Be Pro-Active and Positive, and the Classroom Manages Itself!!!
I struggled with classroom management the first couple of years of teaching, which were really two first years for me. I started my career in urban Minneapolis, and then I moved to suburban Atlanta. Two completely different worlds in every way, so just as I started to get down a rhythm for the urban environment, that had to be deleted for my new teaching job. In suburban Atlanta, I learned quickly that parent communication was one the non-negotiables in teaching, and that was the first thing that I tackled my third year of teaching. What I did taught me that more than necessary, it was very powerful to building relationships in the community of families that passed through my classroom. This was the first big step in my classroom management experiments and learning, and I will elaborate further on it later.
Though I have not really had a lot of issues with classroom management in the years past the start of my career, I feel that many methods I tried and used lacked so much purpose and meaning. In reflection, I feel most of it was driven by re-action to past problems rather than pro-active measures. Though I had become pro-active with parent communication, the pro-active switch on everything else was stalled. The pro-active parent communication helped behind the scenes of my classroom early in my teaching career, and it kept amount of communication less frequent and more positive. When I began to implement more pro-active and positive measures in the main stage of my classroom with students in later years, I never really gave classroom management much thought anymore – it managed itself.
I would like to share a few things I have adopted in my classroom, most of them in recent years, that have helped immensely with making my classroom run smoothly. My definition of smoothly includes efficient use of time and resources, safe, positive learning environment, constructive encouragement and reinforcement of student success, and most importantly of all, strong communication and relationship building with students and parents. Notice I put students before parents in the previous sentence. I have learned that heavy focus on pro-active strategies with students drives strong relationships with parents. While I want to share successful strategies, I also believe it is important to acknowledge what did not work in the past and why it drove change. I will incorporate both in what I share.
Getting to Know Students Early and Continuously
In the past couple of years, I have started the year with Sara Van Der Werf’s Name Tents the first week of school. These are such a great way to start getting to know your students. More importantly, it lets the students know that their thoughts, likes, fears, experiences, etc. are welcomed and valued in your classroom. It gives them a sense of belonging and a place to have a silent dialogue with their teacher without having to ask questions or share something in front of their peers. When students feel like they belong, they tend to engage with more ease.
There were so many years that I had students fill out a student information sheet and never had time to read them. I did borrow a student information sheet from one of my colleagues that I really liked and gave it to them this year to return to me. The difference now is that the pressure is off for me to read it right away because the Name Tents jump-started the “get to know you” process in the first days of school. I still intend to read the sheets and have set a date to do so while driving down to the coast for Labor Day Weekend as it will give me something fun to do while on a long car ride. I can then enhance instruction and daily conversations with them by productively using that information they gave me. I will also be acquainted enough with them to really digest the information they provided.
Another method I use to build relationships with my students is during homework check time. A few years ago I realized that homework return was slipping, and the whole process of checking and recording on my own grade sheet seemed so useless and lacked anything positive or productive. Determined not to give up on assigning work, I came up with the idea of giving them check sheets to carry with them, which I explain more in depth below. If nothing at all, I will never give this up because it provides me the opportunity to still interact daily with them. I can ask them how they are doing, how was the game last night if they are in a sport, how is the play going if they are in theater, how was that biology test that you were crazy studying for yesterday, etc. It is a daily way to continue to learn more about them and let them know that they are individual in my classroom rather than just part of a group. Below is a photo of my check sheets:
Building a Positive Environment Through Language, Acknowledgement, and Recognition.
Try Not to Use the Word Fail- Working on use of productive language is something that I have increased commitment to every year in my classroom. The earliest memory I have was of incorporating the commitment to never use the word “fail” in my classroom; about 7 years ago. This was a word that I had stopped using in communication with parents as well because I was tired of hearing it from a couple of my son’s teachers on the occasion when they emailed me. It just felt like such an inflammatory word, and as a parent, I realized that after I saw that “if then statement” with the word “fail” at the end and not much else included in the conversation, I did not feel good about the communication taking place.
Anyway, it was not that I took the reality of failure away from dialogue with students and parents, I just simply switched the words to “may not be able to pass”. It acknowledges the situation if it arises, but in a way where communication can stay non-volatile and still give hope and chance for change. The first year I incorporated this into dialogue with students was when I had my first math support class. I had the students 2 hours a day, so I knew them well and talked with them a lot each day. At the end of the year I had them do reflections of their experiences in my class. One of my students wrote that one of the best things about me as a teacher was that I never told them they would fail and that really helped her to keep going even when she struggled. Such a powerful moment when I read that – the fact of the matter is that I acknowledged that reality with them near every assessment when going over problems, but in the way of “be careful of details, and not showing work because I may not be able to give credit for what you do know, and you may not be able to pass the test, which I do not want to see happen”. Changing the face of one single word has driven incredible change in student motivation and relationship building for me, and I have never used that word since.
On acknowledgement of student work: In early years, I hung student work in my classroom when possible, and sometimes hung up yellow stars for certain learning situations when students performed well. The most recent appearance of performance based stars was with my Algebra 1 support students a couple of years ago when assessing on factoring methods. While the students who earned stars thrived on it, I never realized what it meant to those who were not able to. While out of the classroom last year and tutoring, I was working with an AB Calculus student. She was struggling a lot, mostly because she was not ready for the course, but our district did not allow for any other options at that point for her to take other than below level math. Anyway, the same types of stars were up in her classroom for test success, and she was so upset about performing below the level of earning a star. My heart broke for her when she told me that she believed she would never be able to get a star. I knew as a teacher that no teacher ever sets out to harm by doing this. it is meant to be a motivator, but it was not until that moment that I realized how demoralizing it can be. I vowed then to be different in my intentions with this process. This year, I bought some “star student” cards from Schoolbox, and there are many already up on my board (I forgot to take a picture yesterday before leaving). Right now some students earned a card for gaining strength in factoring skills, and I intend to give cards for things like increased success, making mistakes that contribute to learning, and other contributions that are not grade-related. This is a far better way than my previous method to acknowledge all levels of student success as it is different for everyone, and all of it is key to our classroom.
This is what the star student card looks like: I not only put their name on it, but I also write why they earned it.
On School Driven Recognition – Our school gives teachers 5 “Rich Raider” cards per week to hand out to specific students who have demonstrated citizenship, integrity, hard work, or respect. We fill them out and give them to students to put in a box in the cafeteria. Several cards are drawn from this box weekly, and students can earn prizes. This is another way to show students that their individual contributions in our classroom matter, and they matter in the school scene outside our classroom. There is nothing better than the excitement in their eyes when I hand them one of these. A lot of the time they do not realize what they did warrants recognition as the academic world they live in now is so much about quantifying their success in numbers only. I am happy that my school, and many others in our district do this.
Our school's Rich Raider Tickets - This is the bunch I will hand out next week:)
Interactive Notebooks: Learning to organize has really made my class run smoother. Most of this learning curve came after I began to implement Interactive Notebooks into my classroom almost 3 years ago. There can be a lot of shuffling around with paper and materials, but I fell in love with this classroom strategy almost immediately and vowed to clean up my “disorganization issues” to maintain the practice in my classroom. This strategy teaches students to organize notes and build a powerful resource of their own to reference daily for homework, group work, and preparing for assessments.
Interactive Notebooks in use this past Friday during a group learning check:
Every day when my students enter my classroom, their note pages for their notebook are on this podium for them to pick up. If there are activities instead of interactive notes on a particular day, the empty podium communicates with them as well in that we may be using the notebooks versus adding to them.
The "Work Pick-Up Podium" - I also leave them a note for the day. This particular day was to wish them a "Happy Pythagorean Triple Day"
This table at the front of my room is a one-stop shop for students to organize their notebooks and any other materials. There are always glue sticks, high lighters, markers, colored pencils, tape, and often scissors on this table for them to use for adding note sheets to their notebooks and/or enhance their notes. I introduce these notebooks as their way of building their own textbook, so they are free to add to it in any way that helps them. There is also a stapler and hole punch for homework sheets as I give our copier a break by not hole punching – after all, I want the copier to work when I need it rightJ?
The crate on the table contains folders for every class for make-up work pick-up and extra table of contents for the notebooks or extra homework grade sheets if they need them. There are also calculators up there for them if they do not have one. This is their area primarily, and I give them the independence to use and maintain it. Giving students independence signals to them an upfront trust and belief that they can handle the responsibility. The supply table helps them to organize their materials in class as well as feel comfortable about the process. This and the play table make my room just as much their room the hour they are in it, and when students are comfortable, they are more engaged in the learning process.
Homework – In and Out of Class
Giving, Checking, and Grading Homework - Homework is something I will not relinquish in my classroom, but I have acknowledged the fact that I need to work on meaningfulness with it. This year I am spiraling and lagging homework for them, and I am hoping it will help not only with work in my classroom, but help them to keep skills strong for their future math classes. Almost every day I check homework, and I use a homework check sheet to do so. This check sheet contains 6 weeks of homework checks that they keep with them; at the end of every 6 weeks, we have progress reports, so they can better gauge when that is coming. I collect the grade sheet every 2 weeks and put their homework grades in the system. Though I have not had a lot of instances of students losing them, I encourage them to take a camera phone picture of them every couple of days just in case; sort of like “backing up files”. I also strongly encourage them write down the assignment in check box each day in case there is a disagreement of homework grade, they can know what it is and show me.
Second-though I check for completion and work shown, I also key in on a couple of key problems each day as I go around, and I can give them a quick prompt or two for correction if they need it as well as underline or circle parts of their work to look at again; this helps me to know where they are at and what to spiral through more for homework and going over homework at the board. Lastly, when students start to see missing work, on this check sheet, the will to get back in to the habit emerges very quickly. I equate it to adults and credit cards. It is easy to create negative money, but we do not get the daily reminder of what we spend unless we seek it out, and then the monthly bill can be a real shocker! This way students get the daily reminder instead of the grade book shocker every two weeks.
Prompting Homework Questions and Maximizing Time Allotment -This is something I started working on 2-3 years ago and then let lapse last year because of being ill; the break allowed me to see the difference it made. One of the things that can make homework ineffective is when students do not ask questions when they need to. I wondered just how much the peer thing mattered to students when asking homework questions, and I can tell you now it is a BIG issue; bigger than you think. I started this process with placing 3-4 blank post-it notes on random desks before the start of each period, and the student with the blank post-it note on their desk could put a homework question on the post-it and put it on the board before class started. If they did not have any questions, they could put it on another desk. I got so many more homework questions with this process, and it was great feedback for me on student struggles. The drawback was that there was still not enough anonymity in that students knew where the post-its came from. This year, I hung a poster up front right next to the supply table for students to post homework questions. I labeled the top of it with a sign that says “learning Inquiries” to give further encouragement on mistakes and misunderstandings as a learning process. Here is what it looked like one day this week:
Basically, the first few minutes of class each day are for students to paste note sheets in their notebook , put their homework and check sheets out for me to look at, post any homework questions on this poster, and start the warm-up work or directions on the board. During this time, I am checking homework, attendance, etc. Because everyone is focused on getting their things organized and starting class, no one knows who posted what questions.
Two weeks in students are already in the routine of having their homework out for check.
When I get to the time for homework questions, I just transfer the post-its to the white board and go through the problems. I also take this time to address any issues I saw in work I checked while going around the room. I usually allow time for 3-4 questions, and if I have more, they know I will work them out completely with side notes and post them on my website. There are days I cannot get to questions, but again, I know which ones are being asked, and they know I will post solutions for them to check. All learning inquiries on the poster and mistakes in work I see and gather in the first few minutes of class are anonymous and make huge contributions to all students. This is a priceless way to make homework more purposeful to the students both individually and as a whole class.
Cell-Phones – This is something that I gave a lot of freedom to students with over past years, and probably more than I should have. This year, I vowed to change that as I realized last year that we now have students growing up and coming to high school who have little or no memory of life without a smart phone. I mean, it’s been 10 years since the I-Phone first came into the market – where has time gone? While the older generations certainly enjoy technology too, we also remember life without smart phones and some of us any cell phones at all. I wanted to make the theme of my mission with this a learning experience – a way for them for at least one hour a day know a life without being plugged in. Because I did not want them to feel like I immediately mistrusted them with their phones (although I did, but through no fault of theirs as they only do what they know with plugging in), I told them the story of what I learned by unplugging for a few hours a day this past summer with my I-pad. I told them that I was very attached to my I-pad (and I am), and my husband was very attached to his TV (and he is). This summer, my husband was having trouble getting his course work done for teacher school (he is doing the second career teacher thing). I was having trouble separating from my I-pad and the couch (exercise and me are not friends). We both committed to turning them off for 6 hours each day to get the things done that we needed to. He got his school stuff done, and I got most of our house cleaned and organized, more books read than usual, and started journaling again. I was amazed at how much more productive I was – I knew I probably “I-padded” too much, but WOW…
Sharing this story with them right off the bat set a tone of purpose for them putting their phones in the pouches on the wall. It was not a “because I said so and think it is a good idea” sort of thing, it was a “I get it and want to help you” type of thing. I took the idea that Tony Riehl talked about as a “my favorite” at TMC17, and I talked about cell phones, and my I-pad, as a distraction to learning and work that needs to be done.
Phone Storage Station with Sign Suggested by Tony Riehl
As the days continued during the first two weeks, I noticed that some students were just simply tucking their phones away in their backpacks. I told them that was fine too, but that they needed to stay tucked away. I have only had to take a phone back to the distraction pouches twice, so I think the overall expectation is set now. I am circulating often enough in class to reinforce it as well. As far as the need for students to have technology in their hands some days to enhance learning, our school has one-to-one devices, so we are set for thatJ
Parent Communication – I saved this for last on purpose after talking about it briefly at the beginning of this blog. If I had been writing this blog 10 years ago, this portion would have been 2-3 times the size of this one as this was my primary form of classroom management early on by control rather than purpose or meaning. I am still pro-active with parent communication because I enjoy forming a community in my classroom that extends to families of students. I have sent them a group parent welcome email every year for the past 10 years, but I no longer email them weekly or at the start of every unit. Part of this is because I have had teacher websites or Edmodo class sites the past 5 or so years, but the other reason is because I have begun focus much more on building working relationships with students.
The benefits of a group parent email are that it establishes a line of communication that is positive early on. This way, if problems arise during the school year, the first time a parent hears from me is not when there is an issue. It is a pro-active way to partner with parents and collaborate when needed for the success of the student. I let the parents know my website as that is where all calendars, syllabuses, and homework resources are. After that, I maybe check in and send an email once or twice a semester to give updates.
As far as individual parent emails, I have changed my approach on this as well over past years. I strive very hard to resolve any issues with behavior or lack of work with students first before contacting parents. While I believe it is important to inform parents of problems, it should be when a resolution is not being reached after at least a couple of attempt to work with the student. I think it is important for students to know that they will not automatically get tattled on if they make a mistake, and parents tend to appreciate quality vs. quantity when it comes to communication. I also make it a point to alleviate inflammatory words from any communication with parents as I mentioned above with the word “fail”. My experience with less than thoughtful teacher communication sent to me as a parent drove that decision, and it has been a powerful experience to give back to other parents in a positive way.
In closing, I really hope some of the things that I have learned and implemented can help those of you looking for new ideas for your classroom. While I was able to control my classes early on given the fact that I am a tall and thicker individual with a voice that carries and a commitment to keeping parents in touch with my classroom, it was not effective classroom management. The biggest lesson I have learned regarding classroom management has been this: the more you focus on creating pro-active and positive tones in classroom environment, interactions with students, and organizing the instructional strategies you feel work best, the more your classroom will manage itselfJ