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Archive for the ‘Classroom Management’ Category

Chemistry in the Classroom

Many teachers often hear of their colleagues’ theories and practice through students’ dialogue. Students love to critique their professors, but they also have an uncanny ability to recognize when the class has chemistry and why that chemistry eventually formed. A classroom, like all matter, can be broken down into basic elements; the absence or addition of an element will change the matter.

What is chemistry?

Chemistry naturally occurs in conjunction with communication, understanding/empathy, bonding, respecting/reflecting, and setting boundaries (and sticking to them). When teachers allow themselves to connect with students – to not only teach them but be taught by them, to let them share and to share with them, to set ground rules and to hear what students themselves require for a comfortable classroom experience – something magical happens in the class: students become comfortable. They feel safe in voicing their opinions and questions. Chemistry.    

Chemistry, the je ne sais quois of the classroom and a mystery to many teachers, occurs from the first second of the first day of class. Although some teachers might believe that it takes weeks create this ideal environment, establishing a rapport with students can begin immediately – with a few simple steps. The beauty and the challenge of teaching, however, is that all classes are different; chemistry will not occur in the same way every time, but if teachers can include these basic elements in their teaching philosophy, the magic will come.

1.  Communication: Students feel more comfortable if they know what is expected of them, and teachers can help students immensely by sharing clear expectations on the first day of class. By clear expectations, I do not simply mean a syllabus. Many teachers think that if they give their students due-dates and rubrics they have reached their communication quota, but these handouts are only the beginning. Students appreciate a road-map towards success in your class. (Think about it, would you embark on a vacation with no pre-planning, no route, no hotel reservations?) When I go on trips I like to find out from others what the best rest-stops and hotels are, where the cheapest gasoline is, which restaurants are good, what attractions are worth the money, etc.

This road-map starts with communication. At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that the key to their success is their communication with me. If they have problems, issues, or trouble, they should talk to me about it before they miss an assignment. In today’s technological climate, students have easier access to teachers than ever before; as a result, teachers should take advantage of this by making themselves available to their students. I have a policy that I answer all student emails on the day they arrive (but I don’t check after 8:30PM). This way, I create my own boundary but give students the security of my availability.

Years ago, teachers held the “secrets” to the students’ grade; often, students had no idea how they were doing until the end of the semester when it was too late to change things. Today, in most cases, online grading and parental access to grades has thankfully eliminated this practice. While some teachers may feel that they are being micro-managed through online grading, this knowledge gives all who are involved power. Students understand how they are doing and thus must take responsibility, parents can monitor students’ progress, and teachers can feel assured that everyone is on the same page.  Teachers can continue this foundation of knowledge by simply showing students what is expected in each project with models, exemplary examples, and clearly explained rubrics. When students know what is expected of them, they are more willing to do the work.

2. Understanding/Empathy: Have you ever heard a student complain that the teacher “has no idea what I am going through”? Unfortunately, many students feel this way, and that is because a majority of teachers have been out of the classroom for years and have not written a paper, researched a topic, practiced in a sport, played in a band, or presented an idea for a long time. Teachers MUST be ongoing learners just like their students; when teachers are willing to learn, students respect that and buy into projects.

Showing students a willingness to learn can be easy. Write with them. Read with them (sometimes it can be fun to read a book for the first time with your class; they will appreciate your discovery with them, and it can be refreshing for students to feel like the teacher is reading with them, not dictating all the right answers).

Teachers can also be cognizant of the busy schedules that students keep. Students are busy: they have clubs, band, church, homework, friends, sports, etc. and many students have not learned how to hone their time-management skills. One way to build trust, and thus chemistry, in your class is to know when students are overwhelmed and to be willing to adjust lessons accordingly. We all get stressed out: students are no different.

3. Respecting/Reflecting: Teachers cannot expect students to respect them if they do not give their students that same consideration. Students are people too, albeit younger, and they bring into the classroom issues from home, worries, problems – just like teachers do. If we respect that students have a life outside of our class, students will be more willing to perform for us. So how can teachers show students respect? By Listening. I often ask my students for feedback about lessons: was it too rigorous, or not rigorous enough? Was it productive? Did they learn something or did they feel like it was busy work? When I get feedback I incorporate it into my next lessons, and students can see that I respect their opinions.

This leads to the next idea, which is a willingness to reflect. Teachers MUST be willing to reflect on and change their teaching practices from day to day, year to year. Just as we expect our students to learn from a process, so too must we process and learn. If a lesson doesn’t work, chances are that it is because of the teacher, not the students (difficult to swallow, I know, but usually true).

4. Boundaries/Consistency: Everybody needs boundaries: married couples, toddlers, business people, and students – they all need to know how far is too far. Teachers must create reasonable boundaries in their class and must be consistent and clear about consequences. If teachers can do this from the beginning, students will feel comfortable in the class and will know how to act. Boundaries, when used successfully, are often paradoxical in the classroom. When a teacher can establish and maintain ground rules, it becomes possible to give students more freedom, more respect. When students get this freedom, they tend to respect rules more.

Chemistry does not have to be an elusive, mysterious element that happens once in a blue moon; rather, it can occur naturally  – all teachers have to do is listen, learn, communicate, reflect, respect, and adapt.

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Create a GREAT Classroom Environment

Sept. 6, 2010

All new teachers have one thing in common: first-day jitters. The fear of the unknown often takes over, and teachers wonder how they will manage to “manage” their classroom when they don’t even know their students. This article provides new teachers (and existing ones) with a few tips for a manageable and enjoyable classroom. Follow these guidelines, and your classroom will fall into place. *Of course, I can’t guarantee that things will work out exactly as listed below (students are never predictable, and if teachers can remember this, they will be able to adapt must easier).

Visualize and Create: How do you want your classroom to look? This is not an exercise in interior design, but rather one on feel, on environment. Every teacher has his or her own picture of the ideal classroom, but what many teachers forget to do is visualize their class and plan accordingly. There are a few simple ways to turn your vision into reality. The following list starts with easier aspects of this exercise and continues to more abstract concepts:

Making a Workable Space: Imagine standing in front of your students. Where will you stand? Where will they sit? How will their desks be arranged (and will you be able to group them easily and with smooth transitions)? Are students able to walk to the board, or are the desks too cramped? Where will they hand in their work? Do you have supplies for them? Where will these supplies be housed? Making your classroom a place where both you and your students can easily function is vital for classroom management. If your students have to spend even a few minutes searching for a stapler or hole-punch or if you don’t have a pencil sharpener or a place for students to put work, precious time will tick away – along with your sense of management.

Now that you have visualized your “space” you should make it happen! Arrange your room in the way you imagined. (By the way, even if it is not the beginning of the year or if you are not a new teacher, this exercise can be useful for you. How can you make a good room even better? Think Feng Shui.)

Conquering the Name Game: Students love to feel like the teacher is invested in their lives, and the first way you can ensure that your students know you are aware of them on a personal level is by remembering their name. Sound simple? It might, but so often, teachers forget that the name is the gateway to the individual; students feel disregarded when the teacher forgets them. I am terrible with names; because I am not a “visual” learner, looking at faces doesn’t help either. At the beginning of the school year, all my students seem to meld into one being that simply looks like a teenager. In spite of my name-remembering handicap, I have figured out a few tips that have helped:

  1. Seating Charts: I create seating charts on the first day of school and place my students in them alphabetically.
  2. Welcome sheets with a question that asks students to tell me something about them that I should know (what do they need to be successful?). This extra snippet of information at the beginning of the year has helped me to associate a personal story with every student, which in turn helps me to remember the name.
  3. Calling on Students: I force myself to call students by name, so it is imperative that I create several classroom activities that first week where I must repeatedly call on students. Of course I use my seating chart, but after a few days I usually find that I don’t need it anymore.
  4. For younger classes: Ice-breakers like Betty Banana or Gus Grapes. Students go around the room and have to memorize each person’s name and “food”. By the end, we all know each other’s name.

Defining your “Deal-Breakers”: Just as Dr. Phil states, people must be cognizant of their own, personal deal-breakers. A common pitfall for newer teachers (and some established ones) is that they have not defined which aspects of classroom behavior they can put up with and which ones they cannot. For instance, one of my absolute rules is No Throwing. This many sound obvious, but if a teacher does not define this rule and mete out consequences when it is broken, students will end up throwing pencils, pens, drinks, paper, etc. all in the name of loaning supplies to their peers. Whenever I would see a pencil being thrown I would imagine the parents on A Christmas Story saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” The worry over every potential pencil-tip eye-injury was too much stress for my already overloaded system, and so I created this deal-breaker. Stress – Gone.

So how do you determine your deal-breakers? Decide what aspects of behavior you absolutely will not tolerate, under any circumstances, and set these ground-rules the first day of class. It doesn’t matter if your students are 5, 15, or 50. People need boundaries and they aren’t mind-readers. Students won’t know what you want unless you TELL them. Of course, none of this telling works if you don’t have a consequence for each behavior – don’t forget to define these as well.

Planning to Win: We are teachers; we’ve already done our schooling so we shouldn’t have to study anymore, right? WRONG. This is a myth! As teachers, we owe it to our students to study, to learn, and to BE the example of the model student we want them to be. How can we encourage continual learning if we ourselves do not learn? How can we suggest daily writing if we do not write on a daily basis?

Also, a teacher must constantly build his/her ethos with students: try not preparing for an AP class and see how your students feel about you. Their respect for you will go out the window, and you will spend a semester trying to prove to them that you know your stuff. So my suggestion for all teachers is to plan on studying and learning. Read the texts with the students. Write with the students. Teachers who discover right along with their students create magic in the classroom – no longer is there a “master of all knowledge (teacher) and a “receiver of knowledge” (students).  In a true discourse community, students and teachers learn together. Want to create “Chemistry” in your room? This is perhaps the most important key. (For more about chemistry, read my blog post on the topic.)

New Teachers and Planning: New teachers have it rough. It is ALL new, from the students to the prep to the place of employment. I would pencil in study time and simply plan for it. Also, although this might seem awkward, lecture notes help sometimes for new teachers. You don’t have to remember EVERYTHING, (hard to believe, eh?) and sometimes a little study-aid is the perfect stress-reliever. My first year of teaching, I spent hours typing study notes to my units (American Lit was my first prep) and although it took some hard work, I was prepared for my lessons. A prepared teacher can be fluid and vibrant and passionate; an ill-prepared teacher will flounder and hesitate, and this translates to the students. If YOU don’t get it, they certainly won’t.

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