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Engaging Students during the Long Winter Months

Student studying in the snow

Engaging students during the long, dark winter months can be particularly challenging for teachers. While the scientific community is currently debating the existence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a type of depression related to the changing of seasons), many teachers agree the increase in moodiness and lethargy in students right after November is very real. In fact, if the medical community hadn't found a name for it, teachers would have.

These winter blues can have a tremendous impact on what goes on in (and out) of the classroom during those endlessly chilly months, and it makes engaging students extremely difficult. But, there are some things teachers can do to offset their effects. Let's take a look at two concrete strategies to make winter less like an apocalyptic wasteland and more like a Narnian wonderland (well, I'll do my best).

Break Out the Poetry (Really)

I notice it every year almost immediately after daylight savings time ends: Students are cranky and sleepy. They fight with one another and are reluctant to do much work. The holidays don't help—the stress and emotions of that time of year often makes things worse.

One of the first things I do each year to acknowledge and combat the winter blues to keep my students engaged is to have everyone in my class memorize the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." This beautiful but melancholy piece, which evokes "the darkest evening of the year," perfectly captures the feeling of a New England winter. The entrancing imagery of the lines, "The only other sound's the sweep/of easy wind and downy flake" brilliantly describes the blanketing silence of snow. The last stanza, "But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep," for me, offers some encouragement and hope for students at this challenging time of year.

My students love this poem; they often say it helps get them through the long, dark winter because they, too, have "promises to keep/and miles to go before they sleep." Memorizing poetry can be a meditative practice and can provide some inner solace as kids carry these words with them. After you've repeated the same poem enough times, it can become a permanent part of how you and your students approach work during the winter. The hypnotic quality of those last two lines gives my students great comfort, and long after they graduate, some former students still tell me how much the poem has meant to them over the years, and how it helped them get through difficult periods.

Take a Lap

Beyond poetry, there is more that teachers can do. One time in the dead of January, a student named Steven raised his hand and asked "Miss, can I take a lap?" I was confused, but he explained, "I just need to move, or I'm going to fall asleep." I let Steven take his lap, and he came back to class very productive. I keep that lesson in mind during the winter, creating lessons that require my students to get up, move around, and warm up. Then when they leave my classroom, I tell my students to keep moving—exercise is a wonderful way to combat the winter blues.

I also encourage students, parents, and fellow teachers to get outside and enjoy as much natural sunlight as possible. Go for walks outdoors. Plan family hikes. Park a little further away from the entrance when shopping so you have to walk a bit. I also tell them: "Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and please, stay off those smartphones and tablets at night." (Their artificial light can actually throw off your circadian rhythm, according to a report by NBC News, and you'll wake up exhausted and irritable.)

Finally, I remind students (and teachers) that the Winter Solstice—or "the darkest evening of the year"—is on December 21st, and after that we add a minute of light to each day. As C.S. Lewis writes in the Chronicles of Narnia, "When Aslan bears his teeth winter meets its death. When he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again."