My 5th period algebra 1 class significantly exceeded my tolerance threshold yesterday after more than a few requests to focus on their work. The thirty-three freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in this section repeatedly go off task irrespective of the assignment, activity, task, or time; I mention time since most weeks we follow two different bell schedules to accommodate staff collaboration. Every method I employ to help this section recognize the need to be quiet and on task lasts ever so briefly then rapidly fades into oblivion. The norm in fifth period tends toward controlled chaos, which does not support the level of learning needed for student achievement.
Somewhat surprisingly, the same description aptly applied to my fifth period algebra 1 section last year. Contrasting with fifth period, my four other sections rapidly recognize, on most days, when they exceed classroom norms. This was also the case last year.
Nearly at my wit’s end midway through 5th period Friday, I promptly told the class that they were on the verge of a sea change in how I taught them, as I prefer to have students discuss mathematics with one another to help with shared problem solving, to learn from one another, and to benefit from other aspects of group work. As such, I arrange student’s desks into groups of four, allowing them to self select seats. In so doing, I traded off the potential for an increase in off task behavior for the upside of group work. Confident in my classroom management approach before the new school year commenced, I committed to group seating for all of my sections, which span algebra intervention (math lab) to algebra 1 to AP calculus. What I did not envision was the impact one class period might have on the others.
However, with a set of students unable to self-regulate, or to follow repeated requests to focus on the task at hand, I advised them that they risked losing their ability to choose their seats, and possibly to sit in a group arrangement. This got their attention, with one unforeseen result: after surveying the class to see who preferred group seating to traditional row and column seating, nearly a third of the class chose traditional seating. Fortunately, many more signaled a desire for group seating, which aligns with my desire for frequent student collaboration.
Somewhat stymied by students ongoing inability to behave, and confronted with the potential of impacting all of my class periods pedagogically, I shared my dilemma with the same students responsible for it in the first place. I let them know I was not sure they could conduct themselves responsibly, as they have been unable to do so for the past two months on any sustainable basis. Surprisingly, one student, who I needed to reseat for his misbehavior, suggested the class write an essay. Thirty-two other students moaned with displeasure while I loudly embraced his suggestion exclaiming “great idea!” Modifying it slightly, I stated that our class would conduct a trial period next week where we kept the student selected seating arrangement, in groups, to see if the class could conduct itself consistent with classroom norms, with one catch: all students needed to complete and turn in the essay, which I re-designated as a reflection.
Some students openly dissented, stating they would not complete the reflection simply since they wanted traditional seating. I quickly addressed those maneuvers advising that any effort to derail the trial period by those who voted for the traditional seating would result in other consequences, which I did not detail, but described as undesirable.
After handing out the activity for the day, a continued investigation into pile patterns, I wrote the following on the white board as their reflection assignment. To insure minimal misunderstanding, I read the entire assignment to students, and let them know I would post it on my Edmodo site.
I look forward to reading students’ reflections, as they are often quite revealing, and temper my frustration with their misbehavior. Stay tuned for an update.