Thursday, August 19, 2010

First Day of School Vol. 3 - Waste Less Time in Class

Since I left the classroom, I have created Clickademics, a website where we film great teachers giving their most helpful lessons. One of my early observations was that each lesson only takes 5-9 minutes. I have filmed many of the lessons that I have filmed myself were ones for which I had devoted a whole class period, but they still only took 5-9 minutes on film because I could carefully choose my words and include the best examples. So if the lesson only takes 10 minutes of a class, what happens during the other 30 minutes?

Too much of the class day is spent on tasks of little academic value. Quieting down the class, making announcements, collecting papers, quieting down the class, passing out papers, answering questions, and quieting down the class. Instead of making yourself do all of the work, show the students how to take care of it themselves by establishing a routine. If every student knows what to do when class starts, where to turn in papers, where to find answers, then they don't need to slow down class asking you, and you are no longer a bottle neck. But these routines have to start on day one.

I recommend that you imagine all of the tasks that happen regularly in a classroom. Then think of an efficient way to do each task and never deviate. Students should be using their problem solving on class projects, not finding the stapler. They should use their questions on clarifying the material in class, not asking when homework is due. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Always have a seating chart. Always.
  2. Start every class period with an activity. Post a math problem, short writing assignment, or open ended question on the board each day. When students come to class, have them all open a certain notebook and do the warm up exercise. It will get their brains ready to learn, keep them from being bored, and help start class on time. Periodically, check their notebooks and give credit for keeping up with the exercises.
  3. Use mailboxes. As I wrote in an earlier post, creating cereal box mailboxes was one of the best teaching ideas I ever had. If every student has a mailbox in the classroom, you can distribute instructions, hand out announcements, and return graded work without taking any class time. Make it the students' first stop as they arrive in class so that they can pick up everything they need before class starts.
  4. Have a system for handing in work. Now, this is a little trickier because your system will depend on your students. If you teach high school, then an "In" box on your desk and a digital drop box on your class website should work fine. High school students should be responsible and self-motivated enough to take care of their own work since they will need to do this in college and the workplace. I, however, taught middle school, and I often had students that skipped work. I also had students who could swear they turned in the work but later found it stuffed in their backpacks. My system - students put the day's work on the corner of their desks as they worked on their warm-up exercises. I would walk through the room and pick up each student's work. If a student did not have the work, I would give him or her a late work receipt, proof for me and a reminder for the student. I could take roll as I walked the class, too.
  5. Post the week's work and all upcoming projects clearly. I posted this every Monday and required students to write it all down in a notebook. This can be done more electronically much faster and more efficiently, but students should still get used to using a calendar and To Do list since it will be a useful habit later in life.
  6. Use webpages, email, and social media. Offload as much as possible to the web where students can get answers when they need them and parents can know what is happening in class. Since the mid '90s, I had a class website where I posted a homework calendar, instructions for projects, PowerPoint slideshows from my lectures, and helpful lessons. I encouraged students to email me: they could get immediate answers so that they could keep up with their work, I spent less time answering question in class, and quieter students could get equal time as the outgoing students. And since students often asked the same questions, I could copy and paste one answer and use it again. If I were in the class today, I would use a class Facebook page and Twitter to send out reminders, hints, and answers to common questions. A Google calendar that could sync with the students' own calendars could instantly replace the student's paper homework notebook.
  7. Have an "Ask Two, Then Me" policy. I was surprised how many student questions were about topics we had already covered. If a student had a question, he or she should ask two neighbors before asking me. This answered most students' questions and did not require me to stop what I was doing.
If you want more hints, check out The New Teacher's Complete Sourcebook - highly rated my other users.