Hard-learned lessons in classroom management

For all the teachers who have (ever had) a class that made them feel like a failure, I see you. This blog post is for you.

Before meeting my 5th grade class, I used to believe in the credo “create a classroom community and there shall be no or little classroom management needed”, or “provide input that is interesting to your students and they will listen”, or even “model respect for your students and they will respect you”. Before meeting my 5th grade class, I was very confident in my ability to win over any class using Compelling and Comprehensible Input.

That was simply arrogant on my part, and I had a brutal wake-up call this year.

When I took over this class late September at my new school, students were learning about French with paper and pencil. So, I started by taking their notebooks away and set off to create my little community of learners using our Classroom pledge,  Total Physical Response and Card Talk. Very quickly, a group of vocal students started trying to take control of our class. Instead of embracing being released from paper and pencil, they abused their newfound freedom.Or at least that is what it looked like to me.  They started making fun of my gestures, they blurted, shouted, talked over me, and over their classmates. Here is how I responded at first:

  1. I pointed at our classroom rules
  2. I had 1-1 conversations with some of them after class (but never asked them what I could do to be a better teacher to them!)
  3. I used a seating chart
  4. I asked them if they preferred to work on their own (the answer was “no”)
  5. I spoke to adults in the school who knew this class and implemented some of their suggestions (such as a class point system)
  6. I called parents
  7. I tried getting to know them better (I got involved in the school play and this paid off with one student in particular)

When we started creating story characters and story asking, things got worse. Students started fighting over things like the character’s name and our class would come to a halt while trying to get any form of consensus. I tried modifying instruction, for example I asked everyone to write a name for our character on a note card and choose a name at random to avoid conflicts.

By November, I had completely lost control of the class.

Right around that time, Jon Cowart, Director of Foreign Language at a school in Memphis TN, started posting classroom management videos in the iFLT/ NTPRS/ CI Teaching FB group. His videos drastically changed my approach. I took a hard look at myself, and realized I needed a much more consistent and structured classroom management approach. Jon made me realize that some classes need a very structured environment, and that’s ok! He also gave me the tools to take back some control.

I used what Jon calls a hard reset. I created a behavior plan with our assistant principal and got buy-in from the homeroom teachers. I shared the behavior plan with the class, answered questions, and each student signed a copy of the plan. Then, I had them physically leave the classroom and re-enter under the new behavior plan. A few students entered the classroom shouting and dancing, I had them exit and try again until they entered quietly. Once we sat down, some students immediately tested the new plan by talking over me, and I responded according to the plan. It was super hard to remain consistent, I felt like I was constantly interrupting instruction to follow the behavior plan, I felt I was being a mean teacher… but within a week or two, things started getting somewhat back under control. One student even apologized to me! I used this small momentum to try to build our community again by doing Special Person. I will admit I was never a fan of Special Person, because I find it very repetitive. But I have been wrong about Special Person so I milked it:

  1. Special Person process (I did not follow the full process, I kept my process very simple and very structured)
  2. Special Person posters (in French)
  3. Special Person Graphic Organizer
  4. Special Person game (easy to prepare using data collected during interviews)
  5. Special Person project. This may look like a production project but it is not. All students had to do was read my personal answers, copy the correct questions from the posters posted in our classroom, and modify the answers with their personal info and pictures. It was a sneaky way to provide input. My students really got into this and surprised me by asking if they could present to the class, we really had a blast!


My students, engaged in listening to a Special Person

After this win, I moved back to language in context using stories but in a more structured way. We did a lot of Movie Talks using supplementation which doesn’t require student input therefore went fairly well. I used a slideshow to tell the story and stopped right before the final twist, and then we watched the video as a reward. I typically followed-up with a reading activity, such as a silent Gallery Walk.

My students, engaged in post Movie Talk activities (Human Timeline and silent Gallery Walk)

Finally, I also used Alice Ayel’s story videos for those days where I needed a break. Thank you Alice for providing comprehensible input to my students and helping me keep my sanity!

I have learned so much this year about giving my students a structured environment when needed to resolve/reduce “discipline” issues. Our class was never all rainbows and unicorns, I did not turn the class around nor did I create the community I wanted to create; we got a bit more productive and my students received some input. Even though this experience was difficult, I learned so much, became a more humble and student-focused teacher, and I am proud of myself for not giving up on my students and not resorting to worksheets and busy work.

I hope this experience and some of the resources I posted will help other teachers with similar issues.

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