to find ways to create minutes outside of that window. A warm-up “mindset,” I’m convinced, helps all of our students become better learners. It also helps all of us become better teachers, too.

Response From Rachel Baker

Rachel Baker, LSW, is the author of The Empower Program, K-2: Concrete Strategies for Positive Behavioral Support (Rowman & Littlefield 2016) and serves as Executive Director of Education & Advocacy for Social Responsibility Through Me (SRTM), a non-profit organization in Camden, N.J., focused on service, civic engagement, and positive mentoring relationships. Rachel has worked in education for over a decade as a licensed social worker, youth organizer, and educational activist who emphasizes social justice and education equity:

Most “Do Now” activities involve quick, easy-to-access instructions that both engage and occupy students while the teacher greets, collects attendance, and eventually begins the lesson. A good “Do Now” activity will relate to the lesson directly, infusing review content such as foundation skills, preliminary knowledge, or connections to the lesson that build interest for students. Examples span across grades, but some simple suggestions include (from younger to older students):

  • Coloring a picture of the topic of the lesson about to be introduced
  • Putting together a simple puzzle with a clue to the lesson topic
  • Reviewing math problems that prepare for the lesson to come (easy)
  • Completing KWL charts for the topic
  • Playing a vocabulary game where students try and choose the real definition of a word as opposed to the other 2 options
  • Comparing current academic content to a current event (critical thinking)

While “Do Now” activities have typically been utilized as a behavior management technique to occupy students as they first begin a lesson, I feel that this can also become an active opportunity for teachers to engage a student’s need for social-emotional support. Depending on the grade level, I recommend some form of emotional check-in such as a smiley face scale where younger students circle how they are feeling today followed by a space to draw or jot down why they are feeling a certain way.

For older students, you could add a line before the content question relating to their mood, for instance, “Describe your mood using only animals or current TV or movie characters.” This a simple yet important addition to the usual “Do Now” activities of a few review problems, questions or visual puzzles to start the lesson that will not only provide the student with a more interesting and motivating first action, but will also offer the teacher valuable information as to the social-emotional status of his or her students. This goes further than simply “occupying” students as a behavior management play because it gets to the root trigger of most behavioral issues before they have a chance to bloom. It also gives the teacher a chance to get to know his or her students more personally, providing valuable insight into multiple intelligence-based instructional options for future planning!

Response From Louise Goldberg

Louise Goldberg has been a yoga teacher and educator for over 35 years. She is the author of Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs (2013), Creative Relaxation® Yoga for Children DVD (2004), and co-author of S.T.O.P. and Relax, Your Special Needs Yoga Toolbox (2006). Her latest book is Classroom Yoga Breaks. She is the director of the Yoga Center of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and is a licensed massage therapist. She leads trainings in Creative Relaxation yoga for children to educators, therapists, and parents nationally. Louise has been a reading specialist and has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels:

Sometimes you have to catch your students off guard to earn their attention. This requires meeting them where they are.

When I started teaching, over 40 years ago, I wasn’t much of a clown by nature. Still, I found myself doing everything short of wearing a lampshade on my head to get my students to attend. I soon discovered that I couldn’t demand their attention, but I could earn it, often by observing and listening to them. Children of all ages and abilities yearn to be heard and seen.

When students come to class unruly or agitated, we may try calming words, a demanding assignment, or even threats and punishments. While these can be effective tools for quieting a room momentarily, this rarely contributes to real learning.

Although it’s uncommon for all students to present in the same manner, you are probably practiced at assessing the overall mood of the class. Acknowledging your students’ state and combining it with the element of surprise may get them where you want them more quickly than you think.

Let your students know that this will be an experiment. If it goes well, it will be repeated. Set a specific time limit for this activity, and be very clear about the signal for its conclusion.

If it’s a “hyper” day, give students a moment to walk around the classroom and greet friends. Or, let them run in place, making lots of noise. You may invite them to play drums on their desks or hop up and down 15 times. Then, when time is up, ask them to take their seats, take a few slow deep breaths, and begin the work that you had planned for the day. If they respond well, congratulate them and let them know that you will use this technique again.

On days when students appear lethargic or disinterested, try another tack. Again, specify the boundaries of this activity and try one of these: Give them a few moments to daydream. Lead them in some slow, meditative breathing exercises. Ask them to put their heads down on their desks and guide them on an imaginary walk to a beautiful, quiet place. Then lead them gently back to the classroom and begin the work you had planned.

If a school or community event results in many angry students, give them a moment to write down the source of their anger on a piece of paper. Then let them crush it into a ball or tear it to pieces. Place the wastebasket in the middle of the classroom, and ask each of them to deposit their anger in the receptacle. Or turn this into a written assignment--a letter to someone who might be able to respond to their feelings, a poem, or song.

If students are squirmy, have them stand up, sit down, stand up, and sit down repeatedly and quickly for two full minutes. Then, let them sit for a moment and catch their breath before redirecting them to their work.

Giving students a minute or two to transition from their current state to one of learning readiness is a kindness to them and a bonus to you. Not only have you honored who they are, you have earned their attention.

Responses From Readers

Melanie Ward:

One focus in MS and HS Performing Arts at our school is fostering student creativity. Our team has created a shared Google Slideshow of creative thinking activities that we can use as ‘do now’ activities (we continue to add to it as we think of and discover new ideas). For example, ‘describe life inside a tennis ball’ or ‘using this shape [perhaps a zig-zag or any other simple shape] as a starter, draw a picture in your Process Journal’ or ‘list as many uses for a ________ as you can’. These ‘do now’ activities engage student thinking and mean that lessons begin with purpose and a relevant focus.

Thanks to Michele, Nancy, Matthew, Jim, Rachel, and Louise, and to readers, for their contributions!

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