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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

One to Grow On / Owning the Classroom Together

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Ask students how they can create a classroom that works for everyone.

Classroom ManagementEngagement
Not trained as a teacher, I had no "rules" to follow when I signed on to teach high school at the end of the first grading term in a rural, K–12 school. Lacking a prescription for teaching, I relied on instinct and a jumble of memories from my own schooling. I had a lot to learn.
What I now understand about what we call classroom management comes from decades of teaching and observing others in that role. It is also largely a gift from my students, who let me know in various ways when I was out of sync with them, and who responded with visible growth when the classroom was on course. I am not a fan of "management systems" with their rules, point systems, hash marks, punishments, and perks. There are far more productive uses of classroom time and energy.

Knowing Where You Want to Go

Most of us teach because we want to help young people build promising lives. Therefore, it makes more sense to me to begin the school year as leaders rather than as traffic cops, asking students to help us create a team that will inspire each of them. And if we kept that goal centered in our vision and in the vision of our students each day, what might classroom management look like then?
I began to ask my students on the first day of school to describe experiences when school had been a great fit for them—and examples of when it clearly was not. We talked about their memories as a class, taking care to specify their feelings, and the consequences of those feelings, in each context.
Then I asked them the question that would become our GPS for the year to follow: "Do you think we can create a classroom that works for every person here?"
No student ever said, "Of course not," or "Who cares," or "Count me out." With insight and clarity that belied their 12 years of age, the students specified what it would take for our class to be welcoming to everyone. "Everybody should feel respected." "Every person should know the teacher likes them and believes in them and is there to help." "The work we do should be interesting and have purpose. It should be challenging, but not beyond our reach." We described what it means to work together as a team. We talked about how we could use time both wisely and flexibly. We considered the merits of using academic growth as a critical indicator of success.
Together we detailed specific procedures to help us in these goals, such as how to start class effectively, how to conclude class smoothly, how to organize materials, how to care for the room and things in it, how to decide who would do which jobs in the classroom. We considered how to help one another, and when not to help. In short, we created management routines. Over time, we revisited, reflected on, and refined those routines—always with an eye to making the class a good place for everyone to grow.

Making the Journey Worthwhile

Early on in my teaching career, it became clear to me that the work of the classroom would be more relevant, engaging, and meaningful if my students were co-architects of our curriculum. If there was an area of knowledge, a set of skills, or a few ideas that were important for students to master, I might say, "Here's something that's important and interesting for us to work with, and here are two ideas I have about how we might do that. What ideas can you add?" Their ideas always enhanced mine. Sometimes their ideas were clearly more compelling than mine, and I shelved my plan in favor of their suggestions. Often students integrated their own learning goals into class goals and developed their own timelines and benchmarks. And as I got to know the students better—both within and across years—I understood how to connect content to their interests, aspirations, concerns, cultures, and humor.
Curriculum became the table around which we gathered, shared, filled ourselves, and became "us." Some days we managed only cereal or peanut butter as fare. But on other days we shared a banquet—and it belonged to all of us and each of us.

Planning for Challenging Times

Despite all my good intentions, students would certainly sometimes show anger or push the goodwill of their classmates to its limits. I'd encourage students to ask themselves in those moments the same question we began with, and remind them that I would do the same: "What can we do to make this a good place for every student in the room?" With that in mind, I'd whisper to a misbehaving student, "Can you hang on with us for just a few more minutes?" Or I'd ask him or her to join me in the hall as everyone continued working on tasks, and say something like, "Today isn't going well for you, is it?" They always shook their heads, looked at the floor, or blurted out an explanation. I'd respond, "Think about what we need to do to make it better. We'll talk soon." Usually, we talked one-on-one during my next planning period. I listened to the student's perspective, tried to hear beyond the words, and asked for his or her suggestions for how we could get things back on track. I always thanked the student as we parted ways.
I have only one recollection of sending a student to the office. Occasionally, a student let him- or herself down by making choices that were clearly counterproductive. Sometimes I let them down through my own counterproductive choices. But we always knew that we shared the goal of making the class work for every student in the room.
I don't recall a single perfect day in my 20 years in public school classrooms. There were definitely some days I try not to replay. But for the most part, my students and I owned the classroom together. We planned, did the daily work of keeping the classroom going, and problem solved. There was no classroom management system in the sense that most educators tend to use that phrase. Our shared and persistent attention to dignifying each learner, elevating learning, building trust, and honoring our agreement seemed enough to keep us on track—and to displace the need for long lists of rules, point systems, rewards, and punishments.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

 

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