We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses. Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?
This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind. Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour. Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective? Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?
Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.
This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.
What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.
Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.
All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.
What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?
And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago. She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.
This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.
So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.
“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”
“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.
“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”
I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”
60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.
“How did that feel?” I asked.
“Calm,” Khawar said.
“Long,” Philippe said.
“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”
Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.
I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…
Image by barunpatro