I still recall a conversation I had early in my student-teaching career. My supervisor and I were talking about a recent class that had gone pretty well, although I had been dealing with some boisterousness in my classes. (Typical first-year teacher things, and typical 9th grade things.) I asked her if she had any ideas for classroom management, and she replied in her typically straightforward way, “Yes. Teach better.”
I’ve been thinking about that advice again recently. The last two years I have taught 8th grade and 6th grade, which has meant working with the different amounts of focus and attention that these younger minds and bodies possess — especially compared to my high school students. My supervisor’s words come to mind when the class gets unruly, or when I find myself hoarse and exhausted in the aftermath of trying to restore order to back-to-back classes of 6th graders.
I’ve been frustrated a bit by excessive chatter in my classes, and I spoke to a colleague about the situation. We brainstormed a number of practical solutions, one of which was a seating chart. (I know, I’m being Captain Obvious to all middle school teachers out there, but it was a helpful reminder that my ad hoc seating solutions were just not sufficient.) This simple tool also made me think about my own challenges with not eating an entire bag of Doritos.
I somewhat enjoy eating well — but only somewhat. I enjoy eating Doritos much, much more. My solution to this is a pretty simple one: do not buy Doritos. Remove the temptation. Or, if I buy Doritos, acknowledge that I will probably eat the entire bag. (Compromises such as purchasing and finishing a smaller bag have very limited appeal.)
I have started to approach my middle school classes with a similar, semi-behaviorist attitude. If I want my students to behave well and to learn as much as possible, I need to teach well (lesson #1) and be more strategic in assigning seats (lesson #2). If I am not able to hold up my end of the bargain (a less-than-ideal class or easy temptation in the form of nearby friends), I should not be surprised (or frustrated) when my students eat the entire bag of Doritos. If I can’t show restraint in the face of an entire bag of Doritos, how can I legitimately expect them to do something analogous?
In planning for my middle school classes, I’ve been trying to design more engaging and compelling lessons that harness and channel my students’ exuberance and creativity. The question I’m trying to ask now is this: how can I create a learning environment in which they are more likely to learn and practice the kind of skills that will make them successful learners?
Teaching isn’t just about me talking and then hoping they’re listening. I have to do what I can to create an environment in which my students can learn. This means seeing clearly what they can and cannot do, and then trying to set up a classroom that enables them to think and work and participate as effectively as possible, given these constraints.
Increasingly, I have been playing around with seating in different ways with my high school students as well. Too often my seniors take a seat on the first or second day and then stay there the whole term. In trying to get them to move around and mix things up (sometimes breaking up clumps of friends in the process), I’m also hoping that they will push beyond familiar conversations with familiar people. I want there to be a bit of uncertainty in these upper-level classes; it’s my belief that we can fall into a kind of rut if we sit next to and talk with the same people day after day. Instead, it’s better to try out something new, even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable, and to see what kind of growth can happen as a result.
We’ll see how these experiments go – late February and early March are not always the best time to be trying much of anything in schools, but as a friend asked in the comment section of a recent post: if not now, when?
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