Strong Beginnings: Engaging Learners From the Moment They Walk in the Door

This week Jen Stanchfield author of Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation offers more ideas for starting school and fall programs off on the right foot:

“The beginning is the most important part of the work”. -Plato

Think back to your most memorable learning experiences, the courses you enjoyed, and the teachers you found effective. How did they start off their classes or workshop sessions? How did they begin the school year? How did they greet you when you came into their classroom? Chances are they created a compelling way to draw you into the learning experience.
Jen Stanchfield's Toolbox
In your classroom or group sessions these first few minutes can be a great opportunity to draw learners into a positive experience and create “buy in” to increase engagement. Research on the brain and learning is showing that novel activities help learners shift their focus into the learning space and create a “hook” around the topic at hand increasing engagement and retention (Medina, 2010, Willis, 2010).

Find a Hook!
Over the years I have found a number of ways to engage learners from the moment they walk in the door by using objects, images, or quotes and entry tasks such as a writing prompt, reflective conversation, or a daily puzzle. These methods involve the group in a meaningful learning experience while at the same time allowing me to take care of “administrative” duties such as adjusting room set up or materials, taking attendance or collecting homework. For groups that are meeting for the first time providing an activity to focus on as they gather or get settled in the room can create a welcome focus during what can be awkward time for some participants.

Here are a few of my favorite approaches for engaging groups from the moment they walk in the door:
Stanchfield Pick-A-Postcard Kit
Using pictures from magazines, postcards, or other images is an engaging way to draw in learners. I often use my “Pick-A-Postcard” collection as a “get to know you” and/or reflection activity at the beginning of a professional development program or workshop, on the first day of school, or as a way to welcome participants back after a break between workshop sessions, or students back after school vacations. The images can be a great way to explore the use of metaphor, figurative language, and perspective or as a creative writing prompt.

To Begin a Group or Facilitate Introductions and Goal Setting:
Spread postcards out so they are accessible to all group members. As students or participants enter the room for group or class ask them to choose a card centered on a reflective, goal setting, or conversation starting topic. The cards could represent questions or themes such as:
• Choose a card that that you would send to a friend to describe what your summer break was like? Or to describe your goal for the school year or program.
• Choose a card that represents a strength you bring to the group or a skill you want to work on?
• What is a unique perspective you bring to the group or program?
• In Language Arts classes you might use this method to introduce or explore the use of metaphor and explore theme and figurative language.

Having the cards available during pre-group gathering time or as an entry activity during the first five minutes of class can help jumpstart conversations, help group members get to know each other, and set the tone for the lesson or experience. Choosing a card gives people something to focus on as they transition into the workshop or classroom space.

Miniature Metaphors
Toolbox or Miniature Metaphor Charms: I have an old toolbox filled with a collection of found objects—items such as antique keys, an old lock, an old camera, joke glasses, white out, a ruler, and other items. I use these tools in similar way as the postcards for both introductory activities and reflection (Miniature Metaphors are the “miniature” version I started making as a resource for educators who need a back pocket sized toolbox see

Quotes are another great transitional, introductory or reflective activity. They are an engaging way to introduce or explore a subject with a group prior to a lecture or discussion. Discussing quotes can be a way to help group members find common ground or connections or spark creative thought around a subject or issue.

When facilitating workshops for educators, I often start out the program by displaying my collection of quotes cards with themes around leadership, teaching and learning. As group members arrive for the program I ask them to choose a quote that resonates with them. Depending on the program they later reflect upon this individually, write about it, or discuss it with a partner or the whole group. Group members often initiate conversations with each other during this pre-workshop time as they gather at the quote table.

Dominos are a playful way to engage participants in an activity as they enter the room. This activity doubles as a great technique for creating partners for “pair sharing” or other partnered or group activities or dialogue.

Hand everyone a domino; have them match up one set of ‘spots’ with another participant. I challenge students/participants to make sure EVERYONE has a partner—which means there is some problem solving involved. This stretches them to interact with a number of different people in the group. When they get into partners you might have them share a reflective question, a get to know you question, their opinions on a current events topic, discuss last night’s homework, or their reactions to the lesson you just presented.
Jen Stanchfield's Dominoes Activity

Benefits of Using Objects and Images as “Starter” or Transitional Activity:

• These activities build rapport in the classroom or group room by giving learners a focal point or “conversation starter” during what can sometimes be a socially awkward situation—building comfort within the group and helping to establish positive social connections with each other.
• Learners feel engaged, involved, and welcomed into the space from the very start.
• Giving participants an opportunity to make a choice for themselves in your classroom or group gives them a message that choice, control, ownership and their input in the learning experience is important.
• There is social, emotional and physical engagement.
• These centering activities help participants focus on the here and now.
• There is inherent novelty and a sense of fun and creativity in these activities, increasing interest and buy in.
• These activities can create context and relevancy for an upcoming lesson.
• Often people find it easier to share when they can attach their thoughts to an object or image.
• Conversation and reflection can become more metaphorically rich than with conversation alone.
• Learners engage in reflection early on in their educational experiences, helping them practice the art of reflection in an engaging and meaningful way, which will lead to better reflection and transference of learning later in the learning experience. These activities build comfort with reflective practice and dialogue.
• Reflection becomes an enjoyable interesting part of a learning experience rather than a “chore” that takes place after a novel learning experience.

Depending on your group size, goals and dynamics you can ask participants to share their object or image choice with a partner, or share with the entire group. I like to blend this activity with an interactive partner icebreaker such as “ Commonalities Mingle, Handshake Mingle or Concentric circles” (see Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation or the Experiential Tools/Inspired Educator Blog for descriptors of these activities.

These are just a few of many techniques and ideas that can help make the most of your teaching time, help students take ownership over their learning experiences and increase their focus, attention and retention from the very start of a learning experience.

Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Stanchfield, Jennifer (2007) Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation. OKC, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing Co.

Willis, Judy. (2006). Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Experiential Tools: Pick-A-Postcard Kit, Miniature Metaphors and the Inspired Educator Blog:

A version of this post first appeared in the 2011 Inspired Educator Blog.

One Response to “Strong Beginnings: Engaging Learners From the Moment They Walk in the Door”

  1. Kim Severance says:

    I have loved working with Jen in the past and will miss her dearly now that I have moved across the country. I was pleased to read this article on experiential learning. It has always been helpful in my elementary classroom setting. I just began teaching at a community college level and eagerly integrated a couple of activities into the opening class. I am planning to continue using them throughout the semester as well. I am also looking forward to using them with my soon to begin junior high and high school students this coming school year.
    Thanks for making this terrific article available.

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