Balancing Classroom Management and Pedagogy

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.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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13 Responses to Balancing Classroom Management and Pedagogy

  1. Cal says:

    So you inflicted a class punishment on everyone based on the recommendation of one of the kids who was a troublemaker? Simply because it reinforced your preferences for progressive do-gooder nonsense? Hmm.

    I am stunned you warned them. You should have just put them in rows. I did that last year, in one of my classes who weren’t behaving. They complained loudly, and I kept it in place for a year. A classroom isn’t a democracy.

    This was far too much of a negotiation, in my view. I can certainly understand your frustration and dhave been there before, but you aren’t setting limits. You’re just talking about setting limits, and using up class time to do it. Giving the troublemakers exactly what they want–less time on math, more time to screw around. And now they can refuse to do your assignment, sabotaging your big planned lesson on class democracy, forcing you to punish the kids who like groups who might actually be working.

    One final thing: I really think it’s ill-advised to let kids choose their own seats. It’s particularly ill-advised in a class that’s largely out of control.


    • The reflection is not a punishment, but a means for redemption. I forgot to mention I was planning a reflection anyways, but rather than behavior, it was to be on pile patterns. We’re still working on them, so that reflection is still doable.

      Rather than wreck group seating for all of my periods, I want to give this section a chance to reflect on their behavior, run a trial period, then revisit consequences.

      I’ve an ace up my sleeve, too. I may create two rows of traditional seats, leaving several group arrangements for a hybrid approach.

      With a military background, and two decades as a type-A personality, I can always resort to dictatorial methods. I prefer to engage students in a semi-democratic discourse. I say semi-democratic since everyone gets a vote. Its just that mine counts more than all of those in the class combined, kind of like a super-delegate.


      • Hey Dave – just curious why all of the periods need to have the same seating arrangement. Couldn’t the ones that can handle it stay in groups and period 5 go to rows or maybe partners until they’ve built up some of the self-control skills you need in order to work cooperatively with others?


      • Its primarily a logistics issue. It takes up precious class time to re-arrange 36 desks. It also makes the environment a tad hectic with students moving about with backpacks and desks; there is little incentive to move the desks quickly or quietly, either. I typically take role during at the outset of class, which would be impacted, too.


  2. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Could 5th period be right after lunch or phys ed ? My experience is groups of four are best but groups have to be changed from time to time based on how they are working, both from a learning and from a cooperative and effort standpoint. is it possible that the particular topic is less amenable to group learning ? Somehow I got the impression you were in California but I don’t see why that would matter except you would make that a seismic change. Might be careful about giving too many choices. I would expect your essays to indicate blaming others for any problems but maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe tell them we can’t choose you will be in the foxhole with us, just be glad you have a foxhole.


    • Hi Dave. 5th period is two periods after lunch. However, we suspect that many elect not to eat, for whatever reason, even though they may qualify for FRL. I do move a few of the more talkative ones around, but did not want to impact those that were more well behaved. And its not a topic issue, since the behavior transcends topic. I am in CA, and like the seismic reference, but I grew up on the eastern shore board with an old man as a sailor, so default to the sea. I’ve seen many reflections that blame others. Those provide a great opportunity to discuss personal responsibility.

      Hope all is well!


  3. Cal says:

    Oops–I sounded much harsher in this last comment than I meant to! I understand how frustrating it is; I just think you are spending far too much time caring about what they think.

    And let’s do coffee soon!


  4. Classroom management can be so frustrating – especially when dealing with children at ages that should know better…

    One blogger that has been especially helpful to me has been Michael Linsin:

    I’ve used some of his suggestions with great success.

    Good luck!


  5. xiousgeonz says:

    This may or may not apply at *all* to your situation, but…
    One thing I’d consider is finding a way to put more concrete structure into the collaboration and clear stepping stones so they can see evidence they’re moving forward. (Okay, I’m now shuddering at some of the bizarrely constrained “cooperative learnign” structures out there…) I’ve found that when often otherwise unruly students really know the task they’re tackling and it seems actually possible, they can get very focused.
    When I worked with kiddos that age, I remember a social studies activity that I was worried about … taking a state road map and answering a *lot* of questions like “find 7 rivers” … but they got in their groups, spread the maps out on the floor and were model students ( they weren’t habitually model students). (This was also a special ed class and they knew I had swiped the assignment from the “regular” social studies teacher, which may have had something to do with their attitudes.)
    Not sure how that could be applied to math but good luck 🙂


    • Thanks, Sue. I appreciate the suggestion. There were clear steps to progress through in these tasks, so the behavior is not dependent upon task. Some at our school think it could be related to students not eating properly, or at all, during lunch which is two periods before this one, as other teachers are noticing a spike in misbehavior during 5th period.


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