The spice of life
For the culture in your classroom to be an antidote to the machine-like quality students often experience in school, your class should offer some variety and the occasional surprise. This can serve to enliven both your experience and that of your students.
Depending on room constraints, students should be physically active and should move around periodically. This may be as simple as creating new working arrangements by occasionally moving seats and desks into new formations.
Lesson plans should include choreographing when students will shift from one mode of activity to another, moving between activities done by the whole class, in study groups, or by students working alone or in pairs. Changing from teacher-directed to student-directed activities, and from controlled activities to open work time in which students are choosing what to do, will add to a sense of energy and excitement.
Of course, if you are working with students who are immature, disengaged, and/or resentful of being in school, becoming adept at transitions will take training. I have found that timing transitions with a stop watch turns these transitions into a challenge that can help motivate students to shift from, say, whole class to study groups and back in a minimum of time. While you never want chaos and noise to interfere with learning, such transitions are a moment when students can be exuberant in a limited way.
If you are leading a teacher-directed segment and you sense that your students are in a low-energy state, consider it an opportunity to do something spontaneous. That may be having them do something physical to break into their apathy—have everyone stand up and do 10 jumping jacks, for instance, or run around the room making noise for one minute, as clocked with a stop watch. Or perhaps it’s time to have a conversation about why this moment isn’t working. It may be that a critical mass of students already understands what you are talking about and needs to move on to the next topic. It may also just be time to change the mode and have them get into a more active role in small groups or pairs.
Responding to student listlessness by spontaneously changing what you are doing so that they can become engaged again will likely come as a shock to your class. It may never have happened to them before, and it reinforces the Prime Directive in a very dramatic way. You are telling them that if what you are doing isn’t enhancing self-directed learning, you, too, need to change things.
The physical setting
Geometry matters. How people in your room feel is affected by the room itself. Having students sitting in rows makes them feel like your class is more mechanical, less personal. It suppresses conversational learning, and for many students it feels oppressive. Having them sit in a U-shaped pattern or a circle when they are doing a whole-group activity feels much more inclusive. Sitting in small groups, even when that entails occasionally turning to face the front of the room for instruction, is preferable to straight rows.
Beauty matters as well. Replacing the glare of overhead fluorescent lighting with garage-sale lamps scattered around the room, and daylight wherever possible, makes a huge difference. Plants, rugs on the floor, alternatives to rigid student desks like a comfy chair or two, mobiles hanging from the ceiling, the sound of water from a bubbler, all contribute to student comfort. Creativity should be on display whenever possible.
Students can contribute to the decor too by covering bulletin boards with colored paper and putting up various posters and art. For years, I had my students paint old wooden chairs in the lab area of the room, sometimes with remarkable results. Some teachers start with a bare room and let students arrange things early on in the year. Others want students to feel comfortable from the first day and will set up the room beforehand, allowing students to make changes to the decor on a regular basis.
Giving students the time and materials to decorate the room is an opportunity for them to have fun and express themselves creatively. The more they contribute to the way the room looks, the more ownership they will feel.
The issue of music is complicated. Students will often argue that they work best listening to loud (and occasionally obscene) music. It was always hard for me to believe that this wouldn’t interfere with, at the very least, some other students’ ability to concentrate. Having students use headphones is one way to resolve this problem, but that tends to isolate them. It may also violate school rules. I have found classical music played at a reasonable volume is often acceptable, even if it is something students will never listen to on their own. There also doesn’t need to be just one solution to the issue of music. Variety may be the best solution. In any case, the Prime Directive must always be the guiding factor—if a solution enhances everyone’s learning, it is good. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be allowed.
One other technique that I found helped give students a sense of belonging is to have a daily saying posted. I had a small whiteboard mounted in the front of the room, and every day I would put up a quote that often had something to do with the day’s activity. I found that some students read the quote every day, sometimes even writing them down in their learning journals, while others generally ignored them. Sometimes, particularly if the saying was provocative in some way, it would stimulate a conversation. In any case, it soon became part of the fabric of the class that there was a little bit of philosophy or humor built into the day.