Teaching Team Rallies to Lead Sixth Graders to Independence

Developmental Designs strategies facilitate the journey

For Middle Level

Two of my colleagues and I were asked by our principal to form a sixth-grade teaching team for this school year. We had not worked together, and we wanted to be intentional about how we worked with our students, including what we would emphasize across all classrooms. Participating together in the Developmental Designs 1 (DD1) workshop was our opportunity for a great beginning. Then it was time to get to work. 

Strategies put to work
Implementing these Developmental  Designs strategies impacted my  classroom on an ongoing, daily basis: 

In order to be effective in integrating these new strategies into the daily life of our sixth-grade team, we needed to use other Developmental Designs strategies as well, including modeling and remodeling, and empowering teacher language.

A major focus this year has been to have students handle their responsibilities independently. We created procedures for this, and have tried to stay consistent throughout the year as we set and maintained our expectations. For starters, my colleague and I defined what we wanted to see from our students: 

When students work independently, they enter the classroom with a sense of purpose. They know what they need to do to be ready for class, and they take care of their classroom responsibilities without checking in with us. 

Ready to Learn in 3 Min. 

Intervene early when students don't follow routines, suggests educator Alison Levy. 

"At the start of one class period, some students were dragging along rather than getting right to work, and I was getting frustrated. I took action. We talked about what it should look, sound, and feel like as they enter, and I told them I was confident they could be ready to learn in three minutes.  I announced that I would time them the following day. 

The next day, I greeted everyone at the door with a timer, and told them that I had pressed "start." The room hummed with rapid settling in: recording homework assignments, moving to the rug, and very little chatter, except for reminders:  "We're being timed!" After three minutes, in two classes out of three, all students were in our whole-group space, ready to go. 

We talked about the strategies they used to get the job done and I took notes, which became the basis of a very helpful Y-chart. 

In the class that wasn't able to meet the three-minute challenge, I stopped them at three minutes, talked briefly about strategies those students who were successful used, and  then I had them go back into  the hallway. They reentered and I timed them again. This time, they did it in less than three minutes. We talked again about  what worked, and I let them  know that I would meet them  the next day at the door and ask  what strategies they were going  to use and time them again. I did meet them at the door, and they were ready on time."
Chart what independent learners look like
We shared this vision with students and created Y-charts with them to flesh out what a classroom of independent learners looks, sounds, and feels like at different times during class. We referred to those charts frequently in the early months of the school year, and we still use them as needed. 

Make everything routine 
We have established the following specific routines:

  • Entering the classroom and getting ready for whole-group time
  • Our signal for attention ("show five," with all students raising a hand)
  • Listening to morning announcements
  • Moving furniture around the room
  • Hand-raising rather than blurting during discussions
  • Options when work is finished
  • Using the restroom and getting a drink of water during class
  • Use of materials and cleaning up
  • Use of TAB chairs 

Classes change but routines stay the same 
Having clear expectations and applying them consistently in all of our sixth grade classrooms has increased students' ability to remember the routines, which helps them to be responsible and ready to learn. 

Creating the Social Contract 
We spent the first week working an hour per day on a Social Contract. Students worked in small groups to propose three-word guidelines for success, and those groups shared their proposed guidelines in their homerooms. 

Each homeroom came to consensus on three guidelines, then brought those guidelines to the all-sixth-grade meeting, where each of our homerooms presented their guidelines. Sixty-six students and four adults worked together, and we ended with these four guidelines: 
- Be respectful
- Be responsible
- Be honest
- Do your best

These are posted in all classrooms, including our Special Educator's room.

In language arts classes, each student wrote about what they felt was the most important of the four guidelines. Each student wrote about why he or she believed that guideline was most important. Students signed their writing, and we posted these thoughts on a bulletin board in our hallway. 

Students at a light table
Independent learners apply common routines to all classes.

Check your progress 
As we moved through the year, we  stopped periodically and reflected  on our progress as a team and as  individuals toward the goal of being  responsibly independent learners.  During these discussions, we created new Y-charts as needed. In one instance, we talked about our silent reading time. It was worth the time it took: now, students sometimes remind each other of expected behavior by pointing to the chart when someone is having a difficult time getting settled. 

Managing behaviors with new confidence 
Following through with teaching routines and skills takes time that  sometimes seems to be stolen from  academic teaching. But without taking this critical time to teach the skills students need to be independent and responsible, academic learning suffers. 

For the first time in my teaching career, I feel confident in my ability to manage classroom behavior challenges. My teammates and I consistently use TAB and TAB Out, and that has reduced my anxiety about making sure the classroom is conducive to learning for all students.

Telling a student to take a break is not a punishment, and is not perceived as one. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the student (or I, when I go to the take-a-break chair), needs a minute to collect thoughts, take a deep breath, and get ready to return to learning. 

TAB Out has provided me with a consistent plan for what to do when a student needs to rethink what is driving her behavior. In the past, I had to decide regarding each behavior incident what to do: send the child into the hallway, to another teacher's classroom, to the behavior planning room, etc. Because students knew there were several possibilities, they often pushed back against my decisions. Now we have an agreed-upon system, and we use it. It always involves a conversation about what needs are not being met and how to make sure those needs are met appropriately. We are the only team in the building that has not sent a student to the planning room this year. That feels great! 

When my teammates and I completed our DD1 workshop, we asked our principal to purchase resources for us to support our ongoing learning.  He did, and now we each have a copy of The Advisory Book and Tried and True Classroom Games and Greetings. With these, my DD1  Resource Book from class last summer,  my teammates, and the other  teachers in my building who are  using the practices in their classrooms,  I am well equipped to continue  growing as a teacher.  Implementing a new pedagogical approach to classroom management and teaching has reinvigorated me and boosted my confidence in myself. It was a great year! 

Alison Levy teaches sixth graders at Essex Middle School in Essex Junction, Vermont.             

Published January 2013