You’re standing in from of a classroom full of relatively alert kids, doing your thing, feeling pretty good about how well you’re getting through to them, when you notice one or two students who have checked out. She’s sitting at her desks with those glazed eyes, physically present but mentally far, far away. His head is down on the desk; he’s just gone. How can you reengage these disengaged children?
Your first impulse may be to call upon the daydreamer and ask a question that will embarrass him/her since, having been mentally absent, the child will be unable to answer. This is counterproductive.
One way would be to shift gears and change your immediate lesson plan to something that demands participation, even if it’s physical. If you’re teaching geography, instead of pointing to a map on the wall, turn your classroom into a map and have the children arrange their desks and/or their persons accordingly. Your daydreamer will have to stand up and move around. Instead of writing two times three is six on the board, make sure your daydreamer is one of the small groups of children you move around the classroom to illustrate multiplication.
Another way would be to shift gears a different way, and give the class a project that demands partnership – and fairly immediate results (not a week-long homework assignment, although there is a benefit to that too; the problem there is that you can’t guarantee, in that format, that the daydreamer will pull his/her weight).
Partner the daydreamer with an active, engaged student and make sure s/he gets to communicate those results and not just defer to the partner. Example: ask the students to write a story and act it out, or read them a short snippet from a history book and ask partners to take pros and cons on an issue regarding that snippet (blue and gray from civil war, for further example).
Video is a wonderful teaching tool, and yet many teachers use it more as a babysitter than as a catalyst for conversation and exploration. Sitting in the dark in front of flickering lights may seem like the very worst way to engage a daydreamer, but used properly and interactively, a video can be quite effective. The key is not to show the video all the way through, then ask questions or invite discussion. Interrupt the show frequently and invite questions and comments, either from teams or partnerships you’ve arranged beforehand, or from individuals, and make sure that daydreamer participates. Note that in most cases it is better to ask for questions than to ask questions. Both may be used to test comprehension, but the questions the students ask will give you a lot more information than will their answers to what you ask.
This guide to teaching with video, while concentrating on teaching to adult students whose native language is not English, may nonetheless give you some valuable ideas about how to teach with video.
Anything that demands some kind of physicality is going to have a better chance of pulling the daydreamer back into the present than a reading assignment or a lecture, but there is something to be said for daydreaming, too and not every solution needs to be immediate. In a nonthreatening way, the daydreamer can be asked to stay a few minutes late after the class, or after school, depending on the level and the period; reassured that s/he is not in trouble; and guided into a more active role in the class.
It would not hurt to ask what the daydreamer is dreaming, although the issue should not be pushed, as the dreams may be personal. Based on the answer, and on your own heightened perceptions (without which you probably would have chosen a different career) you may be able to create an extra-credit (as opposed to punitive) assignment for your student which will correspond in some way to his/her dream, or at least his/her dreaminess.
Example: a student who dreamily doodles dogs may be charmed by being asked for a chart of all the dog breeds s/he can find, or a history of how dogs were domesticated. A pupil who plaintively stares out the window will likely be pleased to present a treatise on anything from global warming to best playground design, or an opinion piece comparing football to baseball. The possibilities are endless, but should be customized for that particular child.
Daydreaming in itself is not a bad thing; your objection to it is simply that you want the child’s attention while s/he is in class, not because you’re vain and seek attention but because presumably you are teaching something valuable from which you want all the children to benefit to the best of their abilities (which will vary – but they should each have an equal chance of reaping that benefit).
The value of daydreaming should not be underplayed, dismissed or disrespected, and if this value can be communicated to your daydreamer while you’re redirecting his/her energies back into the class, you will do the most good – and avoid the most harm.