This time last year I had just returned from a seven-year absence from the classroom. During the seven years I was working in various centrally assigned positions, I had many opportunities to visit K-12 classrooms across the Greater Toronto Area. You could imagine my excitement! I observed many effective lessons and teaching strategies, classroom set-ups and routines. I couldn’t wait to adopt some of them for my own program. As well, I felt my literacy and numeracy program in my last school and teaching assignment was effective and I planned on resurrecting many of those strategies and routines with my new group of students in my new school.
September 2011, I was teaching a new grade (grade 3) in a new school community. I expected my classroom management to be a tad rusty and it was, but there were many initial problems that I could have avoided had I not taken some things for granted.
Prior to leaving the classroom for central positions I taught grades 4 and 5 for more than half my teaching career. I provided prep coverage to grade 3 students over the years, but I never had a third grade teaching assignment. I expected grade threes to be similar to my grade fours in terms of social emotional development and their ability to work independently. After all, it’s only a year difference…what a difference a year makes! The students were so “little” compared to my grade 4s at the beginning of the year. I started the year with the mind-set of a junior teacher. I didn’t expect that I would have to model routines such as using the pencil sharpener! This year, I began the year thinking like a primary teacher. I take time to model the simplest routines, over and over and over again. My expectations are more realistic.
I believe in collaborative knowledge building. My classroom set up has always reflected my beliefs about teaching and learning. In my last school, I didn’t have desks in my classroom. I had 6-8 tables and I never seemed to have a problem getting students to work both collaboratively and independently in this setting. Naturally, when I was setting up my classroom last summer I immediately placed the individual student desks into groups of 4. The fact that most, if not all, of the grade 2-7 teachers in the school arranged their desks in pairs didn’t register. Sometimes I need to be hit with a brick to get a message. My students were not ready to work in groups. By the end of week two, my classroom looked like all the other classrooms in the school, with students sitting in pairs in long rows. I hated it, but the students were more settled and were better able to focus. I managed to finally get them into groups of four when we returned from March Break.
On the first day of school, I did my usual spiel about making smart choices. I told the students that they could sit wherever they wished as long as they were responsible in the choice they made. I warned students that if I felt their choice was interfering with our learning I would move students. This always worked for me in the past. Of course I had to move students around, but it never was a disaster.
This year, I started the year with the students sitting in rows of two per group. I purchased three sets of calendar numbers and taped them to student desks, coat hooks and cubbies. When we entered the classroom on the first day of school, I invited all students to stand at the front of the classroom. I quickly reviewed odd and even numbers with the students. I then invited the boys to hang their bags on an odd numbered hook, pick up their name card, and sit at the desk with the same number as their coat hook. Next, I invited the girls to find an even numbered hook, pick up their name card and sit at the desk with the same number as their coat hook. There were no problems at all. I have groups of two, boy-girl groups. I have shuffled a few students around, but it really made the first day, first week, first-month of school more structured and settled. I think it is a bit of a compromise on my part. I want to keep to my belief that students should have choice and control in the classroom, but at the same time, taking the pressure off of the students who are not ready to make those types of choices right now. What a difference a year makes!
This number system really makes planning for supply teachers and lining up so much easier as well. Instead of having a floor plan prepared for supply teachers. All I need to do is leave a list, 1-22 with each student’s name beside a desk number. I can move the furniture around and not have to worry about updating my floor plan, just as long as I update my class list with desk assignments. Students also know they must line up in their numbered order. All their teachers have a copy of our class list with their desk assignments. It has made transitions so much easier on teachers and students. What a difference a year makes!
In the years I was out of the classroom, I guess I took for granted all the structure, the little details, that did exist in my past classrooms and the classrooms I visited that would go unnoticed by visitors. Structure doesn’t necessarily mean that we are taking choice and control away from the students.