Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lesson Design and Classroom Management

Although a lot of people are calling for data before they make a decision in education and some are even using the call for data as a means of denying the validity of good practice, we must admit that there are good teaching practices that we can recognize through observation, through practice, and perhaps through intuition. I have not done any research on this topic, but I know that there is a direct correlation between good lesson design and good classroom management. In other words, if a teacher has prepared a lesson to engage students for the full time that they are in her class, she is less likely to have classroom management issues.

The school that I am leaving and the school that I am going to both use a traditional bell schedule, with each class lasting approximately 50 minutes. I have noticed--over the years in my own classroom as a teacher and through observing other teachers--that it is common for teachers to lose the first five minutes of class and the last five minutes of class to minutia, to fumbling around, to getting started, to packing up. It has become a part of the student culture to expect that nothing happens in the first five minutes, therefore validating tardiness, and nothing happens in the last five minutes of class. Once this has become a part of the culture, it is difficult to change, but this has to change.

Consider the above. A teacher loses the first and last five minutes of class. That is ten minutes per day. Classes are held five days a week. Simple mathematics establishes that the teacher is losing 50 minutes of instruction per week by allowing nothing to happen during the first and last five minutes of class. Fifty minutes is equal to one entire day's instruction. Multiply this by the number of weeks that students attend school (36) and we find that our students are missing out on 36 days of instructional time. The irony of this is that the teacher will then go to the administrator and say that she does not have enough time in the school year to teach the curriculum, to meet the standards, or to help the struggling students. The answer is in preparation.

I firmly believe that we move from awareness to preparedness to confidence. Becoming aware that we can plan how to use the first and last five minutes of class more effectively will give us the confidence of having a more orderly classroom and that we are possibly being more effective in meeting the learning needs of our students.

It is important to note that it is easy to prepare for these times. Many highly effective teachers use "bell ringer" activities to engage students from the moment the bell sounds to begin class. I have sat in such a class and noted how the moment the bell rings students have paper and pencil out, look to the board, and begin working problems or writing in a journal, without the teacher having to say a word. The teacher then is free to take attendance, to follow up with students who need to turn in an assignment or who have been late, or to organize materials to begin the day's lesson. The bell ringer activity is generally used to reinforce the previous day's lesson, to create anticipation for the given day's lesson, or to review concepts expected to appear on the high stakes, standardized test that the students are expected to pass as a requirement for graduation, etc.

The last five minutes of class should be used to engage students in reflection upon their learning. John Dewey stressed the importance of reflection in the educative process in his book How We Think (1910) in stating, "any its power to start and direct significant inquiry and reflection." He goes on to say that "the only information which can be put to logical use is that acquired in the course of thinking." Throughout the text, Dewey confirms that thinking that promotes learning is reflective in nature. Therefore, accepting what Dewey says and admitting that I intuitively arrived at the same conclusion, it is important that students be given time to reflect upon their learning.

So, teachers should use the last five minutes to promote reflective thought. This could be done through the use of "exit notes" or through a short (one to three question) quiz. Whatever is used, however, I believe it should involve writing and not just speaking. Many teachers believe they are reviewing with the entire class when they ask for a student to repeat the important points of the lesson. In a class of twenty-five, the same five students are always repeating the lesson and validating that they have listened, but there is no way for the teacher to verify that the other twenty even know what the lesson was about. Saying it is up to the kid to learn the stuff is the opposite of being a teacher. Teachers have to verify that students are learning and respond when there is evidence that students are not learning. That is why the last five minutes of class--every day--are vital to the learning process.

When a classroom is running smoothly--no classroom management issues--students are happier and the teacher is happier. Dr. Gruenert of Indiana State University once wrote that happy teachers are more effective teachers. (I'm paraphrasing and hope I got it right.) Therefore, it follows that spending time preparing well-designed lessons that fully utilize the class time and engage students in meaningful activity will result in greater learning and in improved morale throughout.

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