March 2, 2014

Clarifying Expectations

One day a few weeks ago when the bell rang to signify the end of school, my co-teacher and I looked at each other and each collapsed into the nearest chair in exhaustion. Class had not gone well (understatement of the year) and we were totally worn out. That evening, when I had regained some energy, I thought through what exactly had gone wrong. A big part of it was that we were returning to an idea that students had learned, but between vacation, snow days, midterm projects and the quarterly exam it had been a month since we had studied that concept. I did not adjust for the month gap because I had no idea it had been so long. This has been the year of interruptions and it's really taking a toll. However, if I write a lesson that is a reach for students, they don't have the right to terrorize us. They have notes, examples, each other and respectful ways to communicate to the adults that they were lost. Students don't always know how to appropriately act when faced with a difficult task, so I decided to create a stamp chart to remind them of their options and reward students who are successful.

Every other week students self assess their work in class; sometimes two weeks is too long though. So, in an effort to make it exceedingly clear what behaviors I value, I made a chart (based on that self assessment rubric) that students get as they enter class each day. Then, throughout class, my co-teacher and I stamp boxes corresponding to their behaviors. There’s no grade attached, just the satisfaction of a smiley face or star. (A few students have asked why they get a smiley face for being off task, one even drew in a frown, but carrying more than one stamp in my pocket is way too complex for me.)

I've been using the charts for a few weeks now and they are working well. The other day I had two students race down the hall to my classroom, grab their binders and pull out a pencil as they collapsed into their seats to earn the “ready for class” stamp. Another (rather quiet) student participated in the discussion and called my co-teacher over to stamp her paper before I had even finished recording her comment. When I catch a break between conversations with students I will make a quick sweep of the room stamping either 'on task' or 'off task' for each student. I asked students to leave the chart in the top right corner of their desk, so usually this process goes quickly. I have also used it as a way to check off who has completed a task - "Everyone make a parallelogram that is not a rectangle." and then I circulate, stamping 'on task' for each student who has successfully created one (circling back to the students who got a "not yet" comment since it's not about speed). 

I feel a bit bad about using so much paper, but we use the back for the exit ticket and it really is making a difference in classroom behavior so I think it's worth the cost in paper and ink. The Spanish teacher who saw me copying the charts one morning said two things: “It seems so elementary school. My AP students need this.” Do I wish my students knew how to be ready for class? Sure. But since they don’t, I've given them a daily reminder with clear instructions, along with clues to the other behaviors that make me proud. Bonus: the system reminds me to thank my students for being awesome throughout class, and that’s always a good thing.

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