Help with classroom management

In a CI classroom it is essential that students listen and mentally process the meaning of everything said by the teacher.

If you do not provide the environment in which this is possible, your students will acquire much less and your classes will quickly become stratified between the haves and have-nots; those who pay attention will have acquired while those that have not will become a problem and prevent everyone from acquiring. Don’t let students choose their path; allow only the path of acquisition.

Classroom management requires strength of will.

It is the rare teacher who can manage a high-energy class while also effectively catching students before they spin off-task. From a CI perspective, it is inexcusable to execute high-energy activities while permitting side conversations and distracted behavior, which undermines the overall objective. Worse yet, it is nearly impossible to reel back a class once students claim their “right” to have side conversations, check their social media, or otherwise not engage 100% in class. For this reason I recommend that teachers start the school year with a very controlled, decidedly low-energy classroom. Don’t aim to be their most fun teacher; aim to be a respected adult who firmly enforces boundaries. It is a lot easier (and effective) to be perceived as a strict teacher who eventually reveals a warm, caring side than being perceived as a goofy teacher who, in October, desperately screams at class in an attempt to control the spiraling chaos.

My ironclad first rule of classroom management is: “One person speaks, everyone else listens“.

In a room with 40 people this feels so unnatural, and it is!, but for students to acquire it is essential that no one is distracted. Therefore the first thing I recommend is that you print out a banner with this phrase to hang in a central location at the front of the room. This will save you from having to speak English in class; just point at it when necessary… which will be frequently at the beginning of the year.

Side conversations in any language cannot ever be permitted.

If there is a warm class community, your students’ natural urge will be to chat with each other. You must nip this in the bud at the beginning of the year and remain vigilant throughout the year to make sure that there are never side conversations. Every day start class telling them your expectations, and stop class whenever there is a side conversation regardless of how much you might be enjoying class. Side conversations surge forth when the class conversation is getting good, so you must always be vigilant and never get entirely swept into the drama of the class conversation. You are your own worst enemy if you get swept up in class and fail to stop side conversations.

Virginia teacher Brett Chonko adds two more important class rules:

I think “Look at the Speaker” and “Raise Hand to Speak” are particularly important when it comes to managing the CI classroom. “Look at the Speaker” is how I call on students whose hands are raised. Instead of just calling Justin’s name. I say (in the target language), “Class, look at Justin.” It is a small tweak, but has a huge effect. If done well, which means constant reinforcement, making students look at the new speaker is like 50 attention checks every class. It constantly directs them to the content of class, and it’s a wonderful soft skill to teach them the importance of eye contact as a form of respect in interpersonal communication. “Raise Hand to Speak” is an obvious extension of “one person speaks, everyone listens”, but kids definitely have to be trained and constantly reminded.

Post a rules poster on your classroom wall with these three rules written in large font. It should be in English so that you can walk over, point & pause at the rule when broken in class, make eye contact with the entire class while pointing, smile, and then proceed with instruction without ever speaking English. In fact, nowadays I have boiled down my rules poster to one simple banner stating the first rule only. You want to be able to point at the rule without having to speak over students. You do not want to contribute to more noise.

It is useful to have a sign to indicate when the use of English is forbidden.

There are times in which I feel comfortable with students using a few words in English, such as when we make “One Word Images” or I conduct a student interview. I often say “una palabra o dos palabras en inglés” (“one word or two words in English”) which prevents entire discussions in English, but if they need to communicate that they have a hamster I will let them say that one word in English and then I will translate it on the board (the word “hamster” in Spanish happens to be “hámster“).

However there are other times when I do not want to allow English and I communicate that by having a sign that on one side reads “Prohibido el inglés” (“English Prohibited“) and on the other side is blank. I flip the sign when I want to eliminate code-switching. I stop mid-sentence whenever there is a side conversation in English, point at the “Prohibido el inglés” sign, and then chant the rhyme “uno, dos, tres… ahora sin el inglés” (“one, two, three… without English”, which rhymes in Spanish). Keep in mind, however, that I more often allow code-switching, especially in a lower level class, so my sign is most often displaying the blank side. I only flip it consistently during upper level classes or if I feel that students are abusing the ability to offer a word or two in English.

Class chants redirect student attention without having to annoyingly whine at the class.

Working with elementary and middle school teachers has impressed me with the power of song, especially when coupled with hand gestures. I once observed a third grade class that was melting down after a “turn and talk” activity went too long. The teacher stood up straight, raised her arms above her head and formed a circle by touching her two index fingers together and her thumbs. Gently she made up a rhythm on the spot, “Vamos a hacer un círculo, ¿un círculo?, ¡un círculo!“. Students began noticing and instinctively started to form a circle. She kept singing… it was marvelous. Add a double clap between verses and you have a powerful attention-getting routine. Can this work in high school? Absolutely!

The following chants also work well when kids are trained to repeat the second half after hearing the first part: “Clase, ¡Escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!” (often accompanied with pumping fists in the air), “¿Hola hola? (raise hand to ear) ¡Coca cola!“, ” ¿Qué te pasa, calabaza? (shrugging) , nada nada limomada“, “Uno, dos, tres… ahora sin el inglés“, “Otra cosa, (place outstretched hands together at thumbs to make a butterfly) ¡mariposa!“. It is best to start the chant before you have lost control. Just as you begin to feel control slipping away, launch straight into a chant.

Prepare smooth transitions with bailout moves

Limit opportunities to chat by planning smooth transitions and bailout moves so that students do not fill “free moments” speaking in English. I have a bailout move prepared everyday– usually the same song activity for every class. Have a student sitting at your computer if you have the projector on and talk about what is happening on the screen rather than disappearing in the back of the room to fiddle with the computer yourself. Sit strategically with your class when they are doing the bailout move, even better right next to a likely source of disruption. When you disappear from view, side conversations start.

Subscribers to the CI Master Class have access to my Spanish, French & German song matching games (see #8) that I use as bailout moves

Harnessing a Running Horse

If you are talking about interesting things in class you will occasionally find yourself in a situation in which everyone suddenly gets so excited that side conversations erupt spontaneously. Clearly you should try to prevent this from happening, but when it does you have about 20 seconds to regain control of your class. I have a technique called harnessing a running horse that allows you to maintain a pleasurable atmosphere in class without yelling or unpleasant reminders about rules. Keep in mind, however, that this is a tactic of last resort. It stops working if you are doing it every 5 minutes!