Two seemingly unrelated events happened recently that affected my classroom. First, my end of the day exit routine was not going well. Second we had a literacy expert visit our school.
At the end of the day, my students go in all directions. Some kids go to enrichments, some kids go to study hall, and some kids go to pick up line. The various directions alone are enough to make a teacher crazy, but add onto that the fact that my class has art, physical education, or music at the end of the day. Therefore my class must rush back to the classroom, organize their things, put up their chairs, and head out the door in a short amount of time.
Most years, the end of the day is seldom a wonderful time, but this year is it down right challenging because my class lacks the purpose and focus needed to do things efficiently. Kids are bumping into each other, kids are standing around talking, students are tossing balls, people are knocking chairs off of the desks…
There had to be a better way.
Now the literacy expert. She visited our school to work with teachers on incorporating grammar into the writing workshop. We had a meeting, watched her teach a lesson, and held a debrief session. In the afternoon there was a staff meeting and we learned about a literacy inquiry. This experience was educational and good until I walked into my classroom. Then I forgot all about the professional development because I saw the mess.
Desks were teeming with papers, pencils were scattered about on the floor, and chairs were not on desks. “Why don’t they follow the routine? Why don’t they take care of the classroom?” I said to myself. At the beginning of the year, I taught them the routine. I explained how to put up chairs. I dismissed small groups of kids to get their stuff. We sat in a circle and we practiced exiting the classroom. We named what we noticed and we pointed towards the positive aspects. Frustrated, I just shut the classroom door and went home to walk the dog.
During the walk I was thinking about how I had tried to solve the problem. I had tweeted out a question about end of day routines to my graduate school classmates. I had looked in a classroom management book. Both had given me some suggestions, but I wasn’t very inspired. I had tried to make it better but I could not figure out a meaningful way.
As I walked the dog, I started replaying the P.D. from the day. I was thinking about how I watched the instructor dance through difficult writing conferences with ease. I was thinking about her process and our conversations. How she encouraged us to have students dig into a topic to construct some understanding before we named the concept.
This idea of inquiry and investigation was not new to me. I used it several years ago when my students were having troubles at lunch. Maybe I could use inquiry to answer our end of the day problem. Maybe instead of complaining to students, “You are not doing this correctly,” I could name the problem and see if they could help me solve the problem. This felt promising.
The next morning I wrote a message on the Smartboard, “I do not like how the end of the day is going. It is too chaotic. No one seems to be listening, people go in all different directions, and we are having accidents. I am interested in your thoughts and ideas. On the long table you will find a sheet of paper. How can we solve this problem?”
As they entered the classroom, I stood back and watched them read the message. A few looked confused and went on about their morning. Others had an idea and were quick to record their responses. During morning meeting, I read the message to the class and I read their suggestions but none of this inquiry lead to a meaningful discussion or an inspired idea. “Well,” I thought, “at least it’s a start.” And that afternoon went a tiny bit better.
The next day during meeting, I brought the topic up again, but I asked a better question. “How did your day end in first grade and in second grade?” That question elicited better responses. Students took turns explaining their previous experiences. A couple of students even got excited and demonstrated an elaborate handshake routine they did in their second grade class. I smiled and said, “I am not sure we have that much time, but I love your enthusiasm.”
Before we left meeting, I asked the kids if we could agree on some basics. Everyone agreed that they would get their stuff together, have a seat on the rug, and place their backpack in front of them. Then we will see what we have time to do.
That first day I was intentional to make sure that everyone remembered. When I saw one person sit down on the floor I praised their abilities. The second day one of the kids worked quickly. After everyone got settled, I asked him, “How did you do that so fast?” He explained what he did and others listened. On the third day others adapted his suggestions. We had positive momentum.
The positive momentum has not been consistent, but we have a few good days. One day a student asked if he could do a magic trick at the ending circle and that was fun. Earlier this week, we had a few extra minutes and someone told a joke. The next day we took turns telling jokes.
So often we as teachers try to solve problems ourselves. We wonder what is wrong with us. We wonder why our students don’t do what they are supposed to do. We ask our colleagues for help, we consult our PLN, and we fret about possible solutions. But really the people with the answers are the students in front of us. We just have to remember to ask our students the questions and give them the power to help solve the problems.