The change in semesters is always a challenging time for classes in our school. School provides a island of stability for our students in a life that might have a lot of instability, and any kind of change in routine has the potential to be disruptive. Even though a student might just change one (or none) classes in their schedule, it can nevertheless — in their mind — be a significant change in their life. Combine that with the typical addition of new students to classes that occurs at the semester change, and who are often (though not always) because they are coming from a particularly unstable situation, and things can get a bit dicey in class.
And that’s been the case in my mainstream ninth-grade English class for the past month since the change in semesters.
It hasn’t been terrible, but, as the title of this post says, it’s certainly been more “endurable” than “enjoyable” for both the students and for me.
So I decided to make some changes to highlight what I think are two important attributes of any successful classroom — fun and reflection.
For fun, we’ve begun playing a simple game a few minutes before the end of class using “sentence scrambles.” It’s just a sentence with the words out of order. The scrambles relate to our topic of study (which is now Nelson Mandela). I put one or two under the document camera, and the first five students or groups of students get some extra credit points –if they work in pairs they split the reward. Everybody has plenty of opportunities to get extra credit in my class, so it’s a fair process (and I figure now and then I’ll secretly drop a few clues to students who aren’t winning). Most students, though not all, choose to work in pairs. Students enjoy it; they’re gaining content knowledge and becoming a better reader; and it takes a minute of preparation and only a few minutes of classtime and, most importantly, it’s helped lighten-up the class atmosphere.
For reflection, after the game, I’ve begun having students complete a daily reflection, which you can download here.
It’s designed to help students think about what they learned in class and, more importantly, think about what a good learner does or does not do (. It only takes a few minutes for them to complete. I collect them at the end of each day.
I’m using them in two ways:
1. I can have a brief conversation with them the next day to both reinforce an example of their being a good learner that they wrote about; and I can look for patterns in the examples they’ve shared when they feel they haven’t been a good learner. I can use that information to help students see their own patterns and triggers, and encourage them to think through ways to change them.
2. I’m also going to start handing back each Friday the four evaluations students have completed during the week and ask them to see if they can identify any patterns as well. We’ll see how that goes.
Students seem to be responding positively. As I expected, though, a lot of modeling is needed about how to answer the questions thoughtfully and to realized that, no matter how well one does, there’s always something that we can do a little bit better.
I’m using the concept attainment instructional strategy and using student examples of how best answer, and how not to answer, the questions. Concept attainment is a great tool, and I describe it in detail in my book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work.
Have you ever been in a situation where you and your students have been more “enduring” than “enjoying” your class. What have you done to turn the tide?
I agree that we definitely need to take time to have fun and to reflect! I’m not sure what level of success you’ve been having with the reflections so far, but there’s one aspect of the reflection handout that set off a possible red flag for me. If you don’t find the reflections as successful as you had hoped, here are some of my thoughts:
Encourage Full Reflection, Not Just Individual
It looked like the handout only focused on individual behavior. I think we need to encourage students to not only reflect on their own behavior, but also on everything else that affects their learning. That may include distracting noise from outside, the structure and atmosphere of the class, how well-suited the assignments and activities are to their level of mastery and individual learning objectives, and even the instructor’s behavior. If we don’t accept student input on these issues, I don’t think we’re really empowering them to take responsibility for their learning. In a traditional classroom, they have direct control over a very limited set of factors that contribute to their learning. And what kind of message are we sending if we force them to reflect on their own behavior without letting them give their input on what we can do better? It’s obvious that you are reflecting, but letting students in on that conversation would set a great example and help them feel (and actually be) more empowered. This brings me to my next point…
Give Students The Autonomy To Meaningfully Affect Their Learning
If we want to encourage students to reflect on and modify their learning plan, they need to feel actual ownership of the plan. If they come in to class every day wondering, “I wonder what we’ll (have to) do today?” – they don’t own the plan. The plan has been made up for them by whoever wrote the curriculum and by whoever’s standing in front of the classroom, telling them what to do next.
If these ideas resonate with you, a good place to start might be asking broader questions and giving them examples of what they’re free to comment on (students won’t openly criticize anything about the course unless they feel safe to express themselves without being punished or resented). To warm them up to the idea, you could first name a few things that you would do differently next time – things that you think might have negatively affected their learning. Then ask a few simple questions I picked up at a Montessori school (and now really love): “How was class today? Did we meet our objectives? If not, why not? How could the class period be more effective next time?”
I hope this helped – I know how demotivating it can be when a class just isn’t coming together as usual.
I am curious how this process is going. I am also dealing with trying to find a groove with my second semester class. While it feels like I have built a rapport with most of the students individually, we just don’t seem to have it as a whole class.
My class is taught in a lab and I have been using reflections at the beginning of class to settle them down and refocus them on the projects we have been doing. I do them in the form of a forum question in moodle, where everyone sees the discussion. I like that they see their classmates opinions and maybe learn from what others have learned.
However, I do see the need to improve our ending of class to a more positive note. I like the game/puzzle idea. Perhaps I can come up with a website we go to for the last 5 minutes each day or even switch to journaling time.