If your classroom is like mine, you’re constantly asking students to create—to display their skills in composition by writing essays, designing presentations, synthesizing research, or penning poetry. While there are many exciting ways to present the content for developing these skills during a traditional lesson, eventually the students do need to take complete control of it by making something that demonstrates their proficiency in the targeted skills. And we all know what that means… work time!
Most schools seem to have adopted the mentality that, at least in part, guided work time belongs in the classroom rather than at home. And while I feel that it is important for students to cultivate independence and responsibility outside of school hours, I also know that it makes good sense to provide in-class work time for students to receive initial feedback, to compensate for time that may be stretched by work and extracurriculars, or to provide quality computer access for a student who may not have it at home. So, we sign up for the computer lab, hand out our instructions, and let the kids go, with the expectation that things are going to get done!
That being said, what actually happens during “work time” can sometimes devolve into a confusing muddle of distraction, idleness, and sub-standard results if the classes aren’t structured appropriately. As a teacher, this can be frustrating! Sometimes we ask ourselves why we even bother to dedicate two or more consecutive days of class to work time if our students don’t use it correctly. While much of that can certainly be remedied through strong classroom management and clear directions, I’ve found a combination of several strategies that, when applied, will consistently ensure that work time is truly a productive block of time where real teaching, learning, and (YES!) work will indeed occur.
*STRUCTURING CLASSROOM WORK TIME: A HOW-TO*
The Prewriting Check-Off
I always give my students a pre-writing activity that will help them start developing their ideas for a particular assignment. This may be a detailed annotation of a poem, a graphic organizer, an outline, a thesis-generator sheet, or even a sketch that shows an idea. When my students have their first day in the lab, before they may even turn their computer on, they must get their pre-writing activity physically checked off by me. This helps students get their ideas in order, so that they have at least a starting point. As I check students off, I can address early misunderstandings or questions while also avoiding the “blank screen phenomenon.” If a student has trouble starting, I can point to their annotations or graphic organizer and help them use that as a springboard for their first keystrokes. This way, I know that every student is prepared to work well before they even begin.
Mini Lessons at the Start of Class
Especially if the project is an extended one requiring several days in the lab, I start my students in the actual classroom, where I give a mini-lesson on a particular writing or analysis skill that’s relevant to the task they are approaching in their work. For example, during a branding project for English 12, I showed my students a brief presentation on how to use color, typography, line, and texture to communicate ideas before we started working on that particular day. A short mini lesson before work time gives my students an injection of learning that they can immediately apply in their work, making them more focused and capable. When I offer mini-lessons, I go pretty quickly as to not take up too much time, but I always make the content available on my website, so that students can refer to it throughout the class if they need to revisit it or take a closer look at an example—which I often see them do!
This is such an easy step that is often overlooked. Give students a specific goal, or even a set of goals, for each day of work time Goals can be skill-based (Ex. Today, I want you to include at least one metaphor and at least one personification in your writing.), quantity-based (Ex. I want you to write two or more pages by the end of class), or process-based (Ex. I want you to at least get through step three of the directions today.) I also ask students to set personal goals as they are logging on. Again, this gives students a specific thing to shoot for, which increases the sense of meaning and urgency for what they are working on, and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they meet the goal.
Sticky Notes for Student Needs
After the first couple days of a project, it can be hard to know exactly how hands-on to be with the students as they work. Students at the middle or end stages of a paper or presentation have a way of all looking like they know exactly what they’re doing… even though some of them inevitably don’t. So, what’s the teacher to do? You don’t want to distract or intrude upon students who are “in the groove,” but you also want to know if students need help. My technique for dealing with this conundrum is giving each student a sticky note to stick on top of their monitor. I give them a range of options for what to write, usually “I got this,” “I have a question,” or “I’m lost!” As I stroll around the lab, I visually check the post-its. I quickly address the needs of the lost students, meander around to the ones who have a question or two periodically, and leave the go-getters alone to do amazing work without any help from me!
Classroom Management through Sound
I do allow students to listen to music on their headphones as they work if they wish. I will also periodically play music out loud for the whole class—I usually select a Pandora station with contemporary but slow-paced music. [My current favorite station, which changes weekly, is The Gabe Dixon Band. It’s important to avoid Top 40 or very danceable tracks, which have the opposite of the desired calming effect!] I use music as kind of a subliminal “get focused” signal for students that are a being little too social. I don’t say anything about it; I just turn the music on. It seems to work best to start the volume loud, about as loud as the students are talking. As they register the fact that music is playing, they typically start lowering their own volume. I then ratchet the volume down along with them… it’s kind of like magic! In the event that music is ineffective, I will implement silent work time and seating charts. Students may bellyache about it, but when it’s necessary, silence always sends the message that things need to get done. In this case, I usually say “I want to hear the sound of typing. That should be the main sound you are making.” I’ve also found that a half-and-half technique, splitting the class between productive buzz (first part of class) and silent work (middle of class up until the bell), is effective and helps students retain momentum over the full length of the class period.
While all of this is going on, I also make sure to conference individually with each of my students at least once throughout the duration of any project. I try to catch students who I know will need a heavy dose of guidance first, and then call students up at random to talk about their vision, progress, and plan. This gives me a really good idea of each student’s understanding of the task, and allows me to offer explanation, ideas, suggestions, and reactions. It also provides a chance to interact with students one-on-one, which builds positive relationships and helps me be accurate with the types of differentiation and assessment methods I’m using.
So those are my secrets for catalyzing student productivity… How about you? Any other ingenious suggestions for how to structure work time? I’d love to hear them!