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I have known many teachers (and I have done it myself) who begin their classes by journaling. The journal question can somehow be related to whatever the content of the lesson is going to be, if that is possible. This gives the students a chance to relate to the content on a personal level.
I used to start a class with silent reading, but then I thought about how difficult that is for most young students to do--be extremely quiet and focused when they first come into class after lunch, the bell, etc.
Now, I start right into a lesson, by discussing our agenda for the day (very briefly) and then the first activity (this could be a Socratic discussion of the previous day's material), a review, etc. If I get started right away and am not rifling through papers, stalling, or getting classroom technology ready, it sends a message to my students that they need to be prompt and that I take their time seriously--I'm not there to waste it.
I most often start class with a journal - it is settling and allows them some (often much needed) me-time to get focused.
Another awesome activity I've done though (especially with really out of control classes - or classes that have bad habits with regard to participation) is starting class with a riddle. I haven't had a class yet who didn't get into it. If they don't seem into it at first, I usually say - "What, you guys give up?" Of course they say yes, assuming I'll give them the answer. I say, "Okay, let's get started..." this is always followed by screams of "We don't give up!" Usually they work at it until they get the answer and often this gets their brains going in a way nothing else does.
I like to write on the board a question of the day. This opens up the mind and is a relaxing way to begin the morning. Then I have students share their journals. I let them ask three questions. This is a great way to begin the day!
I also use journal questions to both begin and end the period. These range from general to very specific. Sometimes they're review, and sometimes I'm just looking to jump-start conversation. For example, during our reading of A Separate Peace in my 10th grade class, I might ask their impression of the narrator in the first 2 chapters, or ask their opinion on single gender classrooms. Or, I may focus on devices, such as asking them to find the metaphor on p. 28 and explain its effects. In this way, they're focused and ready for the class. I've also found that I need to allot at least 5 minutes for discussion after the journal question, at least with sophomores. They love to talk!
Whatever you choose to start the class period, try to keep it consistent. Students want consitency. Also keep in mind, that a good class starter should be started as soon as the student walks in and sits down. This feeds into academic time even as the teacher is taking attendance and would otherwise be occupied.
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