Doin’ time

The longer I teach, the more important I perceive each day to be. This puts me at direct odds with my students, most of whom spend their entire school day trying to kill the clock in any remotely amusing way possible. An hour to them is an eternity, while to me, every minute wasted is a crime against the gods of opportunity cost.

There are times where I’m able to transcend this barrier in my classroom; when the kids and I get into the “flow” and time flies. These are the days when the bell rings and kids say, “class is over already? I don’t want to go to next period!” Unfortunately, I can’t make this magic happen every day. Sometimes we hit a “hot” streak and have several good days like this in a row. Other times we hit a slump and every day feels like a battle – them wanting to be off task and me wanting them to accomplish some learning experience and to do so faster.

Sometimes this dance wears on me. I get tired of the negotiation – how much time on task is enough? how much off task conversation is too much? how do I reign in the social chatter without turning my classroom into a mausoleum?

The ultimate irony of this conundrum is that the more I crack down to force compliance, the less productive the students become. Groups refuse to collaborate, class discussions attract chirping crickets, and all joy seems to leave the room.

On the flip side, if I leave students to be self-directed, fires erupt in all corners. A few dedicated individuals block out the noise to forge ahead. Groups fade in and out of productivity interspersed with length periods of social chatter.

Tasks to which I want to allot 10 minutes take some groups 10 minutes and others 20.

The sad thing is that I see two types of tasks where students are most compliant: individual work and lecture. These two types of tasks are ones which I use sparingly and yet with which students seem the most comfortable.

Conversely, the tasks with which students most seem to struggle to focus on are complex group tasks which require higher-order thinking skills. These are the tasks during which productive social discourse becomes most critical. These are also the tasks with which I struggle most to keep student conversations on topic. I hustle from group to group facilitating discussion. A group will make progress while I am there, so I leave to check in with other groups. When I return to the same group 5-10 minutes later, I often find them at the same point where I left them.

To be clear, this is not an every day problem. Unfortunately, it happens enough to be a concern. I realize that my expectations are high but I know my students are capable of much more than they are often giving.

I have dabbled with group roles and this does help – but only when the roles are clearly defined and closely match the task. In the past I worked really hard to push a consistent set of group roles but often found that 2 or 3 of them didn’t fit the given task. Because I like to have my students do a variety of activities, often with multiple transitions within one class period, it is incredibly inefficient to create and introduce new group roles for every single task.

So, my questions to you, dear readers:

  • What strategies do you use to keep students on task, especially during group tasks?
  • If you assign group roles, what roles do you use?
  • If you have specific group roles you use, how do you help students to effectively play those roles?

2 thoughts on “Doin’ time

  1. I’d like to know as well because I’ve been struggling with the same problem for as long as I can remember. As a matter of fact, you’ve really nailed it in this post!

    Roles I’m using now with my 6th graders are the captain as organizer (making sure everyone knows what they’re doing), a timekeeper (keeping an eye on the clock and reminding teammates when they’ve been off task too long as well as letting them know how much time is left), and a governor as communicator (reports directly to me to let me know where everyone is at and if anyone is stuck and needs help). These roles work better some days than others and better with some tasks than others and better with some groups than others. :)

  2. Al,

    I’m consistently balancing my desire for a democratic and student-centered classroom with their desire to do all of the following: get on Facebook, text their friends, watch YouTube, play games, talk about movies/music/parties/the opposite sex/rumors, throw things across the room, flirt, sexually harass each other, tease each other, cuddle, fight, wander the halls, do work for other classes, read, etc.

    Basically, they want to do what everyone else wants to do in their free time. And they want to do it right now.

    Again, there are times where I am able to trump all of these other desires with engaging activities, video clips, demonstrations, storytelling, well-planned lectures, cool labs, etc. I’m only one man, though, and I can’t make all of these things happen every day! I wish I could.

    There is no better feeling in the world than leading a classroom through a highly engaging learning experience that culminates with deep and lasting learning. If only it were easier to do!

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