Today I am starting a series of articles on planning instruction. These articles will include lesson planning, unit planning, classroom management, assessment, and student engagement. Each of these areas is critical to student success. Making classroom management and strategies for student engagement part of lesson and unit plans is particularly important, and sometimes overlooked. Unit planning keeps individual lessons coherent and well sequenced, and provides a logical connection from lesson to the next. This is especially important for music teachers who see their classes once or twice a week. Unit plans help students carry over learning from one class to the next, even when there is a week or several days between classes.
Even the best of lesson plans will fall flat if the classroom environment is not conducive to learning, so I will start my series with classroom management. By classroom management, I am referring to the management of everything under the teacher’s control that affects the learning environment. Classroom management includes managing student behavior, the arrangement of furniture in the classroom, eliminating distractions such as unwanted noise, uncomfortable temperatures, interruptions, and so forth. A well-managed classroom is one in which all of these types of things are controlled within the procedures and expectations the teacher sets up and practices with students. Just as students need to be taught how to sing or play an instrument, they also need to be taught how to behave, move around, and interact with others in your classroom. With this in mind, here are some specific things you can do to manage your classroom well.
State clearly defined classroom guidelines at the beginning of the year, and review and apply the guidelines and expectations consistently.
I am much better at the first part of this than the second. Most if not all teachers state their classroom guidelines at the beginning of the year, and most if not all students follow those guidelines for the first month and a half or so of school. Beyond that, students begin to test how much they can get away with, and teachers often respond with a verbal reminder of the guideline, and then a negative consequence for not following the guideline. This happens for one or both of two reasons. The first reason is that the students don’t have any reason for following the guideline except that you told them to. Students will perform any task with greater consistency and proficiency if they see the value for them in doing the task. All classroom guidelines are for the benefit of each individual and for the group. If you have a guideline of “respect your classmates and your teacher,” then you need to teach students what respecting a classmate and what respecting you looks like, give them opportunities to practice showing respect to others, and give them supportive feedback on their showing of respect, just as you would given them feedback on a musical performance. You also need to point out the greater success, enjoyment, and satisfaction they experience when they are respectful compared to when they are not. Once they have learned this, you will still need to revisit the lesson periodically throughout the year. Continue to reinforce instances of doing well at respecting others, and continue to correct instances of disrespect by modeling and reteaching a respectful alternative to what the student has just done disrespectfully.
Maintain a Positive Atmosphere
If you have followed the previous advice, maintaining a positive atmosphere will be a lot easier. With your emphasis on how things should be and how things are going well, there will only be a minimum of times when things turn negative. In managing guidelines well, you have established an environment that students naturally prefer. For some, being in a class where there is respect for everyone will be life changing and extremely appealing. Students will begin correcting themselves and each other when someone does something disrespectful. They will become defensive of the respectful classroom environment. Your preferred response is always to stop disrespect before it can go anywhere, and to redirect the student to choosing the respectful way, or to a “do over” that includes an apology and a second attempt, this time doing it the respectful way. Most students want attention, but given the choice, most would prefer to be noticed for something good rather than something bad. There will be times when a student just insists on violating a guideline, and will not allow him or herself to be corrected. That’s when consequences must be imposed. But even the negative consequence of a time-out, reflection, or referral to administration is handed out in the context of something the student chose for him or herself, and not something that you are “doing” to the student. You and the rest of the class have worked hard to create a supportive, positive, respectful environment, and you want every student to maintain that environment. When it is necessary to give a negative consequence, it is to teach the student to make a different choice in order to avoid being removed from something better than what they have now gotten for themselves. We want to teach the student, by way of the negative consequence, to make a positive choice going forward.
Build time for student input and class meetings about conducting the class.
There was a time when I would have bristled reading this one. After all, I’m the teacher, I’m in charge, students have to do what I say, not the other way around. While that all is true, we can learn a lot about our students by listening to what they have to say about how the class should be run. Many teachers elicit student input when drawing up their classroom guidelines at the beginning of the year. I like to guide students in this by having them answer specific questions. For example, “what can someone do to show that they are respecting you right now?” A question like this will generate a list of answers, such as “listen to me when I’m talking,” “don’t insult me,” “give me my space,” or “don’t touch my things.” These are all actual answers I’ve gotten, and they are all teaching points for the class. I write them down on poster paper and keep them displayed on my wall. Beyond this beginning of the year activity, it’s a good idea to periodically ask a class, “how are we doing at maintaining our classroom guidelines?” “What are we still doing well?” “What has slipped and needs our attention?” All of this feedback from students lets you know exactly where you are, how they are viewing the fairness and effectiveness of what you are doing, and establishes and reinforces ownership in a well managed classroom. If changes need to be made to the guidelines, these meetings are a good time and place to do so.
Individualize instruction when necessary.
I will return to this one in other articles, but for now it is sufficient to say that when a learning task is not well matched to a student’s ability or learning style, that student is going to loose his or her way. If you are teaching music writing to second graders and they are having trouble drawing a circle between two lines, revise the task so that they are placing a plastic or paper disc between the two lines instead. If you are teaching improvisation on a mixolydian scale, and a student is overwhelmed by having to choose from seven pitches, let him or her improvise on the pentatonic scale first. Students act out when they are discouraged, frustrated, or embarrassed, all of which are natural reactions to failure. Design the task to it fits the student, and their success at following the classroom guidelines will stay on track.
In the next article in this series, I will look at planning and presenting a lesson.