Fostering relationships, management, and learning with expectations and structures
Classroom management is essential in structuring an environment conducive to learning. Sprick (2009) explains that educators need to understand how to shape behavior so they “can make effective decisions and take appropriate actions to help students learn to behave responsibly” (p. 16). Middle school educators often struggle with classroom management. Early adolescence is a time when students start to test boundaries as they grow their independence and self-discovery. Developing relationships with students will have the most significant impact on managing the classroom. Teachers who understand their students and interests make powerful connections. Through structures and relationships, the learning is accomplished. A well-managed classroom at the middle level has teachers and students alike enforcing expectations and structures.
Using a variety of protocols and routines can support and foster a nurturing, productive learning environment. Foundational protocols can introduce students to each other, build team and class unity, and set the framework to support collaboration. Building relationships and creating a safe environment is the first step to having a successful classroom where students are engaged and invested.
John Maxwell’s quote: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” is the validation for establishing relationships. It is ideal to spend the first couple of weeks of the school year focusing on the social domain. Team building is an excellent way to promote relationships and develop the best climate for teacher and students. Learning names within the first week and using activities that help “break the ice” can support a year of respect, understanding, and learning. Icebreakers and team building exercises help create a safe environment where both teachers and learners want to take risks. These types of activities should not only be used with new groups of students and classes at the beginning of the year or semester, but additional opportunities need to be provided to allow students to continue to connect, understand, and respect one another, their differences, and their backgrounds. Activities should try to include movement as well.
Movement is still important at the middle level. Sometimes this can be minimalized as standards, expectations, and accountability measures become the focus. Doing games, challenges, and activities that involve movement will not only give a mental break, but it adds to the importance of collaborating and working together as a team. Taking the time to incorporate such movement and breaks actually is worth the return in focus and engagement of students. Pink (2018) supports this in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by stressing that we need to take breaks to enhance our performance. Pink states the importance of “restorative breaks” on decision making, especially in the afternoon during the least productive part of the day.
At our middle school, we have a 20- to 25-minute enrichment period. Our grade-level teachers use themes (sixth grade – superheroes; seventh grade – Olympians; eighth grade – social justice) for team building. Competitions and alliances create a community within the enrichment and grade level as a whole. On other days of the week, grade-level teams decide how to best work with their students and support academic needs.
In addition to these larger ideas to foster relationships, a variety of smaller practices can also be used: greeting students at the door with fist bumps and high fives, learning about their interests, leading good news share outs, and offering student choice and voice in learning and assessing. While relationship development is the first level of using protocols to foster a well-managed classroom, using them to establish structures, routines, and expectations is the next level.
Fostering Classroom Management
Clearly communicating expectations is crucial to setting the groundwork for how teachers and students expect class to run. Getting students involved in creating classroom norms and setting contracts for success is one way to develop classroom expectations. In addition to norms, daily routines and structures are important to have in place.
A common routine to use is a “do now” or “bellringer” activity. This prompts the class to come in and get to work as an opener to the lesson or a review of the lesson from the previous day. Having routines, especially at the beginning of class, sets the expectation to get focused and ready to learn. The more the “do now” is related to the day’s content, the better for getting the students thinking about the material. Students are still engaged in instruction while the teacher is able to take care of non-instructional business such as taking attendance, checking in with students who were absent, or completing service/accommodation logs.
As a building-wide practice, we use Sprick’s (2009) CHAMPS, a quick and easy protocol for establishing expectations in under a minute. The acronym stands for conversation, help, activity, movement, participation, and success. The idea is that the teacher sets the guidelines for each of the activities during the class. If students follow the CHAMPS protocol (figure 1) set for them, they will have success.
C is for conversation level. If it is an independent activity, the conversation level may be zero, but if they are working in pairs or small groups, the level may be a two or three.
H is for how students should ask for help. This may be a raise-your-hand expectation or even a “three before me” norm.
A is for activity and this is where the teacher makes it clear what students are doing, i.e., reading and answering questions, making a video, or note taking during active instruction.
M is for movement. The teacher outlines his or her expectations about what type of movement is allowed; i.e., flexible seating, getting up to sharpen a pencil or get materials.
P is for participation. This item specifies how the students should be involved during the activity. What does the student behavior look and sound like? The teacher will want to address any student misconceptions here too.
S is for success.
All the teachers at our middle school also utilize a reflection center (known to staff and students as the RC). Grade-level teams have a system in place; for example, the seventh grade team uses a stop sign system. If the student cannot be redirected or get on task, the teacher sends the student to the reflection center. The student then completes a problem-solving form to earn his or her way back into class. Each grade level uses the same system, which is reviewed with students and consistently practiced by all teachers on the team.
Additional protocols to manage students and allow for quick transitions are ones that help group students quickly. One practice is to have table groups (usually a group of four) as well as pairs within the group. This will allow for quick discussion, check ins, or even assigning students to work on tasks. Another method is the appointment or clock method where at the beginning of a month, marking period, or unit, students pick or are assigned several appointments (usually 4, but could be up to 12).
Having clear expectations and timely transitions that are communicated to students creates a well-managed environment that fosters an environment for learning.
Educators can also use a variety of protocols to foster learning. Several phases of the learning process, such as brainstorming, discussing, synthesizing, and analyzing can be achieved through protocol-type activities. Protocols work best in classroom environments where students feel safe and willing to take risks. When these processes have been used to foster relationships and classroom structures and expectations, it is only natural that they also can be used to support teaching and learning.
Empowering students to fully participate in a middle school classroom is critical to their learning. One strategy to foster learning and participation is Tabletop Twitter, where the teacher chooses a reading passage, prompt, question, etc. and places it in the middle of a large piece of chart paper. Students are given time to read the selection and respond by writing their thoughts on the chart paper with marker. Following the timed activity, students participate in a review and discussion of their insights. This protocol gives students who are sometimes reluctant to share their thoughts in front of the whole class an opportunity to provide a written response. Think-Pair-Share is another protocol that promotes student participation and helps to create a safe environment for students to participate. Students are given time to reflect individually and time to share with a partner before the teacher asks students to participate in a whole group discussion.
David Weinberger stated, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” Collaboration and communication enhance student learning and can be promoted through classroom gallery walks to build collective knowledge in the room. In a gallery walk, teachers propose multiple questions or prompts posted throughout the room. Students are divided into groups and rotate through the posts, spending two to three minutes at each, discussing and recording their ideas. Once all groups have rotated through each post, groups are given time to compile the feedback, synthesize the information, and share out to the whole group. This learning is student-centered and allows all students to participate in the activity.
At Milan Middle School, our math department participates in peer ratings on a response rubric that asks students to analyze student responses to math problems. When students are given an opportunity to critique, it increases their familiarity with the expectations of a quality response and increases the use of content vocabulary. Making this critiquing process common practice makes it safe for all students to take chances and make mistakes. The response becomes a group discussion where the class works together to make adjustments, as necessary, until the answer achieves the highest rating.
These protocols support all learners by giving a voice and promoting engagement. Classroom protocols used to foster relationships, management, and learning lead to a more supportive, collaborative, and engaging environment for all.
Pink, D. (2018). When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. Riverhead Books: New York.
Sprick, R. (2009). CHAMPS: A proactive and positive approach to classroom management. Pacific Northwest Publishing: Eugene, Oregon.