Prelude to a Meaningful Class Start

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Students enter a new classroom setting potentially six or seven times a day, and how they make the transition and start over yet again impacts their quality of learning.

In my first few years of teaching, I began observing student behaviors at the start of class and noticed consistent wasted time and energy on settling students into the class.  I began creating meaningful lesson openers that would encourage student thinking from the moment they walk into my classroom.  It didn’t take long for me to see the benefits this had on classroom management and the learning environment.  It was a few years later when I came across research by Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and educator, which I knew why in fact my efforts were paying off in terms of retention.   Dr. Willis’ research tells us that curiosity– the sense of wanting to know what comes next,  sets the stage for meaning and focus and the neurological functions that ensure learning.   I begin class with a prelude — an attention grabber, aka., Madeline Hunter’s anticipatory set.   Just as the prelude to a song has the listener hanging on for more, my preludes are designed with intentionality to do the same.  Preludes also are “non-threatening”; there are no right or wrong answers, which is necessary, according to Dr. Willis, because learning happens when the amygdala, our brain’s switching station, is in a state of low stress.  My better preludes spark insightful academic conversation that can last the entire class. But all good songs come to an end– as does prelude time.

How I introduce the prelude

At the beginning of each school year, I use a prelude to model our daily practice of preludes to come. I choose a song that has a particularly long instrumental before the lyrics begin, and then we unpack the purpose of this part of the song.  There are plenty of great songs to choose from:  The Who’s Baba O’Reily, Elton John’s Funeral for a Friend, and Coldplay’s Life in Technicolor are samples of what I’ve used in the past.  After listening to the song, I pose a few questions regarding the beginning, middle, and end of the song, but focusing most my attention on the beginning of it.  The prompt might be, “What effect did the prelude have on the rest of the song? What purpose did it serve?  How might this song played out differently had it not been included the prelude?”  Inevitably some students know this part of the song is referred to as the prelude, and they articulate that the listener is wanting and waiting for the lyrics to tell the story.  I then explain to students that each class will start with a prelude– a beginning exercise that in some way will pique their curiosity and pull them into the day’s lesson.  Let me say here that this is a win-win start to the school year as well– a sort of prelude to the year.  They are intrigued by this approach to learning; students love music in the classroom and wonder what other approaches I might have planned for them. I’m double dipping: using the hook as a hook!

The three components of an effective class prelude

1) Engaging — It Must Be Thought Provoking

Class start prelude journalsEach student has their own composition notebook that stays in class.  It takes about two days for the useful routine to take hold.  Students enter the classroom and the first student in passes out the prelude journals. Depending on my teaching schedule, however, I like to distribute the journals myself since this serves as a quick check-in and face-to-face with each student, and time for mental attendance.  Students look to the board for the daily prompt, and then thinking and writing begins.

If the prelude isn’t provoking thought, students will not dig deeply enough to write a decent paragraph. I have used video clips, quotes, startling statistics, poems, song lyrics, paintings, and hypothetical situations– each followed by a question prompt.

2) Relatable — The Personal Connection is Critical

An effective prelude allows for a personal connection and is relatable in some way, so I’m intentional with the way I connect the video, quote, statistic, etc., to the prompt. Sound confusing?  Here’s a simple example:

Civilization Studies, 10th grade class during a unit on Buddhism–students will learn about the Buddhist practice “The Eightfold Path”.  After the prelude, students will read the primary source document, Setting in Motion the Wheel of Law.

A circle with eight rungs (a wheel) along with the prompt are projected:  “Draw the wheel and fill in the eight spaces with eight ways you know you’ve had a worthwhile and meaningful day.”  This simple prompt is engaging (component #1) because students had fun drawing a wheel in their journal (some with colored pencils, some pull out their math protractors), and then they’ll think about a worthwhile and productive day. Students related to this prompt (component #2) because it’s about their day — not Buddha’s day or my day — their day.   After about 7-8 minutes, students share their “eightfold path” to a meaningful day with the rest of the class.  Worth noting:  You learn quite a lot about the students; what’s important to them and what they consider a worthwhile day.  I should say, too, that this type of prompt where they get to share more about their life priorities is a class community building exercise.

Prelude class start writing prompt

3) Serves as a thread for the rest of the class.

On to key component #3- preludes must serve as a thread for the rest of the lesson.  Students who connect their own experiences and thinking to something else is an effective learning practice.  While the prompt in and of itself can serve as a platform to reflect and write, a thoughtfully planned prompt ensures you are working towards lesson and unit objectives.

Returning to my example, students will be expected to understand the historical significance of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, including the Eightfold Path.  They will be reading a complex primary source document, Setting in Motion the Wheel of Law, which will make more sense having thought through and responded to the prelude prompt. I could ask them to compare their eightfold path to the path of Buddha’s or reflect on why Buddha’s path is appropriate for the time period as well as their own.  It’s worth noting that students have an easier time learning (hate to say, memorizing) specifics if they have grappled with the material in some relatable way.  Had I gone straight to the primary source document, students would lose the opportunity to make valuable connections to a document written during the 6th century BCE.

Lessons learned

Preludes for have been part of my lessons while teaching both middle and high school humanities and social science classes.  I can’t imagine a class where preludes wouldn’t be an effective teaching approach, whether it be a math, science or world language class.  I prepare preludes for about 90% of my classes, and it’s worth noting that students have been known to complain on days where there is no prelude!   As far as grading preludes, we know the importance of clear expectations and accountability, and in my opinion, anything worth time in class is worth points in a grade book.   Time given to preludes, both in preparation or delivery, is well worth it in ways that I am still discovering.


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Lisa Gumina

In addition to teaching Humanities, Lisa is also the Director of Teaching and Learning at an independent high school in Southern California. She shares ideas and insight through the lens of brain-based learning. Additionally, Lisa writes about approaches to inspire teacher professional development and ways to create meaningful collaborative relationships.

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Lisa Gumina By Lisa Gumina

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