In what ways can teachers ground classroom management in their knowledge of particular students? Is it possible to build community and respect classroom wide by prioritizing meaningful relationships with each student? Throughout my three weeks in sixth grade at Summer Prep, my three months in third grade at ICS and my semester in fifth grade at William D’Abate I was privileged to get to know many wonderful students. Personal relationships are why I teach. I love getting to know each individual in a classroom and recognizing special and unique connections with all students as frequently as possible. In each of my classrooms, I did not have to try hard to recognize and celebrate each student’s attributes. I made an effort every day to let them know I saw them (“I see you, I see everything” Charney p.27). Equity, consistency and high expectations became the heart of these interactions.
Relationships Reinforce High Expectations
Interactions with students must first and foremost be based on what is best for the group. The importance of getting to know each and every individual is based not only on pure interest and curiosity but also on the presumption that many little connections stay in place and affirm individuality at times when I have to be more authoritative. Relationships reinforce expectations. Students must know I see the good things about them when I voice the behavior that is not acceptable in the classroom. I focus on positive feedback: “It’s important to remember the value of also looking for what they’re doing well and reflecting that back to them. Children need to know their strengths in order to know what to stand on as they reach for the next higher rung.” (Denton p. 89) Positive reinforcement is critical to relationship building and high expectations.
Two of my spring placement students at William D’Abate taught me a great deal about the value of relationship building and high expectations. Jasmine acted very mature for her age, a leader in her class and the first to test me whenever my mentor teacher, Amanda, had left the room. With four older brothers and absentee parents Jasmine presented herself as a tough girl during social times. Seeking to gain the respect of her classmates (although she already had it), Jasmine often talked back to me in the first few weeks and would remain shy and introverted on occasions when we had time for small talk to get to know one another. I considered Jasmine to be one of my potential “difficult students.”
After the first few weeks of our book bag project it was Jasmine’s turn to take the book home and work on it with her parents. She informed me at the beginning of the week that she could not do the project on her assigned night because she had a sport. I agreed to do her presentation on a day later in the week. Again, the day before her assigned night, Jasmine informed me it would not be possible to do the project that night either because her mom was out of town. The book bag presentations continued and I forgot about the delay in Jasmine's project. After reviewing my notes and the schedule near the end of the unit, I realized Jasmine had still not presented her book bag project. During this, time I had also learned that the school social worker was in touch with the district regarding Jasmine’s report of child abuse over the weekend. One of the adults I was working with had told me “Jasmine got whacked pretty hard this weekend.”
I realized why Jasmine had not completed the project, and regretted the fact that we had not had enough time to build the kind of relationship in which she could feel comfortable telling me this instead of making up homework excuses. Later in the week, I approached Jasmine on the way to lunch and mentioned that we had to get the project done. I explained to her that I knew turmoil was going on at home but assured her she didn’t have to share with me anything unless she wanted to. I offered her a choice: complete the project over the weekend with her church group or stay one day at lunch and complete it with me. To my surprise she elected to stay and do the project with me at lunch. Jasmine even smiled as she said this. I began to see her more clearly.
The next day we found a quiet corner in the hall and set to work filling in the Harris Burdick story map. Jasmine became a different person one on one. She acted more childlike and friendly. I felt a new closeness to her as I realized she was sincerely enjoying this individual attention. As we ended our session, the story map now full, we talked about her upcoming dance competition. Later that week I noticed a different attitude coming from Jasmine during class time. Once, as several different students began questioning me at once during small group work time Jasmine urged them “You guys! Calm down, there’s only one of her.”
Our one on one time at lunch had allowed me to show Jasmine that she could trust me, and it allowed me to see how much she actually did want and need some extra attention and recognition. Taking the time to build our relationship helped both of us fulfill our roles of teacher and student more meaningfully. Jasmine accepted me as her teacher only after she had felt me care for her. I was able to better understand her as my student once I knew some information about her home, and more importantly, how she could behave when she felt recognized and supported.
Positive Reinforcement and Clear Communication
I frequently use positive reinforcement. It is important for my class to hear my voice praising them for good work just as often as they hear my voice redirecting them. When I worked with mentor teacher Amanda Lopez in fifth grade, I saw again an expert implementation of positive feedback. I began to model my teaching after hers. My small group for during literacy class was the “Strategic Intervention” group. All eight students all had IEPs and several had received, or would receive, in school suspension for behavior issues during my time there. I thought back to my previous job as a GED teacher. Why is it that so often behavior issues come hand in hand with struggling academics? I had requested to work with this group and although many days were exasperating, I grew to love them fiercely. We called my eight students Green Group.
In the beginning I struggled a lot with Green Group; so many of them wanted to talk at once. After a month or so of observation and inquiry, I realized the key cause of disruptions or individual mood swings was usually that an individual did not get the attention he or she was asking for. This was difficult for me to handle because during whole group reading time it was impossible to recognize eight learners simultaneously. Amanda suggested a reward system to remind the group to stay on task. Although much of our discussions and reading at Brown had cautioned against the practice of rewarding, I was very surprised by the success of this system as I began to implement it.
a n i m a g e f r o m J a s m i n e' s m a p o f H a i t i f i n a l p r o j e c t
The reward system was based on adding and taking out marbles from a group jar. I introduced the plan with the suggestion “Do you all feel like we know each other?” My Green Group responded “no.” I knew that if the nine of us spent time getting to know each other (building relationships) the respect during learning time would soon follow. During this same group discussion I told them that because we did not know each other as a group we needed more time to hang out and learn about one another, especially me because I was a new teacher at their school. I prefaced this by saying, “Although we need to get to know each other we also have a lot of work to do.” The deal was: if we worked hard enough we would have time to hang out. A special party would be arranged, if we won “the marble game.”
I used the marbles as a tool for communication. We began with a jar of eighteen marbles because I figured each student would do at least two good things every week. The principle was simple: if you do something good, you add a marble, if you are not helping the group, I will remove a marble. If we have 18 marbles in the jar by the end of thursday we get to hang out and have a party at lunch on friday.
Initially, since we began with 18 marbles I was only able to subtract marbles. I hadn’t set it up so I could add more than 18 marbles. This affected the group negativley because I had less flexibilty in looking for opportunities for spontaneous praise. I was limited by the number of marbles. Students were upset whenever I took out a marble. I realized I needed to be giving more positive feedback. We made a rule that we could add marbles above 18. This really helped Green Group soar!
Now, I had a way to add marbles at any time (without having to take them out first) and the group became excited by how many they could get. By the end of every thursday we counted to see if we had superseded our amount from the prior week. Students also requested to count the marbles at the beginning of every class. Did they not trust me to let the jar remain untouched? Or did they simply love the act of pouring and sorting the marbles, remembering all the good things they had done, building rungs for themselves to climb on. Either way, the marble system was a clear, explicit agreed upon means of communication. Whenever I took out a marble, the message was that much louder and clearer that things were not going well. It was as if the marble system was finally a shared language in our multicultural, multilingual, very interpersonally precarious environment. It worked.
Waiting for 100%
One lesson that I took away from my student teaching experience was that students won’t believe you are serious unless you yourself believe the same to be true. In all three of my practicum schools I diligently practiced what Lemov calls “waiting for 100%”, that is, waiting for silence and compliance from all students before beginning a lesson or activity.
In the fall, my ICS students taught me the term: “I’m waiting for respect” which implies not only high expectations but also clearly states what students should be doing during noisy times. "My words carry the most weight when the students see that I back them up with action" (Denton p.16) Later, in fifth grade at William D’Abate I developed a call and response clap to get students' attention, instead of yelling over their voices. Key phrases, actions or claps delivered in a routine manner help students to redirect their own behaviors. Sending the message that a lesson cannot begin until all members are listening and focused creates a more rigorous classroom. Teachers must repeat this process over and over until students know what is expected of them.
I think of Paula Denton’s First Six Weeks of School. I was present for the first six weeks in third grade at ICS. This process was truly astonishing to watch. At times it felt as slow or incremental as the movement of a glacier, but over the course of September and October 2014 I watched all of our 32 third graders become quieter in the halls, more respectful and focused in the classroom and more communicative and kind to one another. Several times I asked my mentor teacher Crystal, why weren’t they doing more advanced work during class? She would always remind me “first six weeks.” I now understand how critical this term is in the language of teachers. This important time period honors student’s adjustment to new environments and new people.
One particular example I saw took place multiple times a day when I took my third grade group to their specials. Each time we went downstairs we had to pass through a shared hallway with the neighboring high school. This meant absolute silence. As fate would have it, this was the same hallway students went through to get to recess and lunch – and it had three flights of stairs. Over the course of the first six weeks I saw a progression from loud and excited students thundering down the stairs to a quiet, focused group of young people discreetly chatting as they transitioned. Both Crystal’s and my work to consistently remind the group day in and day out throughout the month of September paid off. They actually got quieter!
I also want to highlight my use of this situation as an opportunity for creative play. As I started to feel like a broken record throughout this process I found it useful to draw on student’s imaginations. We made it a game! On the wall of the stairway there was a mural painted of astronauts in space. Students, of their own accord, began to pretend they had to hold their breath (like in space) and would tumble out at the bottom of the steps gasping for air and giggling. I chose to both build upon and modify this idea. For several days in a row, before we even left the classroom I reminded them they had to be quiet as we walked. I offered the option to pretend they were floating in space and that they had to hold their breath. My wonderful eight year olds relished the opportunity for make believe and our hallway journeys took on a new silence.
At William D’Abate with my fifth graders in the spring, hallway behavior was also a thorny issue. Since I had missed the first six weeks (joining the class in January), I myself was unclear of expectations in this new school. Every week our trips to and from lunch and specials were a source of tension. The group would not quiet down, they completely disregarded constant redirection and reminders. I became very concerned about this and almost gave up at one point. However, by mid March I had realized the root of the problem.
We always left our home room in a disorganized and scattered manner. The problem started here. At ICS, our third graders were always made to wait inside the door and “show that they were ready”. Sometimes we would stand for three or four minutes waiting for all to be quiet and face forward. At D’Abate, class time would always end in a rushed manner and students would rush out the door expected to regroup and quiet down independently in the hall. This made it harder for them. I made the decision to begin ending our content classes a little earlier so that the group would have time to line up and get quiet for the transition. The results were remarkable. I am thankful to have been in two different schools so as to have had different perspectives with which to analyze the problem. I am thankful also to know that many chronic "rule" problems can have simple fixes given the right tools.
Steady Loving Confrontation
Lisa Delpit’s idea of a "Warm Demander" was a constant reference point for me in all three of my practicum classrooms as I investigated the many aspects of my role as a teacher. Although I am pedagogically opposed to the idea of “controlling” students, I do believe a certain degree of authority has to be imposed in order for all students to feel safe. When I think about classroom management as enforcing rules and exerting control it is hard to stomach, but when I think about preparing my students for a life of educational and professional success, it feels worthwhile. My approach is grounded in high expectations, positive reinforcement, dedicated inquiry and observation in order to better know my students. Focusing on all of these aspects before content essentially lays the foundation for content. Enacting this with love, straightforwardness and respect can transform a classroom. As Lynda Blackman Lowery describes Nonviolence in her book Turning 15 on The Road To Freedom : “You could get anybody to do anything you wanted with steady loving confrontation.” (Delpit 2012)
excerpt from Ruby Holler, by Sharon Creech
Charney, Ruth. 2002. Teaching Children to Care. Northeast Foundation for Children, Turners Falls, Massachusetts
Delpit, Lisa D. "Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children. New York: New, 2012. Print.
Denton, Paula. 2000. The First Six Weeks Of School. Northeast Foundation for Children, Turners Falls, MA
Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.