Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Bell

I did it. I bought a bell for my classroom. Fellow UTEPers, please don't shun me. Whenever I think about classroom management, and my struggles therein, I think back to the conversations we had in class, the thoughtful debates about the benefits and consequences of different types of control and the messages we send to our students, the difficulty many of us had (myself very much included) with authoritarian styles of classroom management. Well, here I am, a year and some months into my teaching career, and I am now the reluctant owner of a call bell.

As I mentioned, I was deeply conflicted about this. But here's my thinking. In order to teach, I need for my classroom function with a certain level of order. Ideally this responsibility is on the kids as much as possible; scaffolded of course. This is the cornerstone of a democratic classroom: exercising democracy. It's also important to help kids develop self-discipline, and you can't learn self-discipline unless you have the opportunity to practice self-discipline. As Bill and Amy love to say, you can't learn to make good decisions if you never make decisions. However, finding just the right level of teacher control is (for me, at least) remarkably difficult.

Don't get me wrong: I have purposefully incorporated a number of opportunities for kids to exercise decision-making and problem-solving skills. Part of why I have tried to implement Love and Logic is because it's based around structured decision-making (the idea is to give kids binary decisions, both of which are equally acceptable to you). I also have introduced Talk It Out to my students this year to help them with social-emotional learning and problem-solving. (They love it and it's some of the most active listening and thinking I see all day.) I try to mention regularly that students in my class are problem-solvers, they solve their own problems, etc. I am also trying to build more structured choice into my literacy block (more on that later: I'm still getting that figured out).

I think some people take more naturally than I do to a position of authority, so management was a disaster for me last year and continues to be a challenge. I am a gentle, passive person. And I see the ways in which school implicitly teaches kids their station: too often, rich kids are taught to lead, middle-class kids are taught to be workers, and poor kids are taught to follow directions. I have a desire to give kids as much power as possible to fight this pattern. But that is combined with a personal reluctance to take charge, which really killed me last year (I'm better now). What I'm saying is, some people are probably better managers than I am just on personality alone.

But the simple fact remains that I'm one person with 26 kids who, at various times of the day, need to be quiet so I can teach. I have to get their attention somehow. This year, I either say 3-2-1, or I clap three times. (I've heard conflicting advice on attention-getting signals: some people say be consistent, some people say mix it up. I suppose one is more about conditioning a response, and one is more about getting them interested in something novel. An interesting blend of these seemingly opposing strategies is the class-yes system from whole-brain teaching, which I might try next year or after winter break. But I digress.) Attention-getting is a necessary evil, and I'm sorry, but in one way or another, you're conditioning kids to respond a certain way to whatever it is you choose to do.

Here's where the bell comes in. I've noticed that sometimes kids assume that when I ask for their attention, I want them to clean up, when it might actually just be to point out a strategy I noticed a group using, remind them to use a quieter voice, or give a quick mid-workshop teaching point. It's really annoying to me when this happens: it's totally a personal problem, and has nothing to do with the kids. I really don't want to be annoyed at kids wanting to do the right thing as quickly as they can, and I want to be able to positively reinforce this behavior. So I decided that I am going to use the bell for specific signals, but not attention-getting. I think I will ring it once if the noise level is too loud (that way I can keep guided reading or whatever going with minimal interruption), and ring it three times to clean up (so that kids don't have to wait for me to give them directions). This way, I'll also need to get their attention less often, which will reinforce the idea that when I ask for their attention, it's for something important.

I'll keep you posted on how it goes!

1 comment:

Eileen Lukes said...

I love reading this stuff, Beth. I don't think it's necessarily schools teaching kids to lead or follow. Much of that comes from their homes. Following directions means survival to some people. They may experience significant negative consequences if they ask "why?" instead of just doing.

I appreciate that you're instilling self-discipline and problem-solving skills. I remember a kindergarten teacher who stopped 2 boys who were fighting over one toy and had them use words to solve the problem. If we did that for everyone, there would be no wars.