Keeping 1st Period Energized

It’s no secret that American high school students have a sleep problem. Yes, a fair percentage of teenagers stay up too late texting or playing video games. However, the root of the problem rests in how early in the morning high school begins. I still fondly (not really) remember 1st-period Calculus my senior year – plopping down in my chair at 7:25 AM, wanting nothing more than to go back to sleep.

As a teacher, my high school had the foresight to start classes a bit later in the morning: 8:15 AM. Even so, I saw my students face the same internal clock that was telling them that 8:15 AM was still too early. 

During my four years teaching, I learned a few tricks to help sleepy-eyed students stay awake in the early morning. In this article, we'll look at some tips and tricks that any high school teacher can use to induce wakefulness in their students.

The Obvious 

Disclaimer: Although the advice in this article is true to life, I’d HIGHLY RECOMMEND getting your school’s permission before doing it.

During my student teaching days in the spring of 2010, my mentor teacher solved the sleepy-students problem with the subtlety of Alexander the Great facing the Gordian Knot: He just put a coffee pot in his class.

All students had to do was bring their own cups first period to get some of that sweet, sweet caffeine. Now, you may be thinking that yeah, students might have received a caffeine boost, but what happened when they crashed an hour later?

That was their second-period teacher's problem.

For my first two years of teaching, I made sure my Mr. Coffee was full to the brim by 8:15 AM. Students perked up just long enough to get through my lesson on The Crucible or whatever else I was trying to accomplish that day.

I ended up getting rid of the coffee pot not because caffeine didn't work or my school forbade giving students beverages - it's that students kept spilling coffee in my classroom.

So coffee works, but are there are other ways to keep students awake other than the only drug that’s socially acceptable to hand out to minors?

Of course there are.

A Little Movement Goes a Long Way

Imagine your high school’s star athlete. He or she probably gets up at 5:00 AM to exercise before coming to school. Souped up on those positive neurotransmitters we hear about so often in commercials peddling anti-depressants, your star athlete probably has no problem paying attention during 1st period.

Too bad all your students aren’t the same way. But they can be, sort of. To get the blood pumping and the serotonin flowing, incorporate kinesthetic learning activities (e.g., rotating stations) into your 1st-period curriculum. That said, kinesthetic learning is excellent no matter the time of day. Yes, it's not all students’ preferred learning method, but it’ll help keep everyone awake.

Set an Energetic Example 

I get it: you’re tired at 7:25 AM, too. But no matter what you do, don’t let it show. As we all know, one person’s yawning will make everyone yawn. As you’re the one in the front of the class, you need to be ON, turned up to 11, whatever you want to call it. For you science teachers out there, that means more Beakman’s World, less Bill Nye the Science Guy (or heaven forbid, Carl Sagan).

Start Class with an Engaging Question

In addition to setting an energetic example, use warm-up activities that result in maximum mental and emotional engagement from your students. One way that I found works well (and can be used for just about any subject) is turning students into detectives through journaling exercises. Here’s a few examples of what this might look like in your classroom:

  • Social Studies/Art: (There is an image projected on the board without any context.) “What do you notice is odd about this picture?”
  • English: (Students pick up two short texts as they walk in.) “Which text is a song? Which text is the poem the song was based on? Why do you think so?” This question would also work with video games, which have been stealing short story and novel plots for years. (e.g., Atlas Shrugged/Bioshock, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”/Portal, “By the Waters of Babylon”/Horizon Zero Dawn)
  • Chemistry: (Each student picks up a corked test tube filled with a strange substance as they walk in.) “Without opening the vial, how would you go about figuring out what’s inside?”

Final Thoughts

Whether you employ caffeine, movement, high-energy teaching, or engaging questions, there are many ways to keep your 1st-period students engaged. I encourage you to continue searching so that yawns and half-closed eyes are a distant memory in your 1st-period class.

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and consultant in the education field. He lives in Northern California. You can learn more about Thomas on his website.


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