“Relax and quietly sit in your seat.” There is nothing more challenging for a teacher than starting class off on the right track. It often feels like trying to change the course of a steam ship with a wooden paddle. But it’s not impossible to start off right and stay on-task for the entire class period or school day even with the most difficult populations of students.
You’re the Boss!
One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced and ineffective teachers make is to plead with their students to respond. It’s a horrible practice. You are the teacher and you are in charge of your classroom of students. Period! A teacher should never beg his or her students to be quiet, to settle down, or to get to work. A weak instructor who will not show leadership in their classroom is bad for students and bad for education. Understanding that there are as many different teaching styles as there are teachers out there and that some teachers have a more authoritarian style while others use a more passive approach, I believe that ALL teachers must LEAD their students through the learning process. And teachers should never ask their students whether or not they want to reply.
Easier said then done, right? The key to engaging students in learning from the moment the bell rings is excellent and comprehensive preparation for the class by the teacher. Over-plan the day and leave no time for distraction. I can tell you that the classes that I teach that are the most difficult to motivate and corral are the classes that I have prepared for the least, or are the ones that I have put the least amount of effort into teaching (yes, I just admitted that I try harder to teach some classes than others, don’t you?) This is why young teachers often struggle early on with difficult groups of kids: the young teachers are just not as prepared to teach as the veteran teachers. A great way to start an outstanding learning experience is by using a collection or “sponge activity.”
Absorb The Students!
Madeline Hunter gets the credit for the idea and it’s a great one. We were supposed to be taught how to apply sponge activities in teacher training, but the examples are often generic and may or may not be effective in our own classrooms. A useful sponge activity is one that engages student interest and is connected to the subject matter. Students walking into the classroom should find the sponge activity written on a whiteboard or clearly and consistently visible somewhere obvious in the classroom. The activity should be self-directed by an individual or small group. It should also be timed somewhere around 10 minutes or less. While the students are working the teacher can check attendance and complete any of that oh-so-important preparation for class.
An example of a sponge activity that I have used for years is called “6-facts.” I teach in a computer classroom, but this activity could be modified to use a textbook instead of the Internet. I use this with my entry-level students to get them involved and active in the class work. I write a subject on the whiteboard. It’s usually a person, place, or thing. The students walk in to class, find the topic, and get to work searching the Web. My classroom is arranged with six “pods” of six students. Each pod must find six different facts from six unique web addresses. The group shares a single piece of notebook paper where they write down their findings. One student from each group then goes to the white board and writes a fact and a website from their group. The group paper is submitted for scoring. Once a fact and a website are posted, they may not be repeated. After time has elapsed (or six facts appear on the white board) I go to the board and review what the class has learned about the topic today. From there I transition into the day’s lesson. It’s a beautiful thing.
If you want some ideas of other teacher’s sponge activities, just do a web search for “sponge activities” (use the quotation marks) and you’ll get a long list. You can borrow another teacher’s ideas, or use their ideas as a starting point for your own.
Transition time is difficult for all students. Some cope a little better then others, but holding on to the attention of a class full of kids when moving from one topic or activity to another is painfully difficult. Many students are easily distracted by change of any kind (think substitute teacher days). One way to combat this distraction is by using a regular daily class routine or schedule. This routine can be the same everyday or each day in the week (i.e. Monday schedule, Tuesday schedule and so on.) Time must be set-aside early in the year to teach the schedule and give students the opportunity to learn and adjust. Sure, it may seem boring and predictable, but boring and predictable is often the best type of learning environment for kids because it’s known, safe and reliable.
Once the schedule is established transitions can be smoothed out for students by avoiding sharp turns in favor of more gradual, sloping, bridges between events. The teacher must give ample warning and instruction before allowing the student to move on mentally or physically to the next planned activity. The teacher must treat his or her students like children, guiding them by the hand, using age-appropriate language because they are children, even the high school seniors.
Students will respond to and follow a teacher who demonstrates educational leadership in his or her classroom. This type of leadership starts with excellence in curriculum preparation and comprehensive scheduling. Packing the day or hour with lessons and activities that both engage and stimulate the student will guarantee that the students will stay involved and focused on the tasks at hand.