iFLT Takeaway #2: It’s All About Structure

This is my fifth year teaching in a CI-centered language classroom.  The first year was magical.  I had students who were used to doing things the traditional way.  I quickly changed the paradigm, and the students rejoiced.  Latin class was fun.  It was relevant.  It was student-centered and student-driven.  We were speaking, writing, reading, and creating Latin.

It seemed like the class ran itself.  And the program grew and grew.

That first year, my Latin I class was 19 students.  The next year, my Latin I class was almost 90 students, split into three sections.  That second year I also went “desk-less” to accommodate the sudden growth and help create a most community-focused vibe.

I realized quickly that I had a problem.

Students loved the class (for the most part).  But now  the expectations were different.  The previous year, my students expected charts and flashcards, and instead got songs, stories, and real interaction.  They loved it.  It defied their expectations, and they loved it.

The second year, however, was different.  They heard about the class from their friends and came to check it out. The students expected fun.  They expected stories.  They expected games.  And I also felt like I had to sell a class that was beginning to gain traction.  So, I focused on selling and growing.

The result: we still got a lot done, and a lot of language was acquired, but it was exhausting and frustrating to manage the monster I had created.  My students weren’t “bad” or “misbehaving.” I was implementing CI the best I could based on the blogs I had read and the videos I had watched.  Why were my students not like the ones in the videos? How come I didn’t have all of my students’ close attention every time I put a piece of student artwork on the board? Why was there so much chatter in English? Why did I feel like I had such little control?

I lacked structure.

And I knew it.  Intellectually, I mean.  I knew what I was supposed to do, but I resisted.  I was being a salesman.  I was focusing on building community and marketing a student-centered class.  But I had put management on the shelf, when I really should have been focusing strongly on management from the beginning, especially the number seats needed in my room kept increasing.

This past summer I read Jon Cowart’s classroom management book for some management tricks.  I looked over dog-eared copy of Fred Jones’ book to review how to have a more “teacher-ly” presence in the room and to set expectations.  I let Alfie Kohn remind me about classroom management that didn’t need carrots and sticks and that focused on getting at the root causes of student behavior.  At iFLT, I watched Grant Boulanger, Jason Fritze, Mark M, Linda Lee, and others work their magic.  I filled up thirty pages in a notebook observing all the little things they did.

Guess what? Most of my notes were about structure and routine.

And things came into focus.

Here are some of the things I’m doing this year:

1) Password at the door: I started do this casually last year, and I can’t imagine not doing it.  I got this from Bryce Hedstrom.  When the bell has rung and all students have said the password and entered, I shut the door.

2.) Assigned seating. I use MegaSeatingplan.com to keep track of my seating charts.

3.) There is process for passing out and collecting the notebooks in seating order.  I collect the books during the last minute or so of class.  The students pass down the books in order, and also check the floor for trash and move the classroom furniture back into place.  Everyone remains seated until the books are in a stack at the ends of the rows and I’ve gotten a chance to check the floor.  When everything is clear, I dismiss them.

4.) I have a “Do Now” on the board.  Generally something simple that can be completed in two to three minutes (and also something that is very easy for me to throw together).  Students must be on time to class in order to complete it.

5.) Students raise two crossed fingers to signal they need the bathroom.  I don’t let people go during a story, conversation, or any other kind of direct instruction.

6.) There is a process for passing out whiteboards, markers, and erasers, as well as a process for collecting them.

7) There is a process for collecting index cards (for quick quizzes) or papers.  A student collects the stack, paperclips it, and puts it in the class’s tray.

8.) I use more TPR/TPR-gestures across all levels (see this post for more details).

9.) I consistently use hand gestures for students to communicate with me.  I found these gestures, suggested by Justin Slocum Bailey to be the most helpful.  They are more specific than simply helping students tell me they don’t understand.  The gestures also help class feel like more of a conversation.

10.) Classroom jobs.  There are many posts about these, and I have always been very sloppy with assigning them and being consistent with them.  But they do work, once you determine to be consistent with them (and have other structures and expectations in place). Also, the more ceremony and importance that is added to the job, the better.  Students like to know that the job they do is important.  I now add gravitas to even the mundane jobs.

11.) A reading and writing component every day.  This is generally at the end of class.  So far, this consists of either an “exit ticket”-style quiz or a Write and Discuss activity.  We did our first Write and Discuss on the second day of class.  It was simple, but it sent a clear message: on an average day, will play a little, talk a little, move around a little, write a little, and read a little.  It’s just how we roll.

12.) I now have a strict Target language policy (which I plan to discuss in my next post).

Furthermore, most of these processes are practiced from Day 1.  I didn’t begin this year with a story, or a game, or a sales pitch, or a syllabus.  I began with my expectations and how things get done in this classroom.  I really wanted to smile, joke, tell stories, and generally try to get the students to warm up to the class.  But I resisted.  I stuck to my guns and was upfront about what I expect to happen every day.  I don’t think it’s bad if teachers do try to keep it more casual on the first day–a good teacher knows their audience and what they need.  Mine needed to know that what I say I’m going to do and what I actually do are always the same.

And it worked.  Really.  I have done bits and pieces of all of the above for year, but never implemented them from day one, and certainly never really thought about how to be consistent with them.  For years, I was focused on the language-acquisition side of class, to the point that I downplayed the structural side of class.

This past Monday, we talked about a student’s picture of a dog.  With lots of reps, circling, interaction, and structure.  Students responded to questions, signaled, gestured, asked permission to speak English, participated.  We did this for thirty minutes.  I would have never been able sustain a Picture talk for that long in some of my past classes, even during the early“honeymoon” period.  It was the structures I put in place that made it possible for the class and me to sustain focus on comprehensible messages and keep management to a minimum.

And a huge bonus for me has been that I haven’t had to use grades or assessments as an incentive–or a threat.  Students know what to expect and they know what I’m looking for.  Are things perfect now? Not at all.  But they are better.  So. Much. Better.  And I thought that last year was a great year, even though there were so many activities and that I couldn’t do, because I wouldn’t be able to maintain order.

I’ve got a long road this year, but I’m looking forward to seeing what new things I can accomplish and experiment with this year now that these new structures are in place. It is really all about structure.

One thought on “iFLT Takeaway #2: It’s All About Structure

  1. Amy Gawtry

    Thank you SOOO much for this post. I really admire all that you are doing and I work on implementing parts everyday. The first picture talk I have ever done in Latin I was Friday and the kids were riveted but I was wiped out after and wondering how I was going to keep up that energy level all the time. The way in which you organize your periods makes total sense and will help tak the edge off of my need to entertain.

    Again…thank you so much for your blog and products. I may not comment every time but I always read and learn!


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