It was January and my most challenging of four classes–which came to me filled with a lopsided 23 boys and 5 girls–was still not coming together as I’d expected. Individually, each of the students in this class is pretty great to teach and get to know, but as a group, the dynamic just wasn’t working.

I usually invest time to develop the group processes in my classes. We talk about how the class functions–what’s working and what needs work–and make changes accordingly. But as fall turned into winter and the challenges with this class seemed to keep coming, I had gotten away from building the culture of this class. We’d all settled into something that was just okay, and not very good. Then early last week, I suddenly hit my limit and decided I could go no further until something changed.

Any teacher would probably agree that it’s hard to change the culture of a class in the middle of the year, but I’m feeling optimistic that we’ve actually turned a corner. I went about it by changing several things all at the same time:

1. I made time for lots of open, honest conversation–as a class and with individual students

We made up for lost time and spent about two whole class periods discussing what was going on in the class, why it was happening, and why it was hard to change. We made a few small changes immediately, like rearranging the seating so the students felt more comfortable in the meeting area of the classroom, where lessons and discussions took place.

I went out of my way to have a lot of individual conversations with various students. I asked them what they thought of the class, and whether they thought it was possible for the group to change. I got a lot of interesting and helpful responses. One that stuck out was this: “If the class changes, then I will make a change. But if I make a change and everyone doesn’t change, then what’s the point?!” Very true!

One student offered, “I think mostly students just want a little time to talk to each other.” Then he added, “But I think certain students like to get attention by disrupting the lesson, because I see them do this in other classes too.” That got me thinking that certain changes could be made for the whole class (including planning in more time for students to talk to each other!), and other changes would need to be tailored to individual students.

2. I broke down some of the huge task of change into smaller, more measurable goals.

We started with setting a goal of improving the opening of class, which involves silent reading for ten minutes. I had been a bit inconsistent with my assignments for opening of class activities, so I promised I would stick to the routine of reading (which is the best one anyway), and I said we would track the improvement of the class. I tallied the number of students I saw reading on the board, and once the whole class was reading silently, I would record the number of minutes everyone kept reading. (Ideally that number would be ten.)

I also focused on the transition from tables to the meeting area, timing it, the way I do in the beginning of the year.

I created individual participation tracking sheets for two students who desperately want to contribute to the class and be heard, but often do this in a disruptive way. The sheet allows them to track their own contributions and disruptions and give themselves a score for the day. At the end of the week, I told them, I would contact their families, and let them know how they had done–whether the report was good or bad, the call would be made. So far they have gotten near perfect scores, and to my surprise, now two other students have requested the same tool! “Sometimes I don’t have motivation,” the new requestor says. “I do well in class, but my parents never hear about it.”

3. I created a few novel events that made things feel different.

I needed to convince students that we could all change at once. What actually needed to change was students’ approach to each other and the content of the class, but that is so intangible. So I changed a few external elements, which created a visceral sense that things were actually different now.

I told students that if we made clear improvement with our silent reading sessions, and maintained it over the next two weeks, we would have “cause to celebrate.” I suggested that we might celebrate with some kind of tasty treat during reading time. Does this sound a little like bribery? Maybe a tad. I’m philosophically against using punishments and rewards for motivating students to learn however, students are already demonstrating motivation to change, and the small “celebration” gives us something to look forward to and helps break the habit. I didn’t put any number on the requirement for improvement, so there was no real “if, then” promise.

Following our two-day pause of curriculum to discuss the state of the class, I had scheduled a guest speaker for all of my classes. Students have been involved in a journalism project, and the guest speaker is a professional journalist, whom they would interview about her experiences and process. Since this class was now behind, it seemed logical to forego the gest speaker and catch up, but, with input from my principal, we decided it was best that this group have the experience of connecting with a real journalist. It turned out to be the perfect launch day for the *new* class process, because it was in our classroom, and we mainatined our reading and meeting area routines, but our guest provided a novel departure from normal class work.

4. I asked for help.

I told my principal about the situation and met with the deans of school culture as well. The deans agreed to switch off spending some time in that class every day for at least the next two weeks. On the day the journalist came, one of the deans stayed the whole period. This support was so important. The presence of the deans contributed to the feeling that “something’s different now” for the students, and for me as well. It also sends a message to all of us that others in the school care how our class goes. We are not in this alone. As an experienced teacher, I rarely ask for this level of support, but I’m so glad I didn’t feel like I was “above” doing what was needed. I’m grateful to have people who can offer this to me and to the students.

Today, in 8th grade circle, I gave “props” to this class for doing the hardest thing possible: recognizing a problem and changing it for the better. They all broke into cheers before I could even finish my explanation! Tomorrow during silent reading, we’ll be enjoying a tasty treat.

No doubt, maintaining the new atmosphere will continue to take work, but I think what’s really changed is that now I’m listening to the students and I’m committed to the process of reflection and problem solving. I think I can ensure that the students remain committed to that process as well.

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