In many ways, teaching from March to June is the most challenging time of the year. It is the period in which students are overwhelmed with state mandated testing in the wake of NCLB, the period in which students and teachers tend to be burdened with colds and flu, and the period in which teachers become increasingly focused on seeing that their students meet their instructional goals for the year. In addition, as the weather improves coming out of winter, students (and dare I admit it, teachers too) become increasingly restless to be out of doors when they must continue to be in classrooms, and anticipating the approaching summer recess. With all of these challenges and distractions, it is especially important to have all the pieces of our teaching and classrooms in order and functioning efficiently and smoothly. Today I would like to share with you what I am doing to maintain, as much as possible, a smoothly running classroom.
I must remind myself that whatever behaviors I expect my students to exhibit, they must be taught how to behave that way. It is not enough to expect students to “listen and pay attention.” Those actions, “listen” and “pay attention,” don’t mean what they used to. Students can be having a conversation with a peer and at the same time truly believe they are listening to you as you teach. Surprisingly enough, often a student who appears to me to not be paying attention will proceed to answer my question or restate what I had just said. Still, critical thinking and long-term retention suffer if the student is not giving his or her “undivided attention” to the teaching. So students must be taught how to do things that we may assume they already know how to do.
These things include giving and continuing to give attention and following directions. While there is an element of interest involved in both of these, students need to know what you expect these things to look like. For example, are students following directions if they begin working on an assignment ten minutes after you asked them to begin? Are they giving you your attention if you have to ask for it a dozen times? If students are doing group work, they must be able to talk to each other within their groups, but how how loud are are they allowed to be as they talk? If we don’t make these things clear, and in many cases don’t provide opportunities for students to practice, we will not observe our students doing what we expect.
You will have a hard time finding success at having students practice being quiet if you try the old “put your heads down and remain silent” routine. This approach is too confrontational to be of any lasting benefit. Even if they comply, they may resent being treated so punitively, and will likely be just as noisy when the silent time is over or when they come to class next time. It would be much better to make it fun.
Here are two games I’ve had success with. The first is for students to practice giving me their attention either at the beginning of class, or at a transition when new directions or teaching need to be given. I tell the students I just want them talk to each other for 10 seconds. After ten seconds, I will give the “stop” signal by raising my right hand. When they see me do this, they will also raise their right hand and give the “stop” signal and will make themselves silent within two seconds. The first person to become silent and show the stop signal will become the next leader. Students love being the leader all their peers follow, they try very hard to be the first one. The leader watches the class carefully and is the sole determiner of who was first. When they get good at that, I introduce them to another hand signal I call “continue giving attention.” This is the same as the stop signal except that the arm is now bent 90 degrees at the elbow instead of extended overhead. Now the students must be the first to give the stop signal and be silent, and they must maintain silence for an additional 5 seconds. During actual instructional or independent practice time, students who are ready to report to the class or perform can be given license to stand and give the “stop” signal to get the attention of his or her peers so that the presentation can begin. This provides an incentive to be the first individual or group to be ready with completed work.
The second game is for students to practice following directions. It is similar to “Simon says” but without Simon. I give a series of directions like “stand up” “walk around your chair” or “raise your left hand” and the students must all follow the direction immediately. At some point in the sequence I will slip in what I actually want them to do, and before they realize it, they are following directions with excellence. Although it sounds like these games solve all of my behavior challenges, they do not; but they do result in improved student behavior and efficiency in my classroom, and so are well worth doing. They are adapted from a book I have found very helpful, Conducting Conduc by Doug Sorenson. These games, and other methods of teaching students how to meet your behavior exceptions must be accompanied by teaching students why you have these expectations and what positive things will happen if everyone follows them. Most students, even the chatty ones, want a smoothly run classroom. When god behavior is the norm, and those few remaining students must be outliers in order to continue not meeting your expectations, they too will usually “come along.” There will still always need to be punitive consequences for those few students who simply will not cooperate, but much more time will be spent teaching and enjoying teaching when students understand and are equipped to meet your expectations. Another resource I have found helpful in managing my most difficult students is Smart Classroom Management. It is a website by Michael Linsin. Sign up for his newsletter and get weekly tips on classroom management from his books. I have found all of them to be good advice.