Updated: Dec 11, 2018
One issue most teachers face, no matter what subject they teach, is how to keep students motivated in the classroom. This problem seems to become a larger concern as the students get older and “cute/fun” projects and activities aren’t as readily available and the push for testing becomes a larger focus. We often think, “How can I combine all the skills required into fun lessons that students will enjoy? I have testing to focus on, so I don’t have time to make learning fun…or can I?”
"How can I keep my students motivated?" This was a question I pondered for several years, and each year, I would find a new activity or idea that I would incorporate into my lesson plans. BUT…it didn’t seem to solve the problem all year long. So, what do I do to help my students enjoy learning and still focus on the seemingly endless number of content requirements? I realized for students to become motivated to learn, they need:
High interest materials/stories
Hands-on activities (not just a worksheet)
A feeling of control over their own learning
Competition (Yes! Competition! Students enjoy trying to come up with the correct answer if they believe someone else may get it first.)
So, that got me thinking... As an ELAR teacher, one problem I was having while reading various genres (books, novels, short stories, simple stories on a worksheet, the dreaded basal reader, etc.) is that my students had to read so much material just to answer a simple question and learn a skill. Or, they had to read a two-page story from a workbook and answer ten questions just to get to the summary or revising/editing question I so desperately wanted them to learn. I soon decided the worksheet approach just wasn’t working for them or for me.
A New Plan
My partner teacher and I put our heads together and brainstormed ways we could get our students exposed to the genre or skill they needed without being overwhelmed by a passage’s length. We decided to try taking excerpts from passages or stories and break them up onto task cards with one STAAR-formatted multiple-choice question we created on each. That way they would get the grade-level text and rigor they needed, but they wouldn’t get overwhelmed and shut down like usual. As it turns out, we were right! We used these task cards in all kinds of ways in the classroom - in centers, small groups, intervention, exit tickets, etc. Then, we decided if we made it into a game and allowed them to take more initiative in their own learning, the students would probably be even more engaged. We called the game, “Be the Teacher,” and it was an instant hit with the kids! In fact, it changed our classrooms forever.
How It Works
After a mini-lesson and sufficient practice on a specific skill, I then let the students have full control of the classroom. I only step in to clarify or expand understanding.
I choose task cards specific to the skill or skills I want to teach (ex. editing drafts for grammar, main idea, summary, punctuation, etc.). I stack them on the table at the front of the room and ask a student to choose a card.
The student takes the teacher seat at my front table and places the card under the document camera to display it on the board (this could also be done on a smart board or projected from a laptop - see tech tip below).
The student reads the passage and question on the card to the class.
The rest of the students are seated, and each have an A, B, C, and D card that they are holding close to their chest (to avoid cheating). The “teacher” student waits as the audience chooses their answer by placing the card of their choice on top of the deck (still holding it close to their chest). The “teacher” student asks anyone who is not ready with an answer to raise their hand and allows more time if needed.
When all students are ready, the “teacher” student asks them to hold their card high above their heads and surveys the class to see if everyone answered correctly.
I glance around the room to evaluate how many students have a grasp of the concept. The “teacher” student reveals the answer. I then reteach misconceptions and discuss each answer choice.
What Keeps Them Interested?
Not only are the stories high interest and short, (animals, sports, fiction, poetry, biographies, etc…), but I encourage competition. I know that’s a “no-no” in some situations, but if done in the right way, it works! I don’t allow any negative comments, and a student with the wrong answer is never pointed out. I also don’t allow students to look around the room at other students' answers.
If ALL students get the correct answer, I give them a pink slip. (It’s just a small strip of pink paper with my initials on it that goes into a drawing at the end of the week for a treasure box prize or small piece of candy. But you could also use a roll of tickets or a cute class reward ticket you find online – pink slips were just cheap and easy.) It may sound silly, but it works! Then in January, the big push for “the test” kicks in, so we change the rewards to what we call “Pirate Bucks” (our school mascot is a pirate). We just used an online template from kidsmoneyfarm.com to include a pirate on the front, but you could use your school’s mascot, your picture, or anything else you choose. We made up a reward list of prizes that we think our students will enjoy and that don’t cost us a lot of money. The students can save their bucks to purchase items from the list. If you’re interested in the reward list we use, click here to download the free template.
Since I do teach tested subjects, sometimes I give individual pink slips or pirate bucks as the testing season approaches. Students hold their answers up long enough for the “teacher” to reveal the answer. I then ask students with the correct answer to stand as they continue to hold their correct answer above their head. I give a buck to each student with a correct answer. This competition really encourages the other students to think a little bit harder and by the end of the lesson, I see a vast improvement in learning.
How to Reach All Learners
Because we have students learning at various levels in our classrooms, we soon realized we needed more resources to use for differentiation. We couldn’t find what we needed on the market, so we decided to start making our own skill-specific task cards that allowed us to focus on an individual skill with our struggling learners and with our on grade level and advanced learners.
Since most of our task cards come in basic and advanced sets, they are an excellent way to differentiate in the regular classroom. I use the basic sets in my small group lessons to teach my struggling students, while my higher students work on the advanced sets in centers. I also have used cards from the grade level below mine if my students are still struggling. Last year, a student in the applied class was integrated into my classroom for whole-group instruction. Her teacher came to my class with her, but the young girl really struggled with the grade level material and wasn’t very interested in learning or participating in class. Once I implemented Pirate Bucks in January, I saw a different student. Although she had limited reading abilities, she wanted so badly to earn rewards that she began listening and participating intently. She even volunteered to be the “teacher.” Now, that’s what teaching is all about!
How Will Your Students React Once It's All Over?
This past school year, when “the test” was over, end-of-the-year activities were in full swing, and I was thinking about the best time to begin cleaning up my room for the summer, I decided to pack up the task cards I used for my “Be the Teacher” games. My students were so upset and couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t be playing anymore. A few students volunteered to help me sort all my cards into stacks by skill. (They are color-coded, so this is easy to do.) As we were sorting the cards, some of the students would say, “I remember this card! I learned____ about ____.” Or “I loved this story about ____.” The fact that they still remembered the passages and could recall information was huge! Talk about rewarding!!
How Did It Catch On?
Pretty soon, the buzz about “Be the Teacher” began trickling down the hallway. Our math teachers could see how excited the students in our classrooms were about learning, and they wanted to be able to do the same in their classrooms, too. So before long, we began creating math task cards for them to implement in their math classes, as well. In a short amount of time, they could see what all the hype was about. Their students were engaged in the learning process and took ownership of their learning like never before – it truly was a game changer.
Do you have any other ways you use task cards in your classroom to increase student engagement? We'd love to hear about them! Please tell us in the comment section below.
Task cards don’t always have to be printed. You can save paper, ink, and time at the copy machine by using the PDF files digitally with any tablet, Chromebook, laptop, etc. Or, if you have a Promethean Board or Smart Board, try importing the PDF files of your task cards into your smart board program. This way, the task cards are instantly ready for use, and you and your students can manipulate and annotate the files digitally. Check out these videos for help importing your files on your interactive whiteboard.