How can you create a classroom where students do not merely cooperate with the teacher but encourage and build up their classmates as well? How can you get a class of students to respect each other and see each other not as competition–academically or socially–but to realize they’re on the same team and want to encourage each others’ contributions?
In writing how I create an encouraging classroom, there are 6 parts:
- Creating an Encouraging Classroom (You are currently reading this article.)
- Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher (This charts how I began my journey and how Ron Clark’s writing influenced me.)
- Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
- Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
- Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom
- (Not yet completed) List of Encouraging Choices and Behaviors: Concrete Examples for Students
After more than twenty years teaching in a variety of contexts, I’ve learned some things. Some people have approached me lately, asking how I specifically manage what many may call the upper-elementary or middle school age group, which is my specialty lately.
photo by Robert Owens via Flickr
I started teaching when I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, teaching crafts classes at camps, leading Sunday school and VBS–it was a natural thing for me perhaps as I grew up the oldest in a large family. While my classroom management system began in various parts in my past, a real eye-opener was actually after I’d had a full year of middle and high school teaching experience under my belt, then went back to school for my master’s degree in education. As part of that, I student-taught under a veteran teacher who taught me so much that I still use today. While the rest of my post will focus on classroom management specifically in a church or other Christian group context, because I employ Bible scripture as an integral teaching tool, it is possible to build a positive classroom system in a secular way. (Read Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classrooom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher.)
I began tutoring for Classical Conversations (CC) a couple years ago, and it has been a joy and a refinement of my classroom management muscle. Leading a class of homeschooled students has unique facets, and also, teaching a class always capped at 8 or 9 students has its own unique challenges. It’s actually not always easier to have a class of eight versus twenty-five students! Through CC and church, I have been teaching classes of students of the ages of 9-13 most often and have come to think of it as my niche. I love that stage when kids are beginning to exit what classical educators call “the grammar stage” and leap into “the dialectic stage.” I love the rampant curiosity and need to question. The compulsion to be skeptical, ask questions and second-guess any and all authority they have accepted until now. I also love their energy and their ability to still be really silly and have fun in ways that high schoolers just get too self-conscious or jaded to allow themselves to do. Here I will share how to set up a classroom to manage the inherent challenges in this age group that is suddenly more socially motivated than younger students, and sometimes infamously less compliant. Because Classical Conversations is where I lead a class week after week, I will focus on what I do there, though I have applied it in many types of classrooms.
Classroom management is everything. This is the #1 thing I’ve learned in my teaching career. No amount of great lesson plans can have maximum impact on your students if you cannot set up the class to expect to 1) take you seriously, and 2) treat each other in a way that makes all students feel welcome and accepted. I spent many years not doing this extremely well. From when I was a teen Sunday School teacher and camp counselor, I knew to set expectations, warn of consequences and follow-though. I taught that way all the way through my first full-time position as a secondary school English teacher. But then I learned what revolutionized my teaching ability: realizing that the key to respect among my students was not really about their respect of my guidelines and me–though it is arguably a good start and can carry you a long way to an outward-look of success at least. But no, the key to respect among my students is a heart issue; it’s about how they see others, and ultimately, what they understand of God.
Now, we are talking of students ages 9-13, and self-awareness doesn’t come to all at the same age. AND much of what we are talking about is learned behavior and maturity. Some students will mature into this through the course of life experience and gain it. But what revolutionized my teaching was learning how to go from simply recognizing that difference in the maturity of some students versus others, and lamenting it, struggling to “deal” with the immature responses all year–to taking it on as part of my role to intentionally teach and coach my students into this maturity.
photo from Ross School via Flickr
It took me years to decide that it was my job to teach them character as much as literature or drawing or the church curriculum’s Bible story on deck. And I am talking about children from families where many parents are already intentionally teaching them Christian values. Often, what I teach is reinforcing concepts already learned at home, but children are vibrant, growing things, assimilating truth by inches or leaps, not robots automatically programmed.
HOW TO SET CLASSROOM EXPECTATIONS
Now to the practicals. In recent years, I’ve entered a few classrooms that others warned would be challenging. That certain students might give me a run for my money. I share this because it need not be scary to enter a classroom with students whom you already know to be loud, challenging, brusque, even disrespectful and disobedient, etc. It does mean you have to –right away–establish the expectations and prioritize teaching them how to interact, developing the capacity in them to care about others and how they impact them. And what I love in teaching among Christians is that my hands are not tied to address the real issue, the heart issue. This issue is rooted in how well they understand and experience God’s love for them and their choice to not only join God’s kingdom but also advance it.
I start my classes by introducing a class verse I have made into a poster for the classroom. (Just a computer print out–nothing elaborate or expensive.) A word from experience: I avoid verses that talk about us loving each other, though that is obviously the ultimate value and most common directive to the church. For this age group and the time we have, it’s just too abstract a concept to tackle in all its depth. I have found that using the word encourage as the key word to be much more tangible to this age group. As the year progresses, I may bring in other verses that talk about love, and what it means, but it’s a bit too nebulous a starting point. As encouragement is part of love, I find it a great place to begin. (Maybe, eventually, you can get to I Corinthians 13–the concept that if we accomplish all these things (enviable drawing skills, playing the tin whistle the best, Memory Master (!), winning dodge-ball) and “have not love,” then it was a failing.)
A favorite verse of mine remains I Thessalonians 5:11a, “Therefore, encourage and build each other up.” The English teacher in me cannot ignore that a verse starting with “Therefore” begs the question, what came before those words? I explain that these verses are in letter from Paul the apostle to a group of new Christians, explaining to them the purposes of the Christian life. I like to ask my students questions, to get them engaged in conversation, and I like to make them laugh–because people open up to what you’re saying more if they can laugh and loosen up and find listening to you pleasurable.
“Did God put you here on earth and die to save you so you could show off how smart you are in class? And make others stay quiet because they feel inferior to you?” Some give a half smile and shake their heads. I say things that I know they are used to seeing in group contexts–not specific things that make students all look at one student. (We don’t want to foster finger-pointing–or teachers singling student out.) They laugh at the absurdity of some of the things I suggest, and then I ask, “What is the purpose God gave Christians in this verse?” (Encouraging, building up.) We talk about examples of encouraging and building up–kids are good at knowing this distinction.
In the context of Classical Conversations classes, I start with how participating in saying the memory work at each day’s opening encourages others to do so–that a student is actively helping others learn by adding their voice, antic or movement. (We do all sorts of sometimes crazy things to make memory work memorable–from acting it out with props, repeating it in theatrical voices, etc.)
by naomii.tumblr.com via Flickr
On the whole, I’ve had little resistance to kids participating with my silly antics, but then, I started with kids who’d been in the program for years. After my first class in this program, I actually walked way shocked at the lack of coaxing they needed. My public school experience left me thinking I’d have to work much harder! (So if you are starting with kids who are not used to the expectations, it does take more work to set the expectation.)
Some kid will invariably say, “But movements or motions don’t help me remember things,”as a reason they don’t want to participate. Then I share the truth about my learning experience, as primarily a visual learner. I suggest, “One of your classmates might be asked a question in review, and they are stuck after ‘Mesopotamian and Sumer’ of the timeline. They are trying to recall the information, and they see you in their mind, doing the timeline song. They see your hands place the shape of a snake on your head for the Egyptian crown. Suddenly, your classmate remembers, “Egyptians!”–all because you participated and that participation is imprinted on someone’s memory! Your participation encouraged others to learn.”
Another great teaching opportunity in a CC classroom is the presentation portion. I ask the class what is encouraging to them when they are standing up front. Kids can easily pepper you with “listening to me”, “looking at me, “not talking to the person next to you and ignoring me”, “asking questions”, “not crinkling your snack bag while I’m talking,” etc. Kids easily know what makes them feel not listened to and frustrated.
Another great verse to use is Philippians 2:3-4: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Sometimes I use this verse the second half of a year. Teaching them to not be consumed with their own interests–getting to be in line first, to pick the color first, to be on the team with their best friend, to be picked to act a certain part…in other words, getting their own way. Instead, teaching them the practice of looking for what others around them need to be built up in confidence, learning and God’s love–that is the key to the kind of classroom where kids can best thrive.
FLESHING OUT EXPECTATIONS WEEK BY WEEK
After that first class when I introduced the verse, I began each class with that verse, having students say it with me each week and adding to the dialogue of what it means to build up and encourage. I went by what the class seemed to need on a week-by-week basis, gauged by what I saw in classroom interaction. But here are some general ideas you can address.
- bragging–is there room for that if our purpose is to encourage? How can a student who finds the material easy to master encourage others rather than tear them down with bragging?
- eye-rolling–what does it mean? Does that meaning encourage anyone?
- negative comments like “this is boring.” What does it do to other students who silently think it’s boring? What does it do to students who are interested? Does it encourage anyone? Your mission: How can you encourage the entire classroom in this situation?
- How can you “build up” someone? (Show interest in their interests, ask questions, give positive comments, show support by your words nad your desire to interact with them)
- disappointment when you don’t win a game: how can you handle it in ways that encourage your teammates who didn’t win and the other team who did?
- glee when you win a game: how can you handle it in ways that encourage your teammates and the others who didn’t?
- whining and complaining when you don’t get first choice? How does that encourage everyone who hears it?
- complaining about being put on a certain team. How does that makes those students feel? How does it encourage them to be their best?
- After we establish classroom atmosphere, I even ask students to apply the concepts beyond the classroom. What about when they play a game at recess? Choose who to sit with at lunch? Rush by the mom with baby in a stroller in a doorway? I expand our goals to include not only our class but to the entire community we are in. How can we welcome and treat the much younger kids well? The teens? The adults?
Talking about these things is really the key. With the age we are talking bout, they don’t all have the experience or power of imagination always to know what to say to encourage. Kids can get really stuck and repeat the same things, like telling everyone, “You’re awesome” in a way that seems disingenuous. We need to crowdsource so we can talk about specific examples, we adults throwing ideas in as necessary.
photo by Maggie via Flickr
Kids also love to act things out, so I often have students demonstrate two opposite choices (or if I’m really crunched for time, I do the acting, a bit over the top, and make them laugh). For instance, I whisper to a student to be unwelcoming to a student next to her, for a skit. She proceeds, with the class as audience, to ignore the classmate who talks to her. She turns away, talks to others despite being tapped; she even rearranges her body and belongings so that nothing even comes near to touching the classmate seeking attention. It’s exaggerated, but we’ve all seen it in real life–a student who finds another uncool for a variety of reasons can be deliberate in demonstrating her disinterest. I ask the same or another student to act in welcoming ways: engaging in conversation, not avoiding sharing space, smiling, not being in a hurry to turn away and talk to a closer friend. We then can talk about seeing each other as a precious person God made and loves as much as He loves you.
Can I tell you the DIFFERENCE this makes in my classroom? Somehow seeing and/or doing it in this acting exercise makes students a) fully realize the effects of such actions and/or b) makes it clear what it is not okay and they choose to abide by the expectation. For some, meeting expectations and being a people-pleaser may still be the primary motivation, but for some, it’s going to start getting at the heart issues and helping them consider their choices and impact on others.
PROBLEM: HOW IS THERE TIME FOR ALL THIS?
Maybe in your school or church class, you feel the pressure to get through all the lesson segments as it is–how can you add more! A Classical Conversations tutor knows that the program is full, FULL, FULL! There is no time for introductions, no time for stated classroom expectations! The academic load of what is expected for a tutor to cover is mapped to the minute. My first year, I struggled with trying to keep each half hour of instruction to a half hour–how could there be time to “waste” on classroom expectations, especially the kind that seek to actively engage students in actively thinking and communicating about them?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is difficult and frustrating–but still absolutely necessary. I’ve found no short-cut, even with students I’ve had for months. To the new CC tutor, I’d say, if you get behind, consider the cost well worth it. If the review game at the end is five minutes shorter, and art class as well, remind yourself, nothing is more valuable for them to learn than the things of God and how He made us to be the church, to build each other up. Also consider it insurance. What you accomplish in setting expectations helps you get everything accomplished better and faster the rest of the class. (I’ve also learned to talk faster in the New Grammar portion!)
Look for my upcoming post about classroom management. How do you motivate students after you set expectations? What about if they don’t meet the expectations? What about consequences and rewards? All coming in the next posts: Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats? and Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom.
Other resources for teaching/tutoring:
OiLs lesson #1: How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1 (Masters and Journeymen level)
Basics of Drawings: Fine Arts Week 1 for Classical Conversations (Masters and Journeymen level)