What was your most challenging classroom and how did you turn it around?
Early in my teaching career, I had a class of freshman English with 27 students–22 boys and 5 girls. If having 22 freshman boys in one class wasn’t challenging enough, this class met after lunch in the last 90-minute block of the day. The boys started treating that class, not as a learning environment, but as the pre-party to the afterschool plans they all had.
At first, I became the type of teacher I hated: I yelled at them every day; I punished them for their inability to sit still and listen. I dreaded teaching this class. One weekend, while watching my young son play, I noticed how different he was from my daughters when they were that age. Ian had a hard time sitting still; if he wasn’t running, climbing, or playing, he wasn’t happy. I then started picturing my students–not as boys opposed to me and my teaching style–but as sons of parents like me who wanted their boys to love learning. This connection changed how I looked at everything I taught in that class.
I first changed all of my lesson plans so that each activity only lasted a maximum of 15-20 minutes. I then switched activities around so that deskwork was followed by a group activity so students could get out of their chairs. When time permitted, I rewarded the students for their hard work with a game of mum-ball or heads-up seven-up at the end of the block. They always completed their work so they could play.
If weather permitted, I frequently gave them a five-minute break outside, and those who wanted to could run around the soccer field to burn off energy. I also played classical or enjoyable instrumental music for them during deskwork. I told them to get up and stretch their legs whenever they wanted–that they could self-monitor their attention spans and get up to get a drink of water or move to the back of the room if they needed help refocusing. Rarely did any of the students abuse this trust.
Changing my classroom opened up other ideas for me to explore. Because the game reward worked so well, I decided to create a game out of their class work. Before grammar tests, students formed groups and answered questions that were similar to each unit test. Students could discuss answers with the group, look in their notes or workbook to help them answer the questions, and then decide on the correct answer together. If the group answered correctly, they earned points. Then one member of the group would shoot a ball made from old newspapers and tape into the garbage can. If they made the basket, they added more points to their score. This is how “Trash-ball” was born.
Trash-ball was so successful I used it in all my classes from then on. In fact, all the new strategies worked so well, I used them in every class and level I taught. I discovered that girls were happier moving around as well.