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When A “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (And Back To “Good” Again!)

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Note: I posted a version of this piece last week in In Practice , a group blog written by teachers who work in lower-income communities. It originally included nine actions I had taken. Since that original posting, I remembered a tenth step I took, and also solicited anonymous feedback from my students about their perception of changes that have occurred in the classroom. I’ve included both the additional tenth action and some student reaction in this revised version of my post.

This post is different from ones I usually write for this blog. However, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from my original In Practice post, and thought readers here might find this revised one helpful.

The first week of the second semester was tough. We have double-block classes for mainstream ninth-grade English, and the teacher of the other class was on maternity leave (our large inner-city high school is divided into Small Learning Communities of about 300 students each). So we had decided that I would get any new students that would come in.

And I did — five new students that week. Five new students who seemed to be facing some challenges.

Our classroom culture was much more fragile than I had thought. It didn’t take long for things to deteriorate. And I quickly turned-into more of a threatening and punishing teacher. I wasn’t happy, and most of the students obviously weren’t happy, either. Some learning, though not as much as before, was taking place, but there didn’t seem to be much joy in it for anybody. And there were frequent student behavior issues.

One option would have been to just grit my teeth and bear it for a few more months — then it would be over. That would have been doable, especially since my other classes were going fine.

Another option would be to try to turn things around.

I chose the second one. Here are ten actions I took to turn my class back into a community of learners:

BEGAN REGULAR STUDENT REFLECTIVE ACTIVITIES: We began doing short activities which included reading, writing, and sharing on topics like:

Are You A Positive Or Negative Person?

Are You A Good Or Ugly Listener?

Who Are Some People You Respect And How Do You Think They Act When Things Don’t Go Exactly The Way They Want?

Do You Think Intelligence Is Fixed, Or Can It Grow With Effort?

Each student would then write about how they saw themselves in the context of that particular topic, and if they were happy with themselves. If not, how did they think they could change?

I shared research on the qualities of a successful learner, and students evaluated themselves and wrote what they would like to do better.

Each student began writing a goal on Monday that they had for the week, and would reflect each Friday if they had been successful in reaching their goal.

BEGAN DAILY EVALUATIONS: We discussed what would be important elements of a good classroom — respect for the teacher and other students, doing assignments, accomplishing their weekly goals, etc. I developed a half-page sheet listing them, and students began grading themselves on each criteria along with giving themselves an overall grade. There’s a space for me to list what grade I believe they have earned, as well. It takes them one minute to complete it at the end of class, and it takes me about two minutes in total to review and respond to them all. I have yet to give a student a lower grade than they gave themselves and, in fact, have often given them higher ones. I return the sheets at the beginning of class the next day.

STOPPED WRITING STUDENT NAMES ON THE BOARD: For the first time in my teaching career, I had begun writing names of misbehaving students on the whiteboard indicating that they would either be losing a break or have to stay and miss part of their lunch. From the day I stopped doing that (after making it clear that, instead, it would be reflected on the daily grading sheet) , there hasn’t been a single repetition of the kind of behavior that had prompted me before to assign that punishment.

STOPPED CALLING HOME WHEN THERE WERE BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS: Instead of calling parents of a student who was not behaving well, I began telling students who were behaving inappropriately that I wasn’t going to call home that day. Instead, I began telling them I was going to call their home in a week, that I wanted to just say good things about them, and they had a week to show me they could be the kind of student I knew they could be.

CHANGED THE CLASS SEATING ARRANGEMENT: The day I began this new strategy, I not only changed student seats to minimize some challenges, I changed the entire seating arrangement. That helped students, and me, to see and remember that it was a “new day.”

EVERYBODY BEGAN WITH AN “A” AGAIN: The second semester was only a few weeks old when I began these new strategies and, since everyone always begins with an “A” grade in my class, it was easy for me to tell some of the challenging and struggling students that we were going to forget what had happened up to then and they were going to get a new start, too. Since that moment, the vast majority of these students have done better work than I had ever seen before.

ARRANGED “SECRET” SIGNS WITH STUDENTS TO STOP: I had private conversations with a few of my more challenging students and we discussed that I didn’t expect perfect behavior, but that I wanted to reach an agreement of a “sign” I could give them that would signify that my patience was just about at its end. And after receiving that sign, they felt that they could commit to stopping their inappropriate behavior. Some students, for example, wanted me to tap their desk.

GAVE CERTAIN STUDENTS PERMISSION TO LEAVE THE ROOM, WITHOUT ASKING ME, IF THEY FELT THEY WERE GOING TO “BLOW”: They would have to just stay outside the door, but just knowing they had that power has appeared to make a huge difference, and no one has exercised it. Obviously, if a student did that, I would immediately following him/her out, but they wouldn’t get into trouble for leaving. In fact, they would gain praise from me instead.

FOCUSED ON SMILING MORE AND SHOWING MORE PATIENCE: I am very intentional about smiling more in class (though I don’t think I ever have been a big “frowner”) and demonstrating more patience. When students are reading the book of their choice during our “Practice Reading” time, and a student wants to put his/her head down for awhile, for example, instead of operating from the assumption the student is being lazy, I’ll ask him/her if they rest for five minutes can I count on them to read after that.
I certainly did a number of these things before, but I let behavior issues lead me into a downward spiral of threats and punishment.

PULLED-OUT STUDENTS FROM OTHER CLASSES DURING MY FREE PERIOD TO TALK: Having private, in-depth, conversations with individual students can be difficult in the middle of a class can be problematic. Now, three or four times each week at the beginning of my “prep” period (when I don’t have a class), I’ve made arrangements with the teachers who have my students that I can pull them out of their warm-up activities for a couple of minutes to talk about any individual challenges they might be having — academically, personally, or behavior-wise. We’ll either walk over to my classroom or just walk down the hall. Students really want to have these talks (I’d like to think it’s not only because they want to get-out of doing the warm-up activity!) and, in fact, since I started doing this some students who aren’t even in my class have asked me to have these talks with them (which I have). It only takes five minutes out of my prep time two-or-three times a week, and the pay-off is huge.

The difference in class is like night and day now. There are regressions — it’s clear that pair work is the maximum for collaborative activities for right now, and they’re not quite ready for groups of three yet. But there is no question that there is more of a sense of fun and joy in the learning that’s happening on our classroom again.

In an anonymous survey I did with students, they identified the daily evaluations, the new seating arrangement, and the fact I don’t write names of misbehaving students on the board as the three most important actions that have made a positive differnece in class.

I asked them to complete the blanks in a sentence. Here is what one student wrote: “When I’m in this class now I feel happy and safe because everybody has calmed thmselves down.”

(You might also be interested in my follow-up post titled Maintaining A “Good” Class)

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

17 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading about your class. I also teach in an inner city school and have gone through similar tribulations. Also, I’m very interested in technology in education. I’ve read your blog for a couple months now and have gotten some great ideas. Recently I created a blog showing how I use technology in the classroom . There are a couple things I use that I’ve found really handy, which you may or may not have posted. 1. That Quiz is free and has tons of math, geography, and language problems to work on. If you sign up for a teacher account you can assign quizzes, create them, or draw from a bank of quizzes others have created. It keeps a gradebook and everything. Very powerful.
    2. Google Docs Education – you probably know of this, but they just added a forms feature to the spreadsheet application that has lots of uses (creating surveys, quizzes, questionnaires)
    3. Sketchcast is amazing. It records what you draw for easy play back. Post on a blog or webpage with ease. Great for math or diagrams in other subjects.

  2. I am an ESL teacher in a highs chool in Kazakhstan and it’s my first year teaching in a public school with classes of 20-30 kids. I also usually tutor, meaning my students want to be there and are paying to be there (or their parents are). It’s been a huge adjustment getting used to teaching all levels of interest and dealing with the whole range of high school personalities from the class clown to the gangsters. These tips are very useful, wish you had posted this in September!

  3. What sorts of material did you use in the readings for student reflection?

  4. Clix,

    Primarily materials I developed — short lists or summaries, or questionnaires.

    I’ll try to put them together and include them in future posts.

    Larry

  5. Thanks for your post. I’ve been reading for a while and am amazed at how you’ve scoured the internet and found all the gold. And then told us!

    It was refreshing to see how you changed that class around. I had been feeling myself slip into the “punishment-and-grumpy” mode (usually using an approach similar to your positive discipline), and wondering how I could dig myself out. I’ll give your tips a go!

    Thanks again.

  6. “Punishment and grumpy” is a good description, and I think all of us get into those modes sometimes. We’re human, after all. I’m going to try and remember what I use with the students, and ask myself “Who’s controlling me?”

    Larry

  7. What does the evaluation grading sheet you created look like?

  8. Mr. K,

    I’ll put it on my “To Do” list to post it here.

    Larry

  9. Larry,Really enjoyed your post. It reminded me of my first couple of years teaching junior high. However being a new teacher I never had the luck or experience to do some of the things you post here. It too was an inner city school and the kids were very likable people but not nice students.

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  11. I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while from my Google Reader. In general I pay attention to different kinds of posts, but now I was looking for something to try in my particularly disruptive Tue/Thu class. I’m certainly gonna try these and let you know which one(s) worked. The only one I tried was recording the class so as to pinpoint what could I have done better.
    Many thanks and keep the good posts coming!
    Enzo (from Argentina)
    ps: I agree with that commentator who asked you “When do you sleep?” ;)

  12. Larry,

    I really appreciated reading about the strategies you used with students to turn around a negative climate. The several ways that you gave them some freedom and ownership demonstrated your own care and concern. I think that some of these strategies could also be incorporated into upper elementary and middle school classrooms. Thanks for reminding me that sometimes students just need someone to truly listen. I believe in that old saying that each kid needs to connect with at least one adult in their school for school success.

  13. Larry,

    I’m making my way through your archived posts, and have just come across your series of posts on classroom management. I wish I had had the benefit of reading these when I first started teaching! When I began teaching it was a VERY steep learning curve in a tough-ish school, and nobody could give me any specific tips like you have listed here. I endured 12 months of perceived chaos! I really appreciate your honesty about actually having classroom issues, and I particularly like how you’ve adapted the parent phone call strategy into one that is a recognition of work well done, and the idea of replacing names on the board with a daily grading sheet. I’m going to try that one tomorrow!

    I also agree wholeheartedly with the importance of developing student relationships, and giving them room to make the choices they need – ie: discreet reminders that enough is enough, and allowing students to develop their emotional maturity by recognising when it is best they leave the room for a time-out.

    I’m going to now pass these posts onto some beginning teacher friends of mine, and my former education tutor, in the hope she can pass on your constructive advice to new teachers to be.

    Again,

    Thanks.
    Carla

  14. Pingback: Cycle Two: Challenges and Opportunities in Building Classroom Communities | J Prueter – MSU

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