Engaged students, better self-discipline, more learning

For Middle Level

My main teaching goal at the start of last year was to have better classroom discipline. The lack of discipline in my first year of teaching led to many problems: the classroom was usually a mess at the end of the day; students spent too much time talking to their neighbors about things that had nothing to do with school; and I found myself constantly repeating myself because few students were actually listening to me.

It was my intention to use some newly-learned techniques to teach students what I expected from them. In particular, I planned to use the technique of modeling the right way to do something before we did it to head off problems.

Lining up
At our school, students are expected to form lines outside classrooms and enter as a group. At the beginning of each class on Day 1, I organized everyone into proper lines, and we brainstormed the right way to line up and enter: facing forward, close together but not touching anyone else, quiet voices, etc. Then I showed students how to enter and how to quickly and quietly find a seat.

Taking notes
I began this modeling by displaying an overhead of my rubric for math notebooks. After reviewing it with them, I asked for volunteers to summarize what good notes should look like. Next, I showed them an overhead I had made that had sample notes from an assignment, much of which came from board work I had done with the students the day before. In short, I modeled for them the right way to take math notes. Then we practiced. I walked them through a brief note-taking session, stopping frequently to check for understanding.

Individual/small group work time
Each day, I try to give my students a significant amount of work time. To model how I expected them to use this time, I had a volunteer sit with me while we modeled working on math. The rest of the class was gathered around us, fishbowl style, watching. After we modeled how to talk our way through a problem together and we discussed it with the audience, I used the "what will it look like/sound like/feel like" idea to get input from them about what the behavior expectations for our work times should be. I asked, "What does it sound like when people are working?" and "What does the classroom look like when people are working?" Then we practiced by beginning work time for the day. I watched them closely.

Participating appropriately
I modeled how I expected students to behave while I was teaching a lesson. I had lots of trouble in my first year because I let the kids yell out answers to my questions. Many kids would respond at the same time, and even argue with each other over the right answer. I was determined to make this year better, so I sat at one of their desks-I temporarily became one of them-and we discussed what system we should have in place for behavior during lessons. Together, we agreed that all of us should listen attentively, take notes whenever it was appropriate, and raise our hands before responding to a question. I had a student move to the front of the room and model teaching, while asking the rest of the class to watch me. I listened attentively, raised my hand, and waited for the "teacher" to call on me before responding to him.

I modeled these routines and many others. But I soon found that modeling wasn't enough. Every time I modeled something, things got better, but I realized I'd need to use other techniques to keep students engaged over time.

Charts and partners
I used looks-like/sounds-like/feels-like charts almost interchangeably with modeling. As I asked questions, I recorded student answers under one of these categories describing positive behavior. This gave us variety, and the end results were as good as when I modeled.

Creating pairs using Clock-hour Partners was a very useful strategy, for several reasons. First, it created work partners of students who might not otherwise associate with each other, thereby helping to build community. I found it also eliminated some of the problems group work can cause, such as one person doing all the work for a group while the others remain unproductive (pairs seemed to share the work more evenly than larger groups). My students really liked working with partners, and I liked hearing them discuss problem-solving approaches as they worked together. Physically separating the pairs from each other was important, too. If I didn't, pairs would merge (and sometimes merge again and again!). Soon I'd be surrounded by off-task talking all over again!

Developmental characteristics
Learning about the norms of physical, social/emotional, and intellectual developmental growth has helped my teaching practices greatly. After the school year started, I could easily see many of the developmental characteristics I had learned about last summer showing up in my students. For example, most of the sixth grade kids I teach are not very adept at abstract thought, so I changed the lessons for them to make them more concrete. My sixth graders responded better to the straight-forward and well defined questions in my adjusted lessons. Also in response to developmental needs, we occasionally took a brief break from our lesson to play a quick movement game; my students really appreciated getting a daily opportunity to do something kinesthetic. At this stage in their lives, they absolutely need it.

As I compare the start-up of my second year with my first, I see that the students were more engaged in their class work in year two, and spent less time chatting. My supervisor remarked that my class had improved compared to the previous year. Modeling taught students proper behaviors, allowed me to more readily assess whether expectations were being met, and made it easy to correct unacceptable behavior. In the end, this meant that my students worked harder on their daily assignments, and their grades improved.

Jeff Nesheim is a 6th-8th grade math teacher at Oaklawn Academy in Edgerton WI.

This article first appeared in the Origins' publication Developmental Designs: A Middle School Newsletter, Fall 2008