New structure, new classroom life

Over Thanksgiving I reflected on the fact that in the last month or so, things have gotten too ragged in my classroom. Students became lax about their own behaviors. In conversations with them later, students knew exactly what they had done “wrong,” but just seemed to lack self-consciousness or motivation to act appropriately in class. I’m talking about the usual low-level 8th grade stuff that can get in the way of learning–socializing excessively during class, antics that interrupt lessons or set off other students, etc., etc., etc.  These behaviors were upsetting the momentum of the class and the group dynamic.

At the end of every period I have the class assess itself as a group in 5 categories on a scale of 1-4:

  • Agenda (did we complete it?),
  • Quality of Work (this is for the class as a whole, not individual students)
  • Jobs (official jobs in each class are Teacher’s Assistant, Supply Manager, Director of Maintenance, and Librarian–did they do them?)
  • Golden Rule (Harm no one in word or deed–did we follow it?)
  • Neatness (how did we leave the classroom?)

The self-assessment chart serves as a good data source for me.  Students are very honest when completing the self-assessment, because it doesn’t count as a grade, so there’s no motivation to cheat.  I saw the scores decreasing and decreasing–and it was only November.

20% of my students’ final grade is reserved for a category I call “Member of a Learning Community.”  In my mind, it’s very clear what this includes: coming prepared to class, participating in lessons, meetings and discussions, active listening, supporting peers, following the Golden Rule, good work habits, professionalism, etc., and I have communicated this to students.  However, I needed to find a way to make students’ individual grades in this category more visible to them, more immediate and short-term, and empower them to improve in specific ways.  But logistically this can be challenging.

I remembered something a student teacher I had last year from Bank Street College shared with me from another cooperating middle school teacher she’d worked with that year–Sharon Kramer, also a Bank Street-trained teacher who teaches in NYC public schools.  I had debated implementing it in September, but thought nah, I’ll be alright without.  Now things are falling apart a little bit, so it’s time for a change.

So it’s only been 2 days, but this new system has been really positive.  The atmosphere of the class is quite different.  Kids are more focused, more self-aware and we’ve picked up the pace a lot.  Maybe it’s the new novels, or the new system, or a combination.  Any which way, I’m happy about the change. I’m happy I found the courage and time to take a risk and switch things up.

The new system: each table has a student leader who keeps track of participation points on a chart using a code for the members of the table. Every student begins every period with 60 points.  Positive behaviors and negative behaviors are assigned + or – point values and a code letter.  For example, coming to the meeting area within 60 seconds of the bell ringing (M) is worth 10 points.  Cursing (C) is worth -10 points, and so forth. Students gain points for great group work, helping another student, leaving their table area beautiful, etc.  Students lose points for eating in class, coming late, not having a writing utensil, breaking the Golden Rule, etc.  I made it so there are equal number of positive and negative behaviors.  (I’ve been training students to calculate grades based on those letter codes, which as some basic math value as well!)

The table leader rotates weekly. At the end of the day I tally up the points and make any corrections if need be.  Every day students see their official grade from the day before. At the end of the week each student averages their scores from each day together and gets a grade out of 100, which I will enter into my online grade book.

It’s not rocket science, but I think it helps kids be clear on what they are choosing to do and the consequences of those choices, good or bad.  Also, there are many ways within a single period to redeem a falling grade, and this makes that visible.  However, if a student has made poor choices throughout a period, it also becomes clear that he or she can’t simply work for 5 minutes and redeem the grade.  It helps kids check each other, which is much much better than me playing the cop.  I hope and suspect students also see more clearly how their actions affect their learning and the rest of the class.  Maybe that’s something we could have a class discussion about soon.

I’ve never really been a fan of point systems for behavior.  Ideally, we will use this for a while and then outgrow it.  But for the moment, it’s the structure and clarity my students need in order to do their best work and become members of a learning community, not just students in a class.

[Image credit: a student deep in thought on a trip to study the neighborhood. This is how I want my students to feel in class every day!]

Related categories: ,