Developmental Designs Brings Freedom and Order to a Classroom

Beginning teacher relieved of need to provide daily magic!

For Middle Level

I teach fifth grade general studies at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. Our school culture values self-expression through speaking and writing. We want our students to succinctly express their thoughts and feelings, and we strive to create democratic classrooms in which open sharing of ideas is encouraged. This culture of openness also engenders a culture of talking. We have chatty kids (!), so one issue in our community is balance: How do we teachers balance student expression of ideas and feelings with clear and consistent rules about when it is appropriate to talk?

A goal
To reduce the calling out (blurting) that has been rampant in prior years, I focused this year on helping students improve two important social skills, both of which exercise self-control:

  • active listening—"staying on their toes" during teacher-led lesson time
  • speaking at the appropriate time and in the appropriate voice

To reach my goal, I decided to use a variety of sharing protocols during whole-group lessons. In years past, my default mode of student sharing has been hand-raising. Asking students to raise hands was comfortable, and it helped me feel in control of the classroom. However, hand-raising posed two challenges that outweighed its positives. First, the five or six usual hand-raisers were engaged, but the remainder of the class(especially more introverted students) sometimes faded into the background. Second, asking students to sit quietly and wait to be called on did not meet their need for talking. I found myself redirecting students constantly and derailing some of the momentum a discussion or activity had built. I chose three simple sharing protocols to introduce to my class:

  • Random urgency: calling on students at random. Only the student called upon may speak.
  • Think-pair-share: students think of a response on their own, then share it with a partner.
  • Whip around: one at a time, each student succinctly shares a response.

To create a supportive climate for full participation, after modeling all three sharing protocols, we made a Looks Like, Sounds Like, Feels Like chart.

Looks like:

  • Students are quiet until it is their turn to talk
  • Students are focused on the speaker or teacher
  • Students talk enthusiastically and honestly when it is their turn
  • Students listen to others with their whole bodies

Sounds like:

  • Noisy when it is supposed to be (during paired shares), but with
    inside voices
  • Supportive if a student says a wrong answer or passes
  • Quiet when it is not your turn to share
  • Clear and confident speaking when it is your turn

Feels Like:

  • Safe to share ideas
  • Relaxed energy
  • People working together to learn

We used this chart regularly to reinforce our positive expectations. Remodeling each of the protocols many times throughout the year has helped students integrate them into their everyday behavior.

Almost immediately, the classroom became a safe place to take a risk during discussion time, something introverts had rarely been willing to do in the past. Rather than putting students on the spot in a way that excludes or divides, every student was effectively on the spot most of the time! Opting out became a thing of the past as most students quickly realized they were all in it together and needed to pay attention. Even the introverts had to be ready with answers and learn to speak their minds.

Extending use, and other benefits
I have had success in using these sharing protocols in conjunction with other Developmental Designs practices. I use the Reflective Loop continually with students to model, plan verbally, and reflect; each time we do, I try to bring student voices into the discussion, so the protocols keep the ideas flowing in a wellmannered way. For example, before we head to recess I ask a question such as, “What rules do we need to keep in mind when we’re on the playground?” and instead of falling back into old habits and allowing students to blurt answers, I might instruct them to use think, pair share, or whip around to reply.

I often use the Circle of Power and Respect advisory meeting to check in with students about each conversation protocol. Interestingly, the protocols are just as needed and valuable during community-building activities as they are during academic discussions. The students see the connection. Using the protocols has benefited me, too.

I use both whip-arounds and random urgency frequently throughout a lesson as a way to take a snap assessment of student understanding and progress. This valuable information has given me more freedom to meet the needs of individuals because I can adjust my instructional approach accurately. For example, I have used whip-arounds to assess how well students understand my directions. I may ask students to sum up in five words or less the task I have asked them to complete, or the requirements on a particular assignment. If these assessments show a lack of clear understanding, I review the information.

I also think much more about my students’ needs for movement and autonomy. Sometimes I use a think-pair-share protocol as preparation for writing. It has been very useful for keeping students engaged in the material while they move around and talk to each other. Their writing times after think-pair-share have been very productive.

The “magic” of consistency
As a new teacher, seeing the benefits of a firm and consistent management approach has had a great impact on my practice. To properly implement these protocols and other Developmental Designs practices, I have had to make it a personal focus to “sweat the small stuff” and consistently redirect disruptive behaviors. Often, I redirect using clear, concise language: “Sam, you need to stop talking when it’s not your turn.” I also judiciously direct students to take a break and to reflect in writing about behavioral mistakes.

I now firmly believe that creating a productive and safe learning community is a process that involves teaching specific social skills, regular student reflection, and skillful use of redirection. My job is to provide a consistent structure to help students grow as learners. What a relief it is to realize that I do not have to make some sort of “magic” happen every day through the force of my personality! Some of the real magic, it turns out, is consistency.

Isaac Jacobs-Gomes teaches 5th graders at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, California.

This article first appeared in Developmental Designs: A Middle-Level Newsletter, Spring 2011