All too often, teachers think of a well-managed classroom as one in which one can hear a pin drop, students are sitting in perfect rows, and everyone’s nose is to the grind. Okay, that may just be a secondary teacher’s dream, but most teachers have that feeling of panic when an administrator walks in the room and it’s noisy and seems chaotic. But, if that teacher is running a collaborative workspace, that noise and bustle are normal. And, we need to make sure that these types of learning environments are supported not only by our administrators, but also by ourselves.
Of course, managing a collaborative space is tricky for teachers, who often like to control their classrooms and all situations within them. The best way to control the classroom is to manage the classroom and share control with the students. It’s funny, but elementary teachers have a knack for this, since their students often are out of their seats, moving between centers, and experiencing their learning hands on. It’s when those students become the “big kids” that teachers think they can’t handle that kind of a learning environment, so the desks are in rows and the students are seated alphabetically. These kids grew up collaborating, working in groups, handling independent work, and yet secondary teachers put them into an uncomfortable, secluded environment more often than not.
So, my first suggestion really is geared more toward secondary teachers. I know your classes are large. I know you may not have enough desks for all of your students. Those are things that often are beyond our control and influence. But, if you have manageable numbers and enough desks, put the kids together. These tweens and teens are social animals, and we need to work that into their education – hey, it might even keep them off their phones if they can collaborate, share, and discuss with partners in class.
The key? Modeling. SHOW your students how you want them to behave in their new grouped seating arrangements. If you have a co-teacher, play-act some situations to show kids the Dos and Don’ts. Or, ask a colleague who has a prep period to spare a few minutes to help you model. Here are my suggestions:
- Show students that the desks are still part of their personal space, and they are to respect each other’s space (don’t write on the other person’s papers or notebooks, don’t shove your materials onto neighbors’ desks, etc.)
- Use a signal to show students when it is time for them to collaborate and share and when it is time to get quiet and come back together, or to get back to independent work. If you’ve attended enough conferences, you probably have seen the single raised hand maneuver, the light flicker trick, or something similar.
- Demonstrate partner voices. Sometimes teachers refer to this as students’ one-foot voices, partner voices, etc. Students’ partners need to hear them speak – not the entire class. Show them what it sounds like, and practice until everyone in the room is speaking at a reasonable level.
- Discuss the pros and cons of grouped seating with students. Make sure they understand that working together is a privilege, and that they can lose the opportunity to share during class – I often used the phrase, “You earn it, you get it; you lose it, it’s gone” with students as a reminder. Make sure they also understand the reasons behind the grouped seating; for example, the goal is collaboration and sharing and questioning, not talking and taking selfies and everything else that’s on their agenda.
You may just surprise yourself and find that a grouped, well-managed class of students works better than you think. And, you may find that students are more willing to ask questions, share ideas, and collaborate when they are grouped appropriately. Give it a shot and let me know how it works. Email Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.