Friday, February 17, 2012

Classroom "management"? or How I almost lost my cool

Yesterday, my 8/9th graders were working on a photography project that was several weeks in the making. They had learned to analyze photos, taken photographs of their families, they had interviewed their families and written biographical stories (quite touching), and practiced writing from photos. Yesterday, they were analyzing their own photos and writing from them. We had modeled the activity the day before with photographs from my personal collection and it had gone impressively well: the students had been engaged, curious and eager to share with their groups.
So they are working along on their own photographs with their groups when I heard an impressive "bang" noise coming from the hall outside. Given that it's an old building, I honestly thought part of the roof had collapsed due to recent rains. I stepped outside to find a certain level of chaos.
When I returned to my classroom, I found that the activity was over and social hour had ensued. Students were checking their email, chatting about other things, packing up to leave (there were still 20 minutes left). I was furious.
I stood silently, straight-faced. I reminded myself that I was trying to be a revolutionary teacher. That the instructions hadn't been clear enough. That the activity hadn't been student-centered enough. That talking is a good thing. That they can check their email and still be working on the project.
The students noticed. They went silent and then started asking me and each other
"What's wrong with Profe?"
"She's mad."
"No, she's just chill."
"What happened outside?"
"She just wants us to work."

"I'm very angry." I said quietly. Only a few students heard. Then I quickly gathered the class and went back to the old style: teacher gives instructions, students follow. Teacher talks, students work silently.

This to me begs two questions : why was I so angry? and then, how DO you "manage" a classroom?

I was angry because
1. I thought it was an interesting project that they would enjoy. Other teachers had had success with a similar project with our (very unique) student body. It hurt my feelings that they weren't engaged.
2. I had given them technology without clearly defining boundaries. Instead of printing out the photographs, I had asked them to pull them up on our class blog. I had put the means of distraction in their hands.
3. They were not comfortable enough with the activity to run it by themselves (even though they had done it successfully the day before) and it was my fault. I had been the one reminding the students to move to the next step of the activity, circulating to help build the answers, etc. When I left, there was a vacuum because I had created a clear power structure.

So then, how DO you manage a classroom?
I do not want to have a classroom where talking is forbidden and teacher is god. I just want the students to be excited about learning and keep the classroom a positive working space.

Therefore my question to you: how can we build a successful, functional working space in our classrooms without resorting to the old hierarchy of traditional teacher-student relationships?

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