Starters are, as the name suggests, meant to start off your lesson and engage students in some sort of learning related activity the moment they shuffle though your classroom door. I’ve seen (and been responsible for) countless starter activities either projected (or written in the old days) on the board or scattered over desks. This ensures the keen beans who arrive early don’t have to lose precious learning time while they wait for the cool cohort who will cut it is fine as you allow ’em to.
Back in 2002 I moved to a new school and was given as a welcome present 101 Red Hot English Starters. It’s packed with fun activities aimed at KS3 students covering a wide range of word, sentence and text level objectives. In the introduction it says, “The starters in this book have been tried and tested with a variety of classes, of differing abilities, so they certainly do work.” And so, being keen to get on board with the new-fangled ‘3 part lesson’, I made extensive use of it. But although as a new teacher in a school mired deep in Special Measures it felt like a boon, what did ‘work’ actually mean? For me it meant one more activity to keep kids in their seats for as long as possible. Some of the starters didn’t ‘work’ because my students didn’t like them, so those were rarely repeated. Others became staples I could wheel out whenever I couldn’t think of anything better. Some of them could even be spun out into entire lessons if the kids seemed content enough.
Here’s a bit of a taste:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the intention behind most of these starters (although ‘chronic phonics’ makes me cringe a bit now.) The objectives are sound and the aims reasonable; these were all things my students ought to have known. The trouble was, using them as activities to occupy truculent teens tended to mean that very little was ever remembered. That is to say, students would remember doing the starter but not the content it was designed to teach. Covering this stuff ad hoc, in the first 10 minutes or so of a lesson is, I know now, not the best way to get students to learn stuff.
The starters presented in the Red Hot series (there were various other books for different subjects) were at least tied to the National Curriculum and contained some useful content. These fell out of fashion as time went on and it became received wisdom that starters ought not to be stand alone activities but rather ‘tasters’ for the lesson that was to come. The purpose was always presented as a way to ‘hook’ students into a lesson and to engage their interest. As such, the more exciting and dramatic the starter, the better.
Whilst I’m all in favour of students being engaging in the rich and fascinating content of their lessons, exciting them at the beginning might just backfire. Dan Willingham is critical of what he calls ‘attention grabbers’ in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? Consider the example of a teacher who wore a toga to class on the first day she began a unit on ancient Rome. Willingham says, “I am sure that got her students’ attention. I am also sure it continued to get their attention – that is, to distract them – once the teacher was ready for them to think about something else.” While you can, of course, grab students’ attention with something relevant and meaningful, is the start of the lesson really the best time to do this?
In my experience, the transition from one subject to another (or for older students, from one classroom and teacher to another) is enough to buy at least a few minutes of attention from students. It’s usually the middle of the lesson that needs a little drama to draw students back from whatever reverie they might be in. (p. 81)
Better perhaps for them to leave pumped and primed for tomorrow’s lesson. At the start of a lesson what we should aim for is calm, order and routine. My advice would be to start lessons by recapping what students should have learned in previous lessons. Many of the activities which are often recommended as good ways to end lessons could be more usefully moved to the start. Instead of exit tickets, better to provide entrance tickets. one of the best routines to put in place at the start of lessons is to get students used to being asked multiple choice questions. Because students are merely recording the number of the answer they think is correct, there are very quick to administer and provide students with very clear feedback on what they can and can’t independently recall.
Over time, as behaviour in my classes improved, I stopped using Red Hot Starters. When I left the school 5 years later I found my dog-eared copy in the bottom of my desk drawer and decided not to take it with me.