One of the classroom management mysteries that I'm still grappling with like a ghost behind a tangled sheet is *what to do about general chatter* in class. My thought process on this topic always runs on a kind of loop:
1. I don't want to be a dictator teacher who insists on pin-drop silence and believes that children should be seen and not heard.
2. besides often when children are working productively they mutter benignly to themselves, counting out loud or sounding out words because they haven't learnt to do that in their head yet. It's just part of their learning! And who doesn't like to think out loud sometimes?
3. At first the room is relatively quiet and I feel like my strategy is viable. Mutterings and murmurings throughout, it's impossible to tell if there are occasional non-work related conversations going on and who cares anyway because remember point 1.
4. Oh but wait. What happened? Everyone is yelling. Everything is loud. Children are calling out my name as though I can't hear or see them. I see you, I hear you, I promise, but aaaaaargh!
5. Yell yell yell. Insist on immediate and continued silence. Insist again because cause they definitely ignored me the first time. I need quiet in this room! So do they! They need to learn how to work without chatting, don't they?
6. Don't they?
7. Return to 1. But now my head hurts and is this a hamster wheel?
Read more Snapshots here or at my instagram @katiencounteract
Recently one of my students initiated telling her news in isiZulu first and then translating it to English. This variation was very well received and bilingual news has become something of a trend. Not everyone is doing it, but more and more children are trying it out.
In our classroom ‘Telling News’ or ‘Show and Tell’ is a daily staple, an essential opportunity for children to practice spoken language skills and share their stories. But like many children in South Africa, and probably all over the world, School = English and this means that my students are essentially being schooled in a second or ‘foreign’ language. Speaking in English, for many of them, is a huge learning curve.
Finding opportunities for my students to use their burgeoning bilingual skills in class is important for many reasons - from simply validating and embracing their home language, to helping them develop translation skills and ultimately bilingual literacy. At the moment my students have 2 hours of isiZulu lessons per week – taught ironically as their ‘2nd Additional Language’ but if we can find other ways to incorporate isiZulu into our English-speaking school day, I believe that ALL their language learning gets a boost.
Read more snapshots here.
"All right boys and girls I need someone to come up and help us solve this problem. I'm going to choose someone who's sitting very nicely..."
(This is a time-honoured teacher ruse, met with bolt upright backs and gleaming hopeful eyes.)
Ah, shoot. They all took the bait. Now I have to choose one. I have to choose quickly. I've learnt that if I let my eyes wonder round the room too long, the souls of wide-eyed 7 year olds bore into me like innocuously piercing dentist tools. I call out a name and the announcement is met, instantaneously, with a roar of indignant discord. “Hauw, Miss! “
Some objections are quite articulate...
"Hauw Miss why so-and-so"
"Hauw Miss, you never choose me" (Not true!)
Others more guttural. They roar, they howl. They slam their hands dramatically into the carpet.
Tears erupt silently, heads sink helplessly onto scabby knees. Stumped, I hand out tissues, pat heads and repeatedly utter the now dog-eared "You can't always be chosen but I'm sure you'll get your turn soon" script in a desperate attempt to calm the stormy class and prevent total mutiny.
This kind of meltdown happens pretty much every day with my current class and has been happening since the beginning of the year. They’ve gotten a little less protracted and dramatic over the months. The chorused howl doesn’t last as long, there are fewer actual tears. But I still need to prep the children daily. “You know we need to share our turns to talk” “Try to feel happy for whoever gets a turn”. They nod agreeably. I feel hopeful. But the next time someone is chosen to talk or demonstrate knowledge in front of the class the same roar of objection greets me. Humph.
What really gets me about this situation is that it does feel unfair. My students all love having a turn to stand up in front of the class. They love sharing their knowledge, love being picked. Is there something really flawed in my approach of singling out students in this way? Clearly the injustice to the rest of the class is deeply felt, but is their feeling justified or is this just ‘how life works, kids.’ In my heart I suspect the former, but the status quo would have you believing otherwise. Children Have to learn that Life is Unfair (says the Status Quo) Children have to learn that they can’t always be chosen, that they can’t always be heard. What sinister function do these assumptions play in societal power games?
This also bothers me because I spend so much time asking the children to listen to me. Asking for their attention, rattling on and on about how good listening shows respect and don’t you know that listening is a part of how you learn, boys and girls. BOYS AND GIRlS! Are you listening?! I feel like ‘turns to talk’ are like candies and I am the hoarder, the keeper. Greedily, I keep many of the candies to myself, TTT. I use my candies for a lot of good reasons, but I also feel like I waste them on a lot of nagging, berating and lecturing that could surely be better used some way else.
Writing these Snapshots on talk has helped me to articulate some deeply rooted anxieties and doubts I have about my teaching practice, particularly how we share talk time in our class room. As I reflect on these troubling issues, I have found myself being more alert to my own talk-behaviour, checking myself at times when I have wanted to launch into another lecture or interrupt the children’s work to announce something. But it is difficult to self-correct, to have that acute awareness, hold myself accountable, come up with an alternative and act on it.
Ultimately I need new strategies. Cultivating this awareness, alternative-seeking and problem-solving is a big part of what Encounteract is all about. Read more Snapshots here. Read about new, progressive thinking in education that has the potential to challenge the grim status quo here. Read more reflections on societal and political factors impacting education here.
Earlier this week my wonderful teaching assistant left school by 9:30 to take her sick baby to the clinic. In spite of being the actual teacher, my heart sank at the idea of managing the kids by myself.
The day went from bad to worse. I stood in front of the buzzing room of little bodies gaping like a fish, trying to work out how to address the children without simply screaming my head off. Every utterance was swallowed by the din. More than once I seriously wished that I could walk out the room and hide somewhere.
Not only was I struggling to get the children settled, I'd also realised that the activity I had set for them was actually too difficult and this was making them even more restless and disengaged. Eventually I called-in all their books (in the manner of a paper-cellecting whirlwind) and handed out loose paper. We started a new activity where children worked in pairs to build and write sentences, instead of working on their own. It was still noisy, but it was way more productive and by the end of the day the children were actually unusually calm. I eyed them suspiciously, disbelieving. How did this happen?
I am glad that I talked myself through the gaping-fish moments, that I changed my tactics and that I didn't give up. An earlier version of teacher-me probably wouldn't have worked all that out. Getting your ducks in a row takes time and having your ducks in a row is something you can't take for granted.
Read more snapshots here.
The internal dialogue that goes on in my head during my standard teaching day runs a few parallel conversations at once. The first is like a radio sports commentator. It rattles off the happenings, the plans, the moment to moment. It tries to keep track, it’s trying to be everywhere at once. It’s all going so fast, I’m definitely behind. No I’m just in front in the wrong direction. Aaaaarh!
The second voice is a crusty little naysayer specialising in self-doubt, self-deprecation and anxiety. This voice keeps a running commentary on what I think I’m doing badly.
The third voice is like a desperate overworked nurse. Fussing and tutting and pouting and sighing. Uttering encouragement and motivational pep talk that can easily get drowned out by voices One and Two. This is the ‘I just need a cup of tea and to have 5 minutes away from the children and it doesn’t mean I don’t love them’ voice.
These three voices squabble and compete for my attention and often they don’t leave me with much peace of mind. I’m hyper conscious of everything I am ‘achieving’ throughout the school day and the sense that I am walking the wrong way up an escalator is recurrent (thanks sports commentator voice). I am also prone to negativity (thanks naysayer voice!) that has definitely had an effect on my self-esteem both as a teacher and as a person generally. The third voice (nurse voice) is the one trying to hold things together, but like putting a plaster on a gaping wound, the placations might be temporarily soothing, but they don’t necessarily tackle the underlying cause of injury.
In a way, this blog is an attempt to introduce a fourth voice to my inner-teacher dialogue. A voice that brings my internal perspectives together, that validates them (because even negative voices are valid) but also puts them in perspective and holds them to account. This is something that, I believe, writing can do.
Coming up in The Visionary I will discuss teacher journaling, some inspirational teacher writers and strategies for making your internal teacher talk healthily critical, rather than self-defeating.
Coming up in The SQ I will be discussing teacher self-esteem and the impact of continuous negative dialogue, self-doubt and self-criticism on teacher’s confidence, anxiety and mental health generally.
Thanks for reading.
This week I'm talking TALK. From the fraught to the outrageous I will dissect and discuss the talking points that make my classroom the kind of space it is.
"Grade 1’s” (firm whisper) …
… “Grade 1’s?” (firmer, more urgent whisper)
… “G. r . a . d . e o . n . e . s” (drawn out louder whisper. Deep breath.)
…“GRADE ONES!!” (Sudden Teacher Shouting Strategy, dramatically deployed)
Mixed results. OK. Deep breathe. Cry a little inside.
Repeat process from step A (firm whisper). Repeat sudden shouting. Shout again, but this time adjust facial expression to move from stern to ‘saddened and resigned’ and then back to neutral. We know that neutral is where the good game play is really at.
Remind the children gravely that as a collective, “Grade 1” is their name and that I am addressing them in order that I might tell them something that I’d like them to hear. Do they want to hear it?
That is not the point.
But then again, it really is. This interaction is currently one of my daily grinds. It didn’t used to be like this. In the early months of the year getting my students’ attention was akin to how Disney Princesses burst into song and all the magical creatures spontaneously sing along. I had only to utter the opening lines of a favourite tune and a chorus of happy voices would chime out alongside mine. Then, like a conductor to their orchestra I would lower my hands and a calm stillness would prevail over the class. A small internal smile. I’ve got this.
Like hell. You poor innocent fool.
On bad days, I am inclined to interpret the current ungratifying and relentless scenario played out above as a sign that I am in ill-equipped and terrible teacher whose students have no respect (and why should they?) On better days, I am inclined to interpret the same situation as par for the course – it is September after all – and to remind myself that engaging my students meaningfully and strategically is LITERALLY MY JOB.
But what really causes this decay in relational dialogue between me and my students? What could I do to turn the talk around so that we don't keep repeating the same painfully unyielding script? And perhaps most urgently, how do I adjust my internal dialogue to allow this?
Head over to The Visionary and The SQ where I will reflect on these questions and investigate potential alternatives and best practices that could improve my classroom's TALK!
Or head back to the menu at Snapshots.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the creases of her brain.