‘The Class That Never Was’

On the first day of my school year, I was appointed to my ‘first class’.

Yet, as I explored in A Teacher’s Story, this position was destined to last a mere six days.

In this post, I share my memories of Room 11, and the lessons I learnt in those six hectic, stressful, yet wonderful days.

It is a tribute to my students, and the class that never was.

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My apologies – this is a rather long post.


Getting Started

Being appointed on the first day of school is no way to start a class. This was an intensely stressful time, as I worked to translate my ideas about classroom organisation, curriculum planning, and behaviour management into reality. I sincerely hope and pray I’m never called upon a job on an hour’s notice ever again.

Nevertheless, I was able to learn a great deal about establishing a new class.

 



Determining my Classroom Organisation

My classroom was a small physical teaching space; and unfortunately, this limited the extent to which I could arrange it to my liking.

When arranging my space, I needed to consider the location of my desk, students’ desks, and storage tubs. When I arrived, the desks were positioned in rows facing the front; an arrangement which a) I dislike and b) I found extremely difficult to navigate (walking around the class). 

I wanted to establish a central floor teaching space where students could sit, and rearranged students’ desks accordingly. This arrangement was changed three times in response to classroom dynamics, as I had to separate several conflicting personalities. These photos show my final, workable arrangement.

 

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I was also able to create and laminate a class visual timetable (schedule), as well as my students’ personalised nametags for their desks and supply tubs. Sadly, I never got a chance to use these labels for real – they became my parting gift to my students as we went our different ways.


Lessons Learnt

  • Consider student dynamics when creating seating plans – and don’t be afraid to change plans if they aren’t working
  • If space permits, I’d use a horseshoe seating arrangement with my next class.
  • An empty classroom & bare walls can be quite confronting! It is important to establish student work-displays as soon as possible.
  • My laminated visual timetable & student desk labels were an excellent idea. The students loved the personalised nametags, and I think they helped give them some ownership of the classroom space.
  • In time, I’d like to bring in cushions or an old couch for silent reading. Realistically, there was no space for these here.
  • I also realised the need to develop a recording system to keep track of students’ contributions of classroom consumables – those tissues are worth their weight in gold!



Developing our Classroom Rules & Expectations

 

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Faced with a wide range of ability levels, personalities and challenging behaviours; classroom management in Room 11 was always going to be a challenge.

It took me some time to learn how to manage the ‘dominant personalities’; and to conform to school expectations regarding the use of extrinsic rewards (sticker charts and prizes) and classroom management forms.

I’m no fan of extrinsic rewards, as I prefer group reward systems. I had contemplated the idea of establishing a whole-class reward time on Friday afternoons (jokingly called the “Friday Free-for-All”), for students demonstrating good behaviour during the week. I would like to try this with my next class; for based on my relief observations, 30 mins reward time can make a huge difference to class morale and behaviour.

In these early days, I spent a great deal of my time learning about my students; building positive relationships and sharing a little bit of myself (including my horrendous sense of humour). I put a few photos and funny cartoons up alongside my desk (to cheer myself up), and made a point of learning students’ names (no easy feat!). This would later prove “time well spent”.

 

Lessons learnt

  • This experience was a valuable opportunity to implement my management approach, which I have blogged extensively about in the past (see The 3R’s of Effective Learning Environments and My Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management)
  • I realised that I have sound classroom management skills (and an ironic sense of humour) which stood me in good stead as I worked to establish my classroom community.
  • This was the first time I’ve ever negotiated classroom rules, taught routines, and established my behavioural expectations – and the process worked well. I was surprised at how quickly students began to settle and bond as a group. 
  • I also realised the importance of adhering to whole-school classroom management plans – whether I particularly like them or not!

 

Looking Back

Teaching Room 11 for those 6 days was a transformative learning experience. It was one I had to undertake, and I know I am now much better equipped to establish a new class in the future.

Yet, so many good things came out of what was, at the time, a deeply traumatic event. So many opportunities to learn, grow, and connect. I have no regrets, no ill-feelings. But I will never forget my Room 11, the “class that never was”.

Reflections on Classroom Management (Index)

My Experiences, Philosophy, & Reflections

  1. My Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management
  2. The Conscious Competence Ladder (Skill Development)
  3. The Four Stages in My Teaching Practice
  4. Classroom Management – Summing Up

The 3 R’s of Effective Learning Environments

  1. Setting the Scene
  2. Overview of the 3 R’s
  3. Transforming a Year 3 class into a learning community
  4. The Third ‘R’ – Shared Responsibility for the Learning Process
  5. My experiences with the Third ‘R’

‘The Theory of Bumps’ (Bennett & Smilanich, 1994)

  1. The Key Principles
  2. Explanation & Suggested Strategies

The 3 Keys to Working with Challenging Students

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a “problem” or challenging behaviour?
  3. Part 1: Building Positive Relationships
  4. Part 2: The Classroom Learning Environment
  5. Part 3: The Teacher’s Attitude, Actions, & Management Approach
  6. Responding to Anger

Building Positive Relationships

  1. Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”
  2. Relief Teaching – Chalk & Small Talk!
  3. Get Involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs
  4. The Importance of Active Listening

Top Tips for Teachers – Behaviour Management (Video)

Cracking the Hard Class

Top Tips for Teachers – Behaviour Matters (TeacherTube™)

This is a tongue-in-cheek look at effective instruction and classroom management. It’s well worth watching. (Click to view)

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Part 6: My Experiences with the Third ‘R’

Moving to a more student-centred curriculum

To date, my experience with the Third ‘R’ has been limited to a form of curriculum negotiation in my Year 3 class of 2008, but what a story I have to tell …

As I began my teaching experience, exploring our Under the Sea theme, my initial planned learning experiences were primarily teacher-directed. Over the course of those eight weeks  I learnt how to facilitate open-ended learning tasks, encouraged students’ sharing of their prior knowledge and experiences,  learnt to keep my “teacher talk” to a minimum, and (unwittingly) tapped into a wealth of community knowledge.

A good example of my early approach was the science lesson about fish adaptations, which saw students observe, handle and draw the features of real (dead) fish. This highly authentic and extremely unusual activity created quite a stir amongst staff and students; and while it achieved the desired learning outcomes, some students’ still live in “fear” of Mr Graffin’s “little friends” returning to haunt them!

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Negotiating the Curriculum to Reflect Students’ Experiences, Knowledge, and Interests

As I became more confident in planning and facilitating student learning, I began to inquire into my students’ lives and communities through my “Fishing Equipment” & “Fishing Letters” activities. While I initially perceived this as a natural extension of my teaching, this change represented a fundamental shift in my theoretical understandings of my teaching practice, moving towards encouraging students’ active involvement in the learning process. 

Halfway through the term, I decided that students would write letters to inquire into the commercial fishing industry, supporting their achievement of the Society & Environment – Investigation, Communication & Participation outcomes.

As a prelude, I invited parents and students to share their fishing expertise and experiences with the class. The response blew me away, as they brought lobsters pots, fishing rods, shells, crab pots, a tackle box, diving float, mussel floats, rope splicing equipment, and even a GPS unit to class, much of which they loaned for our Open Night displays.

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My students happily spent an entire lesson examining the different types of fishing equipment, and I had several boys and girls, including “Roy”, enthusiastically teach the entire class (and the teacher!) about how they used fishing rods, crab pots, and hand-reels in their lives. I discovered Roy’s deep love of mussels (shellfish) and interest in crabbing; and learnt that another student’s father ran a local mussel farm.

This activity marked a turning point for Roy, the most challenging student in the class. I had finally found a topic which he was interested in, and about which he could contribute his knowledge to the class. From this movement forward, I noted a significant decrease in his challenging classroom behaviours (while I was teaching), and a corresponding increase in his enthusiasm and engagement in his learning.

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Later, students brainstormed questions they had about the fishing industry, and wrote letters to various family members, local businesses, and John West Tuna (Simplot Australia), seeking answers. We ultimately received answers to most of our letters, with some amazing results.

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We received a wonderful letter from the marketing department at John West Tuna, who decorated their office with our students’ letters. They also sent us an inflatable tuna can, inflatable fish, and a carton of Tuna to Go. Naturally, the teacher got first pick…

We also received letters from WA Mussel Co-Op, and several students’ relatives working as commercial fishermen throughout Western Australia

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So, what did I learn from this experience?

  • Negotiating the curriculum, even in a small way, can have significant, and sometimes unexpected positive impacts on the learning process
  • Students, and their families, can bring useful knowledge, expertise, and skills to class. Recognising these boosts students’ self-esteem and impacts on their classroom behaviours.
  • As a teacher, your choice of learning experiences, curriculum design, and teaching approach significantly influence your students’ motivation and classroom behaviours.
  • Effective, proactive classroom managers seek to engage students in their learning by making it interesting and relevant to their lives and experience. Motivated, engaged students are much less likely to misbehave.

These ideas are reflected in my teaching philosophy: “What students bring to class is where learning begins. It starts there and goes places.”
Ira Shor. (1992). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change.

Part 5: The Third ‘R’ – (Shared) Responsibility

The Third ‘R’ of an effective learning environment relates to developing students’ sense of responsibility for their learning and classroom environment.

To effectively manage this long-term process, graduate teachers need to clarify their position in, and plans for their classroom learning environment. My personal approach has been influenced by my teaching philosophy and relief teaching experience in TRIBES schools.

I hope to create a classroom learning community where I facilitate, rather than dictate, the learning process. I want to develop my students’ skills for cooperation and higher-order thinking; enabling them to become active, informed and multi-literate learners. This means I will be ultimately positioning myself as a co-learner in the classroom community, using students’ questions, skills, and talents to drive the learning process, within the boundaries of the set curriculum. For this to work, I will need to develop the ‘Third ‘R’.

As a relief teacher, I have observed and researched various avenues for developing this in the classroom, with each strategy building on the last.

1) Developing Classroom Rules with Students

While classroom rules are an essential feature of virtually every classroom%20rulesclassroom; to be truly effective, students need to be given the opportunity to “own” their class rules by negotiating them with their teacher.

This sense of ownership ensures students share the responsibility for the effective running of the learning environment.

2) Differentiating & negotiating curriculum, themes, and learning experiences to reflect students’ interests, talents and expertise

With the pressures of an overcrowded curriculum, the need to meet system priorities (e.g. NAPLAN), and rigorous assessment and reporting demands, it is often difficult to negotiate core curriculum content with students.

What we can do; however, is differentiate the curriculum to reflect students’ interests, special talents, multiple intelligences, skills, and community resources. This can be achieved through Term themes (eg. Colonial Australia, Under the Sea, The Solar System); open-ended learning tasks (e.g inquiry projects); use of Blooming SMART matrixes; teaching higher-order thinking skills; and weaving students’ questions through unit learning experiences.

A step up from this might involve students negotiating assessment criteria and presentation mediums. Developing shared rubrics, and encouraging students’ to use different technologies/learning products (eg. PhotoStory, PPT, short movie, podcast) to share their learning, are powerful ways to involve students in the learning process. 

If a student has a special skill (eg. film-making), why not encourage them to use it in class – to share their learning and to teach others? Teachers DON’T have to be technological experts – use your more knowledgeable students’ as “peer teachers” instead.

The move to negotiating curriculum requires a shift in thinking on behalf of both the students and the teacher. Our students tend to be used to being passive receivers of information, and may lack the necessary skills and understandings to actively participate in their learning. Therefore, teachers need to explicitly teach the necessary social and cooperative skills prior to negotiating curriculum with their students. Also, teachers need to adjust to their new role and status in the classroom, moving away from being the ‘font of all knowledge’ towards being a “life-long learner”.

This is NOT an easy process, requiring extensive professional research and reflection, but implemented effectively, the rewards are life-long.

Excellent Resources – Curriculum Differentiation:

Blooming SMARTs Matrix 

Thinking Curriculum (Kurwongbah State School, QLD)

Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys [pdf]

3) Explicitly teaching social or “working together” skills, which underpin collaborative learning

I have now taught in 21 schools in the Perth (Western Australia) metropolitan area, and I have only seen the explicit teaching of social skills in three, upper primary classrooms.

In our society, there is an incredible need to teach social skills as part of the everyday curriculum. By doing so, we are not only helping those children with special needs, but all our mainstream students as well. As the global economy increasingly requires collaborative, active learners & knowledge workers, this has become a pressing learning priority.

Social, or interpersonal skills can be effectively integrated across the curriculum (under the Listening / Speaking strands of the new Australian Curriculum), and reinforced across a range of learning activities.

Drawing upon my reading in this area, I would suggest focussing on one social skill each week; spending perhaps 30-40 minutes/week explicitly exploring what the skill looks/sounds/feels like, role-playing social situations, and incidentally reinforcing its’ use across the curriculum.

For some excellent social skills teaching resources, and professional learning materials, I highly recommend a visit to these sites:

http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/socialskills.php 

Kurowongbah Unit – I Can Make a Difference (Yrs 1-3) [doc]

4) Develop a classroom community based on the four TRIBES agreements

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While I have seen the enormously positive impacts of the TRIBES approach in some extremely challenging schools, my professional knowledge or training in its application is minimal at present.

I will seek to develop my understandings in this area over the coming months, and eventually plan to undertake formal TRIBES training. I will update this post then.

In the meantime, I would recommend visiting these sites for further information:

TRIBES Official Site: www.tribes.com 

Explanation: http://www.southkent.net/~bdhs/tribes/Tribesexplain.htm

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Sourced from: http://www.westfieldpremiersscholarship.dpc.wa.gov.au/index.cfm?event=reports2004

Part 3: The 3 R’s of an Effective Learning Environment

The 3 R’s: Relationships, Respect & (Shared) Responsibility

In the course of their everyday work, a teacher takes on many roles – teacher, guide, role-model, learner, authority figure, confidante, disciplinarian, communicator, and the list goes on. Teaching is so much more than “chalk and talk”, and our students are not the “empty vessels” of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

As a relief teacher, I have worked with and observed the practice of experienced classroom managers, and realised that their classes have several important features in common. They are characterised by positive, open relationships (with students, parents, and colleagues), mutual respect, and a shared responsibility for the learning process. These are the “3 R’s of an Effective Learning Environment”.

The Teacher’s Attitude is Key

Student misbehaviour, in most cases, is not a subversive challenge to the teacher’s authority. Yes, some students can be extremely frustrating, distant and downright irritating, but they are children, and should be treated as such. Their behaviour can be extremely challenging and disruptive, but it often purposeful and influenced by their social environment.

Research shows that effective classroom managers treat student misbehaviour as a natural and normal part of schooling. They take proactive steps to prevent or reduce the severity of their students’ misbehaviour, seeking to minimise the disruption to the teaching & learning process.

As many experienced teachers have taught me, through their words and actions, the creation of a safe learning environment and the development of positive student-teacher relationships are key elements of effective management practice. 

A focus on the students’ needs

As human beings, we have three basic needs – the need for food, shelter, and safety. It is a symptom of modern society that a significant proportion of our students only feel safe at school. In some neighbourhoods, many students turn up to school hungry, having skipped breakfast. Therefore, teachers and schools play an important role in their students’ lives. 

A safe classroom learning environment is created by the teacher, developed through their words, attitudes, actions, classroom management approach, and the kinds of relationships they develop with their students. 

I have two fundamental beliefs:

  • No student should fear their teacher.
  • No student deserves to be intimidated, bullied, or provoked into violence by their classmates. 

To feel safe, our students:

  • Need clear guidelines or rules for appropriate behaviour. They need to own those rules, and understand the consequences they face if they choose not to abide by them.
  • Need to be treated with respect; as individuals with diverse interests, skills, and talents.
  • Need to feel like they belong, a sense of identity as part of a class, a school community
  • Need a sense of purpose, and degree of shared responsibility for the learning process

Finally, EVERY student has the right to feel safe at school, especially those students who exhibit challenging/violent behaviours. Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with, including my own Year 1 teacher, strive to make this happen. This is a difficult, long-term process, and you will have your successes and failures. This is why I became a teacher.