A "Good" Class Gone "Bad" . . . and Back to "Good" Again
The first week of the second semester was tough. Our large inner-city high school is divided into small learning communities of about 300 students each, and we have double-block classes for mainstream 9th grade English. The teacher of the other class was on maternity leave, so our team decided that I would get any newly enrolled students. And I did—five new students that week, all of whom seemed to be facing some sort of challenge.
Our classroom culture was much more fragile than I 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 took place, though not as much as before, and there didn't seem to be much joy in it for anybody. There were frequent student behavior issues.
One response would have been to just grit my teeth and bear it for a few more months. That would have been doable, especially because my other classes were going fine. Or I could try to turn things around. I chose the latter, and with this choice, I discovered 10 key actions that helped me turn my class back into a community of learners.
1. Regular 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 bad 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 whether they were happy with themselves. If not, how did they think they could change? I shared research on the qualities of a successful learner (e.g., works well with others, willing to take risks and learn from mistakes, and can teach others), and students evaluated themselves and wrote about what they would like to do better. On Monday, each student would write their goal for the week. On Friday, we'd reflect on whether they were successful in reaching their goals.
2. Daily Evaluations
As a class, we created a checklist of the main elements of a good classroom—for example, respect for the teacher and other students, completing assignments, and setting weekly goals. Students grade themselves on each individual checklist item, as well as overall for the entire day. There's a space for me to list what grade I believe they earned. It takes a minute for students to grade themselves at the end of class and just a few more for me to review and respond to them all. I return the sheets at the beginning of class the next day, and I have yet to give a student a lower grade than they gave themselves (in fact, I've often given higher grades).
3. No More Names on the Board
When my class got out of control, I started doing something I'd never done in my teaching career—writing misbehaving students' names on the board, indicating that they would either be losing a break or have to stay and miss part of their lunch. When I decided to make a change, I made it clear that misbehavior would be reflected instead on the daily grading sheet. Since that day, there hasn't been a single repetition of the kind of behavior that prompted me to write names on the board in the first place.
4. No More Calling Home to Report Behavior Problems
I began telling students who were behaving inappropriately that I wasn't going to call home that day. Instead, I was going to call in a week, and I wanted to say good things about them. They had a week to show me they could be the kind of student I knew they could be.
5. Changing the Seating Chart
I changed the entire seating chart not only to minimize problem behavior, but also to help the entire class see that it was a "new day."
6. Everybody Starts Over with an A
The second semester was only a few weeks old when I began these new strategies, and because everyone always begins with an A grade in my class, it was easy for me to say we were going to forget what had happened up to then. Everyone would get a new start. Since that moment, the vast majority of my challenging students have done better work than I had ever seen from them before.
7. Establishing Secret "Stop" Signs
I spoke privately with my more challenging students, conveying that I didn't expect perfect behavior but that we needed to establish a sign I could give them to signify that my patience was just about at its end. Some students, for example, wanted me to tap their desk. After receiving that sign, they felt that they could commit to stopping their inappropriate behavior.
8. Permission to Leave the Room
For the students prone to meltdowns, we made arrangements that they could leave the room without asking, if they felt they were on the verge of losing it. They'd have to stay right outside the door, and I'd immediately follow them out. Simply knowing they have this power and won't be punished for exercising it has made a big difference to these students. So far, no one has had to use it.
9. More Smiles, More Patience
These days, I am very intentional about smiling more in class (though I don't think I've ever been a big frowner) and demonstrating more patience. For example, if a student wants to put his head down during our silent, sustained reading time, instead of assuming that student is being lazy, I let him rest for five minutes on the condition that he'll be ready to read afterward.
10. Talking to Students During My Prep Period
Having private, in-depth, conversations with individual students can be difficult in the middle of a class. 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 so that I can pull them out of their warm-up activities for a couple of minutes and talk about any individual challenges they might be having—academically, personally, or behaviorally. 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 just because they want to get out of doing the warm-up activity.) 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.
Since taking these 10 actions, the difference in my class is like night and day. There are still lapses and limitations. For example, it's clear that pair work is ideal for collaborative activities; they're not quite ready to work in groups of three. There is no question, however, that there is a greater sense of fun and joy in the learning that's happening in our classroom again.
In an anonymous survey, my students 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 difference in class. When asked to complete a sentence about our classroom environment, one student wrote: "When I'm in this class now, I feel happy and safe because everybody has calmed themselves down."
Larry Ferlazzo is a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., and blogs at
http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org and http://inpractice.edublogs.org.