Brain Breaks and Rejoinders: Taking Back the Class

The first part of this post is all about Brain Breaks. The second part of this post is part one of my follow-up to ACTFL 2019. Together, brain breaks specifically in the target language and rejoinders, are the perfect way for me to control the chaos of my first year Latin classes.

I teach a mix of 8th-11th graders in the morning and an 8th grade class of mostly boys at the end of the day. The morning class is generally well-behaved, but frequently still sleepy from the previous night and/or disenchanted with education. It takes a lot to get most of them actively involved in the class; those already active are REALLY active and can easily take control of the day’s lesson. By the end of the day, though, those boys are very much wide awake and are bundles of energy, excitement, and highly distractable. We get off-task regularly and I frequently have to stop, point, and smile until they calm down and we can get back to the learning at hand.


After reading about the reasoning and research behind brain breaks, I wanted to do them. What followed was a bunch of fun and crazy trial-and-error with my classes. What follows here is a list of the brain break winners. Whether a brain break is a winner or loser, depends on the students and classes, so feel free to ignore some of these ideas or try some of your own instead.

A lot of these come from ideas shared by others. I adapted them to my classroom and students as needed.

In Latin

Decimation – Students stand in a circle. Teacher starts counting in Latin. Students continue counting around the circle. Students may say one number, two numbers, or three numbers; students cannot say more than three consecutive numbers. Students must say consecutive numbers 1-10. Any student that says 10 is out and must sit down.

Amici aut Inimici – Students move randomly around the classroom. The teacher calls out a number in Latin. Students must rush to form a group of students with the number said. Students left out of a group, are out.

Spelling – Students work in groups and use their bodies to spell out the meanings of vocabulary words. Can work both ways: give English, spell Latin or give Latin and spell English.

Vita aut Mors – Can be done in Latin or English, depending on the level of the class. Students start standing up. A statement is made. Students who believe the statement is a life or death situation then either sit or stand depending on the teacher’s instruction. An additional detail is added to the statement and the question of whether the statement is life or death is repeated. Students cannot get out, but can be asked to support their choice.

In English/No Language

Copy Cat – Students stand in a circle. The teacher starts with an action. Students copy the action. Next student does an action and everyone copies it. On and on until everyone has had a chance to do an action for the class to copy.

Rock, Paper, Scissors Train – Students break off into pairs and play three rounds of rock, paper, scissors. Whoever loses, stands behind the other student (touching shoulders as if in a train). Winners move onto new winners and so forth. The final winner plays three rounds against the teacher.

Imagitation – This one also requires some preparation. Teacher creates a presentation of images of people or animals (ideally from the culture or student-driven). Before each image, a number is projected. Students will form groups with the number when the music stops (plus or minus one is fine). Then, an image is projected. Students have to re-create the image to the best of their ability, then freeze and wait for teacher evaluation/declaration of the winner. Repeat. Link to my presentation of images.

Brain breaks have become a great way for me to take back the control from a class that is slowly blowing me off – I see student heads start to drop to the desks and eyes glaze over, we do a brain break. I see students start squirming in their chairs, we do a brain break. Talkative or side conversations? Brain break. Mass confusion? Brain break, then redirect or pull the plug and switch tactics. Even when we’ve moved through an activity faster than anticipated, we slow things down with a brain break. My students like them, I like them. And, when I forget about them, they are the first to remind me.


I went to ACTFL 2019 in Washington, D.C. at the end of November specifically looking for sessions on Content-Based Instruction and teaching novellas. However, when I saw that one of the demos at the CI Posse booth was on rejoinders, I was interested. I recently posted an idea/activity I wanted to try with my students on the Latin Best Practices: The Next Generation in Comprehensible Input and got some critical feedback on what I was suggesting. But, in that feedback, a few folks mentioned rejoinders. Without really understanding what and how to use a rejoinder (any videos I found online were not very enlightening since I didn’t understand much of the language presented), I initially brushed off the idea. I’m glad I didn’t completely ignore it, though.

The demo with Brett Chonko and Grant Boulanger was well-done and thanks to them, once I returned to my classroom, rejoinders were the first things I introduced to great success. What follows are some of my notes from the demo and then a reflection on what I’ve seen in my class.

  • present rejoinders 4 or 5 at a time
  • associate gestures with the rejoinders – either teacher chosen or student chosen; the gestures must be done when the rejoinder is spoken, but can also be done instead of speaking if student is the quiet-type or not yet ready to speak aloud
  • teach the “right way” to say rejoinder: intonation, when
  • introduce with choral response (repeat teacher) in tone/rhythm; for longer or more complex rejoinders, start at the end of long words and work backwards
  • the teacher must recognize student responses when given; either with a look, a smile, a nod, or more
  • to encourage use, play the rejoinder game for class participation: between classes, groups in the class, or even teacher versus the class
    • rejoinders must make sense to context
    • can drive greater engagement in listening activities
    • work as a comprehension check
    • encourage appropriate behavior
    • no piggybacking off other student’s rejoinder
    • once a rejoinder is over-used cross it out and introduce another rejoinder
  • to control classroom chaos:
    • give quiet/reserved/shy student a sign or prop to cue class response
    • give energetic students specific rejoinders to use (control outbursts/interruptions by making a plan with energetic student)

I introduced 7 rejoinders to my class after Thanksgiving break; 3 one day, 4 the next day:

Certē! Yes!
Iūcundē! How sweet!
Babae! How strange!
Utinam! I wish! If only!
Prō dolor! What a shame!
Nūgae! Nonsense!
Utcumque! Whatever!

We practiced each one over and over until students were comfortable. Then, I asked for suggestions of an appropriate gesture. I chose one offered and as a class we practiced combining the rejoinder with the gesture and correct intonation. Next, we discussed when each rejoinder would be appropriate to use with random scenarios as examples. Finally, I introduced the game. I use a click-counter to record rejoinders – in order to keep tally of the number used each class and as a visual and auditory acknowledgement of each rejoinder so I didn’t have to remember to give a physical sign of recognition (which, with my easily distracted brain, often meant I lost my own flow).

It worked better than I imagined! All of a sudden, every student was engaged. Every student wanted me to talk, because the more I said or the more we did, the more chances they could respond. If I had to stop, smile, and wait, they lost opportunities. Even my quiet and shy students were out there in the class gesturing for me to acknowledge. Students even began listening to one another and helping each other with rejoinders and responses that they could respond to. Even better, students wanted to learn more rejoinders in order to be able to respond in more ways.

If you haven’t yet tried rejoinders, I strongly suggest you do. They are so much fun!

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