The first week of the second semester was tough. We have double-block classes for mainstream ninth-grade English, and the teacher of the other class was on maternity leave (our large inner-city high school is divided into Small Learning Communities of about 300 students each). So we had decided that I would get any new students that would come in.
And I did — five new students that week. Five new students who seemed to be facing some challenges.
Our classroom culture was much more fragile than I had thought. It didn’t take long for things to deteriorate. And I quickly turned-into more of a threatening and punishing teacher. I wasn’t happy, and most of the students obviously weren’t happy, either. Some learning, though not as much as before, was taking place, but there didn’t seem to be much joy in it for anybody. And there were frequent student behavior issues.
One option would have been to just grit my teeth and bear it for a few more months — then it would be over. That would have been doable, especially since my other classes were going fine.
Another option would be to try to turn things around.
I chose the second one. Here are nine actions I took to turn my class back into a community of learners:
BEGAN REGULAR STUDENT REFLECTIVE ACTIVITIES: We began doing short activities which included reading, writing, and sharing on topics like:
Are You A Positive Or Negative Person?
Are You A Good Or Ugly Listener?
Who Are Some People You Respect And How Do You Think They Act When Things Don’t Go Exactly The Way They Want?
Do You Think Intelligence Is Fixed, Or Can It Grow With Effort?
Each student would then write about how they saw themselves in the context of that particular topic, and if they were happy with themselves. If not, how did they think they could change?
I shared research on the qualities of a successful learner, and students evaluated themselves and wrote what they would like to do better.
Each student began writing a goal on Monday that they had for the week, and would reflect each Friday if they had been successful in reaching their goal.
BEGAN DAILY EVALUATIONS: We discussed what would be important elements of a good classroom — respect for the teacher and other students, doing assignments, accomplishing their weekly goals, etc. I developed a half-page sheet listing them, and students began grading themselves on each criteria along with giving themselves an overall grade. There’s a space for me to list what grade I believe they have earned, as well. It takes them one minute to complete it at the end of class, and it takes me about two minutes in total to review and respond to them all. I have yet to give a student a lower grade than they gave themselves and, in fact, have often given them higher ones. I return the sheets at the beginning of class the next day.
STOPPED WRITING STUDENT NAMES ON THE BOARD: For the first time in my teaching career, I had begun writing names of misbehaving students on the whiteboard indicating that they would either be losing a break or have to stay and miss part of their lunch. From the day I stopped doing that (after making it clear that, instead, it would be reflected on the daily grading sheet) , there hasn’t been a single repetition of the kind of behavior that had prompted me before to assign that punishment.
STOPPED CALLING HOME WHEN THERE WERE BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS: Instead of calling parents of a student who was not behaving well, I began telling students who were behaving inappropriately that I wasn’t going to call home that day. Instead, I began telling them I was going to call their home in a week, that I wanted to just say good things about them, and they had a week to show me they could be the kind of student I knew they could be.
CHANGED THE CLASS SEATING ARRANGEMENT: The day I began this new strategy, I not only changed student seats to minimize some challenges, I changed the entire seating arrangement. That helped students, and me, to see and remember that it was a “new day.”
EVERYBODY BEGAN WITH AN “A” AGAIN: The second semester was only a few weeks old when I began these new strategies and, since everyone always begins with an “A” grade in my class, it was easy for me to tell some of the challenging and struggling students that we were going to forget what had happened up to then and they were going to get a new start, too. Since that moment, the vast majority of these students have done better work than I had ever seen before.
ARRANGED “SECRET” SIGNS WITH STUDENTS TO STOP: I had private conversations with a few of my more challenging students and we discussed that I didn’t expect perfect behavior, but that I wanted to reach an agreement of a “sign” I could give them that would signify that my patience was just about at its end. And after receiving that sign, they felt that they could commit to stopping their inappropriate behavior. Some students, for example, wanted me to tap their desk.
GAVE CERTAIN STUDENTS PERMISSION TO LEAVE THE ROOM, WITHOUT ASKING ME, IF THEY FELT THEY WERE GOING TO “BLOW”: They would have to just stay outside the door, but just knowing they had that power has appeared to make a huge difference, and no one has exercised it. Obviously, if a student did that, I would immediately following him/her out, but they wouldn’t get into trouble for leaving. In fact, they would gain praise from me instead.
FOCUSED ON SMILING MORE AND SHOWING MORE PATIENCE: I am very intentional about smiling more in class (though I don’t think I ever have been a big “frowner”) and demonstrating more patience. When students are reading the book of their choice during our “Practice Reading” time, and a student wants to put his/her head down for awhile, for example, instead of operating from the assumption the student is being lazy, I’ll ask him/her if they rest for five minutes can I count on them to read after that.
I certainly did a number of these things before, but I let behavior issues lead me into a downward spiral of threats and punishment.
The difference in class is like night and day now. There are regressions — it’s clear that pair work is the maximum for collaborative activities for right now, and they’re not quite ready for groups of three yet. But there is no question that there is a sense of fun and joy in the learning that’s happening on our classroom again.