Being organized sometimes gets a bad rap. People almost brag about their own inefficiences. In reality, most of us strive for a certain balance in the organization schemes in our classrooms.
Yesterday, in my rant, I was critical of preservice teacher training lacking in adequately preparing teachers for real classrooms. Today I will try to offer some easy practical ideas for how new teachers (or old ones who want to become more effective) can structure their classrooms to meet the needs of students.
We often hear that the first 5 minutes and last 5 minutes of class are the most important, the time when students are most ready to learn. Unfortunately, these are also the most common "down" times in classrooms. In order to easily establish order every day immediately, as well as captivate those first 5 minutes of sponge-like minds, have some sort of starter activity ready each day. Ideally, this activity will focus students' minds on the upcoming days work, tying it to what you did yesterday. This is also a perfect time to incorporate writing into your curriculum, easily and naturally. Ask students to explain a concept covered yesterday or to speculate about a topic you will be discussing today. Have them draw a diagram, create an analogy, or even pose a question. These can be done in a notebook or even in an online blog. But whatever the task, however it is to be completed, getting students in the habit of doing this immediately each class period focuses their energies in on the topics to be taught. An additional bonus? This gives you a few split seconds to take that dreaded mandatory attendance or take care of other immediate housekeeping tasks.
Now that you have your students rapt attention on your subject, drag them into the days lesson! Bridge together yesterday's learning with today's. Revisting yesterday's material briefly helps catch up absent students, even if just vaguely, and also brings to the forefront of students' memories what was learned. Engage them with discussion with a partner or at their table, them responses shared with the larger group.
Vary the activities throughout the class period. Note-taking may sometimes be necessary but don't have it last longer than 8-10 minutes at the most! Pause to discuss the notes, sketch remembering pictures, or write reflections to share. Move students about the room so their blood gets moving again. Then, if you MUST, continue the notes.
Plan different times of the class for different activities, some of which are quiet, individual work, others involving the whole group, and still others which have students working with a partner or small group. Shift your position often as well. Talk from the front of the room, wander as you speak, or even control your powerpoint from the back. All that movement shifts students' attention to a new location, re-engaging their minds.
The best strategy for heading off discipline problems is to be proactive. Talk to students in the halls. Stand outside your door greeting them as they arrive in the morning. "Hey, nice jacket!" or "Go Packers!" or "how was the game last night?" all go a long way in establishing those critical relationships with students.
Make your classroom a welcoming place for students by keeping it neat and tidy. Put some bright posters up. Or... create those amazing bulletin boards you see in some classes (never in mine...). But the best thing to display on the walls is STUDENT WORK! Have them create colorful maps, large graphs, illustrated biographies... anything that can be stapled to a bulletin board. It says, "I VALUE YOU AND YOUR WORK!" One year I cut out every picture and article in our small town newspaper that featured a student. I started in the summer with Little League pictures and 4th of July Parade floats, and continued throughout the entire school year with sports pics and articles, student of the week mentions, etc... These I plastered on my classroom door. Kids LOVED looking for themselves in the collection. Time invested? 5 minutes a week. Payoff? HUGE!
Keep the momentum of relationships during class time as well. I always joked with students who are teetering on the brink of misbehavior about having a roll of duct tape and a taser. That twisted sense of humor works well with middle schoolers, and for me. Maybe it won't fit your classroom but surely you can come up with some fun way to refocus your students with humor. Trust me, humor beats yelling ANY day, for your own sanity, as well as your students.
Homemade cupcakes go a long way for good will as well. (or cookies, or even a cheap bag of smarties candies purchased for half price after Halloween) Giving your students, ALL your students a treat on occasions says you think about them outside of school. Give them out on test day for 'brain food'. Toss them out to people who give right answers in class discussions. It really wakes up a lagging conversation! (especially if you are a bad thrower, as I am!) Anything to make them sit on the edge of their seats and participate. Bribery?? maybe... but it works!
Review, study, learn the material together. We often have the mentality that students ought to study outside of school (and they should...) and it is their responsibility to learn the material we present them (well.. it is to a certain extent) but in reality, often students do not know how to study or learn material. Teach them to make notecards. Teach them that repetition is the key to retention of material. INTENTIONALLY teach them to learn. Play review games. Have them create test questions. Have them review each other. Make learning automatic and fun.
Effective teaching is about creating a persona, a classroom, a learning environment - one that meets your needs as a teacher, but more importantly the needs of your diverse set of students. Learn, grow, change.... be always finding a better way. Once you stop learning and changing yourself as a teacher, you will no longer be effective.
You might also want to read Taming the Dragon of Chaos, an article I wrote for TEACHER magazine several years ago, for more ideas.