As the new school year begins, I’m thinking this year about the big picture “story” of my classroom. This is the first time that the procedures, rules, syllabus and seating arrangement are not dominating my mind. Instead, it’s the experience of the students. Let’s look at three hypothetical classroom “personalities.” I’ll pose each as a question.
Do you want a classroom based on completion?
Students are here to get their work done. That’s it. There is an emphasis on due dates, requirements, points, and following a schedule.
In a completion-based class, students will finish their work diligently, then ask if they can take out their headphones and listen to music. There will not be any behavior issues, as everyone understands the gravity of not completing the work. The teacher has established a strong, punitive system of grading.
The teacher is there to get through the lesson. For him, it’s about teaching the lesson, as opposed to the students learning the content. He is well prepared for his lessons. They may be a few years old, but he has his course clearly mapped out, from day 1 to day 180. Students know what they can expect in this class, and the teacher knows what will happen on every day of the school year, barring fire drills or unannounced assemblies.
This is not a good or bad thing, inherently. For certain types of students, this can result in learning content. In my opinion, it’s not likely to lead to creative thinking, problem solving or curiosity in the subject matter, though.
Do you want a classroom based on compliance?
You can feel this classroom as soon as you walk into it, whether you are the teacher or the student. The teacher is there to impose her will on the students, and any straying from procedures, norms or the teacher’s performance of the lesson is not tolerated.
Often, in this type of classroom, certain students begin to recognize that the teacher prizes compliance above all, and the students can respond in a few ways:
- They shut down socially, knowing that if they remain quiet, they can’t go wrong.
- They participate, but only when they are certain of the answer. The types of questions asked in a compliance based classroom are often yes/no, or closed questions with one specific answer.
- They understand the importance of compliance to the teacher and recognize that maybe it’s not the best situation for learning. So, they push the limits. They constantly question the rules with various hypotheticals (“Well, will my paper be late if you’re absent tomorrow?” , etc.) and try to incite a strong emotional response from the teacher by breaking the rules.
A compliance-based classroom is not inherently good or bad, either. For the students in the class to thrive, though, there must be very few students who respond in way number 3 as listed above, or else the game between teacher and student, the power struggle, becomes theater for the rest of the class.
Do you want a classroom based on community?
A classroom based on community feels a little like magic when you are in it, either as a student or as an observing teacher. There’s a massive illusion with a community-based classroom. It appears to outsiders, or even to the students, that this community has simply arisen out of nowhere. In fact, there is a career’s worth of learning and planning that the teacher has put into creating the right conditions for a community-based classroom to emerge.
“I had to go to a meeting one day last week, and the students did the daily book talk and took the picture. Even with the sub, they took over the class and they did it.”
This is what Gerilyn Lessing said to me when I asked her about her students’ engagement in their reading as a part of her Language Arts class at Bayshore Middle School in Long Island. The daily routine was for at least one student to give the class a book talk about a recently finished book, and for another student to take and archive a picture of the book talk so there was a lasting record of it. Gerilyn tells the full story of the reading culture in her classroom in chapter four of Hacking Literacy.
Ideally, I’d like my classroom run as well during a day when I’m present as Ms. Lessing’s classroom runs when she is absent. The community that she had created was authentic and strong, so much so that the students knew what to do and likely wanted to do it even when she was absent. Wow. That’s something to strive for.
Why is that so admirable?
Teachers are thinking, either:
A) Wow, the students are so used to the routine that they just do it automatically, without the teacher even telling them.
B) Wow, the students are so engaged in their reading and discussions that they don’t want to do miss a day of book talks, even if the teacher is absent.
I’ve thought both A and B, to be honest. But if I want a community in my classroom, too, which way should I be thinking?