What does it look like when your students are truly engaged in learning? In this post, I reflect on the beauty of a loud and seemingly chaotic learning environment.

My first formal review as a student teacher wasn’t very good.

The first thing my evaluator told me in my post observation conference was “your classroom was quite loud.”  Crushed, I went on to try to provide a feeble defense of my lesson plan and classroom management. He offered some advice, which generally boiled down to making sure I had better control over my students’ behavior.

Thirteen years later, I know that he wasn’t wrong in his observations. My classroom had been loud and a little chaotic that day. However, his feedback pointed to a mindset that gauged the success of a classroom on the order within it.

This measure of successful teaching is described by Tim Slater as the student/teacher contract. Slater describes this is an unspoken agreement between teachers and students of all ages that the teacher will impart knowledge on a willing and compliant audience.

According to Slater, many teachers feel like a good day of teaching is when students silently listen and then complete the work that has been assigned, a concept that teachers like Adam Holman and others have tried to deconstruct.

After receiving the feedback I received as a baby-teacher, I have felt the tension between wanting a quiet and compliant learning environment and wanting a classroom where students are engaged.  My experience has shown me that those two things don’t always work together.

I wish that my evaluator had read some of the great books and articles I’ve read about creating an engaging classroom. I also wish that I could go back and tell my younger self that a chaotic classroom doesn’t always point to poor teaching.

So what does a successful classroom look like if this unspoken contract is gone?

While I don’t know that I can answer that question completely, yet, here are a few things I’ve tried that seem to be moving me towards a classroom that promotes student engagement rather than compliance.

Setting Teacher Time Limits:

It is inevitable that I will have to deliver some direct instruction throughout the school year. With the sheer magnitude of skills and concepts I hope my students will master in a given year, it feels like the easiest method is to tell them what they need to know.

The truth is, though, that if all my students do is listen to me, they won’t really learn what I want them to learn.  An engaging classroom is one where students get to practice skills and discuss concepts instead of listening to one person’s ideas.

So, when I have to deliver instructions or introduce a new idea, I ask a student to time me. I never go longer than 20 minutes and often try to keep my direct instruction to ten minutes or less.

I tell the student how much time I think I will need and have them set their phone timer for that amount of time. When the alarm goes off, I finish my thought, ask for questions, and then move on to the real business of learning. This helps me make sure that my students are getting the majority of their classroom time to play with new ideas or practice what they’ve been learning in practical ways.

Organizing my Room:

One critique that my evaluator was spot on about had to do with my classroom management. While I do believe that my students were more engaged in their learning than he thought they were, I was not as adept at managing the chaos as my experience has helped me to be. 

One way that I’ve made sure my classroom chaos is orderly is to limit student chosen groups. I struggled to make this shift at first, but to be truly college and career ready, students need to be able to work with all kinds of people, even people they might not be friends with.

To facilitate this, I organize students into mixed ability groups and then place them close to each other within my seating chart. When an activity or discussion requires multiple brains, students will turn their desks to create tables.

In addition, I always make sure that students are responsible for individual contributions to whatever the group is doing. This could be as simple as assigning roles for the task or having each kid label the ideas that he or she contributes.

In addition, I make sure that students know in advance what their group goal is so that they are also aware of the reasons they are working with others instead of by themselves.

Engaging Every Voice:

I have found that the best way to make sure that group work and student led learning is effective is to regularly check in with students.

I do this most frequently through informal means. On occasion, depending on time or the kind of activity that students were working on, I might have students do a written exit slip.

I like to use a form of the  3-2-1 model, which asks students to write three ideas they learned, two questions they still have and one way they can improve either their work or their contribution to the group.

More often, though, I like to check in verbally. I will have my class pause before moving on to new activities to verbally share out what was accomplished. To ensure that I am not only calling on students that volunteer, I have a set of popsicle sticks labeled with each student’s name that I will randomly call on to share out. It definitely causes a little anxiety for my shy students, but if the students have been engaged in the group thinking and learning, everyone should be able to offer a verbal response to my questions.

While the traditional teacher/student contract might say that a good day is one where the students are quiet and attentive, for me, a good day is when students leave my class still talking about what they were talking about while they were with me.

I find that hearing their voices everyday, even if they are loud, is a much better gauge of my success.

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