Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When in doubt, move closer

  It is all-school meeting.  We are gathered on the carpet of our common room for announcements and commendations.  Some students are flopped over each other, some stand slightly outside the circle. The "circle" is really more like a sloppy oval that someone really unskilled with an etch a sketch might draw.  There are always a few students who get fidgety and began to murmur or giggle to the person next to them.  Teachers may shush them, but then another one pops up.  I don't expect perfect silence, but I find myself grumpy by the end of these meetings.

Today, I want to feel less grumpy. It's just the fifty or so high school students, as the middle school is holding their own meeting.   So after the announcements, I spontaneously try a simple drill when I sense that people are beginning to lose their focus. It is so simple, yet so effective.  It goes something like this:

"Ok, everyone stand up."  (They stand)
"Ok, now everyone move in about a foot or two" (Curious, they walk closer, and the circle is instantly more intimate)
"Now, stop talking."  (The room falls silent.  It's as if we are playing Simon Says.)
"Now, just like that--without talking--sit down."  (They sit.  They are still quiet)

It's amazing. They are focused again.

And somehow (or perhaps it was my imagination), this simple tightening of the circle--and perhaps the brief pause in the meeting--helps change the dynamic of the rest of the meeting.  Students listen closely to celebrations and commendations, and the closer proximity even seems to lend itself to these sweet articulations of gratitude to teachers and to peers.

Classroom management is a dance--a dance of planning and implementing curriculum carefully,  establishing routines, of managing student numbers, and moving yourself around the room, as you use a variety of voice levels and one-liners ("eyes up here" or "it's her turn" or, "it's all about me now").  The dance doesn't stop with the details, for it's also about how you connect with students.  Mutual respect goes a long with with this dance.  Sometimes, behavioral problems can be solved with a simple rearrangement of  the space you have--from moving desks, to asking students to stand around me in a semi circle while I give directions.  Sometimes, a pause in speaking or moving is helpful (see my blog post about other benefits of the pause).

Sometimes, like today, simply moving a little closer makes all the difference.

Here are some other tips for classroom management:

1.  Use routines, like silent reading or journal writing at the start of class to help students make the transition into working.  I know some teachers who tell a quick story at the beginning of class, or do a math problem warm-up.

2. Be consistent: whether you use discipline slips, yellow/red cards, or old fashioned consequences like cleaning your board after school, try your best to always use these.  When students know what to expect, it's easier for them to contain their distracting behaviors.

3. Mix it up: students often misbehave when they're bored.  Like it or not, many of us have short attention spans, and a change in activity can help us sustain interest.  My rule of thumb is to have some opportunity for writing or reading, some opportunity for talking (ideally, students talking more than me), and some chance to move/do or watch something (a quick YouTube video or Ted Talk or whatever is relevant to the lesson)

4. Alway have the agenda on the board, and ideally, with time estimations.  I've had students tell me that they really like to know what's up, and how long it'll last.  Sometimes students act out when they don't know what to do or when they don't know where things are going.  A simple "roadmap" can do wonders for behavior.