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December 2015 Tip of the Month: Paint the Gray Areas Black and White

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
December 7, 2015

Tip Of The Month

December 2015 NEWSLETTER

Paint the Gray Areas Black and White

Recently, I had the privilege of introducing two new teachers from Oakland, CA to Organized Binder. Both are second year teachers who are both starting at new schools this fall. During our time together, they spoke of the struggles they and their colleagues are having with classroom management, in particular the start of class.  I explained that this struggle is, unfortunately, pervasive in teaching for both novice and veteran teachers, and assured them that it can be eradicated from the classroom. In order to do so, we must acknowledge that the responsibility is that of the teacher, not the students.

I began by sharing with them the story of the teacher who took 20 minutes to start class.  Then, I asked them how long it takes for their classes to become academic. Next, we calculated the time wasted annually if it takes just one minute to start class after the bell rings (ie. one minute = three hours of class-time annually). Finally, I asked about their starting routines and both replied that they begin class with a question.

We unpacked this a bit more. I asked in what fashion they reveal the starter question and both noted that they put it up a few minutes before the bell rings in order to cue students to write and answer the question upon entering class. Ah ha! We talked about waiting to reveal the question until the bell rings and what this does for struggling, EL, and special education students. We discussed how it helps with classroom management and saves precious class time.

Next, we turned our attention to why so much class-time is wasted at the beginning of class, even if students are on time. Of course, there are situations that are completely outside of a teacher’s sphere of influence when it comes to tardies, in particular for the first periods or first part of the school day. On closer inspection, we find that most of the time wasted at the start of class and perhaps even why students are tardy, is about what the teacher is or is not doing.

The reason for this is what I call “gray areas” in the classroom. When students are confronted with a gray area they may be left guessing what to do, which can quickly devolve into off-task behavior. We commonly see these areas at the start of class, in transitions during lessons, and the end of class. However, it is most problematic when a gray area exists at the start of class because if we lose control at the beginning of the period we may struggle the remainder of class trying to regain control. To reduce or nullify these gray areas one must first identify them and work to define them.

For example, if you are having a problem with tardy students, starting class in a timely fashion, and/or off-task behavior when class begins, I encourage you to ask yourself one question, “What does it look like for students to be on time in my class?” The list of “classroom expectations” on the wall might contain a statement such as, “Students will arrive to class on time” or “Students will be ready to start class when the bell rings”. If you have something like this in your classroom it is a good start, but it is insufficient. Although students may see your list of classroom expectations each day, that does not mean they know how to execute them. We must be able to show students exactly what it looks like to be on time. In my class it means one thing, students are in their seats with their binder open to the Weekly Lifeline, which is white - the page in front of it is gold (Page A: Goals) and the one behind it is green (Page C: Agenda).

In my experience, when students know what we want them to do, and they can do it (i.e. be successful), they tend to do it.

Ask yourself what it actually looks like, in real time, to be on time to class, then show this to your students. Is it possible for you to communicate to your students what it means to be on time and not say a word? Make it clear that you will expect this behavior/action from them every day. If you do this, you will use your starting routine to define a gray area in your class. By doing so, students will know exactly how to be on time and will have a better chance of success in your class. Moreover, when you define your starting routine in this fashion you present students with what I call a character question. They know what it means to be on time, they either choose to do it or they choose to be tardy, the choice is theirs to make. As young people growing into adulthood, I hope to provide ample opportunities for my students to grapple with these types of questions and know clearly how to be successful.

Thanks for reading and sharing,


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