Cultivate Student Allies for a Smooth-running Class

You don’t have to run yourself ragged while students passively watch

This post is only partly about student jobs. I have always found most student jobs to be a further burden on my mental energy as I keep track of what everyone is supposed to be doing! I’m looking to make my teaching life easier. The greater insight in this article is how we can harness the power of choices to lead our students to choose a smooth-running classroom.

Classroom management gurus often tell teachers to offer a choice rather than an ultimatum: “you can either give your sunglasses to me or put them in your bag; I’ll be back in a moment to see which you choose”. This technique uses the same psychology but applied to the whole group.

Let’s start with a common issue that drives CI teachers crazy: lack of student engagement. You are trying to conduct a student interview, make a One Word Image or do some guided creative writing but your students are just so passive that you can’t get anywhere with them. In fact, the harder you try and the crazier you dance in the target language, the more passive they seem!

There may be several things going on here, but I want to encourage you NOT to continue pouring out your energy in class hoping to ignite a spark. It is perverse, but the more you perspire, the further students recede into passivity.

Instead, I have a three-part strategy to develop student allies who advocate within their peer group for a smooth-running class.

First of all, tell them what you want, when you want it.

It seems simple, but students may sense your frustration while not really understanding what you want.

Think about the contradictions that can emerge in a CI classroom from the perspective of a student: “teacher tells us we don’t have to speak until we are ready (lots of input before a little output) but then she asks us to all speak”, “teacher tells us to listen listen listen, but then she tells us to speak at the same time (choral response)”, “teacher is constantly shushing me (one person speaks everyone else listens) but then gets mad when I don’t talk”.

From an adolescent perspective having a side chat with a friend might be the same in their mind as answering a student interview question: it’s talking.

I tell them what I want in the target language if my students understand, and I verify their comprehension. At the beginning of the school year, I might do this in English.

Teacher: “(in the target language) Voy a hablar (make talking hand gesture) con Katelyn (gesture towards Katelyn). Katelyn va a hablar (talking hand gesture again) conmigo (touch my chest with my palms). Ustedes (waving my hand towards the entire class) van a escuchar (bring hand to ear). Ahora, (in English) what am I going to do?

Class: “Talk”

Teacher: “What is Katelyn going to do?”

Class: “Talk”

Teacher: “What are you all (wave hand towards whole class) going to do?”

Class: “Listen”

I’ll do a version of that routine in all levels from 1 through AP every time we do a student interview.

The moment that students in the audience start a side chat, ask the entire class, “what are you all doing (wave your hand out to the whole class just like in the initial instructions so that the memory is activated, and they respond: “Listening”). If the side chat has not stopped, try asking again but punching the “you all” part of the question: “what are you all doing?” Most times you will not need to speak directly to the students chatting. The power of the entire group responding reinforces, “We are listening”. If you have to, you can even hold two palms facing up as offering a choice and ask the whole group in the target language: “Who is speaking? Katelyn and I… or all of you?”

Having the whole group enforce the norms of the activity is powerful and also establishes a calm tone to the class in which the teacher is not losing her cool.

This is also how you’ll train your student allies to remind the class how you want the class to function. Remember, students have 5 or 6 other teachers with 5 or 6 other class expectations. Students will forget your expectations if you are not reinforcing them every single day, all year long.

Second part of the strategy: when the interview doesn’t go well because the student does not engage

I don’t want Katelyn to feel bad about her moment on the class stage, so I simply say, “This isn’t going as planned. Sorry Katelyn, I think I got you up here before we were ready. Thank you thank you thank you for being a good sport and playing my game with me”.

Then I turn to the class and say, “okay, let’s use these next ten minutes instead on a Write & Discuss comprehension quiz. Take out your notebooks and read the W&D from last Wednesday, October 15th (or whatever date, but choose one from about a week ago). You have five minutes to read the W&D and then it’s all notebooks away for the quiz. No sharing notebooks– this is a notebook quiz.”

Of course, this only works if you have students keep a W&D notebook, which I think you should.

Many teachers have a place in the classroom where students store their notebooks so that losing the notebook or forgetting it at home does not become a problem. In that case, be sure to have getting the notebook at the beginning of class and returning it at the end of class a part of a class routine.

Linguist Paul Nation’s research indicates that revisiting texts a few days later or even a week or two later has a greater impact on acquisition than the first read through!!! So, I often have students copy the W&D into their notebooks and about once a week I ask them to translate the text at home to an adult (if they take their notebooks home).

We also use these notebooks as a transition activity: when the interview isn’t going well then I might say, “okay, this isn’t going as planned. Let’s try something else. Open up your notebooks and read the W&D from November 15th. You have 5 minutes and then we will close all notebooks and take a short comprehension quiz”.

If you do that when you first start using notebooks, students learn to take good notes and KEEP them! They also learn to participate in the interview and to “do their 50% of the work” in the conversation, or we have a back-up plan that is less enjoyable. You’ll hear other kids coaxing them along because everyone understands that if the current activity falls apart, they may be reading for a quiz.

The third part of the strategy, in future days, is to simply give the class a choice.

In the early days of the school year, I’ll ask them whether they want to continue with the student interview or reread a W&D text for a reading quiz. Whichever they choose, it’s good input!

However, often you’ll have student allies coaxing their peers to continue with the student interview. Later in the year I might offer a choice between the interview and student choice reading of a novel from the classroom library. I don’t even mention a quiz; it’s simply a choice between two activities. Either activity leads to acquisition. In fact, whichever activity has more student buy-in will probably lead to greater language acquisition.

Keep in mind that this is truly a long-term strategy, not a “spur of the moment tactic”. It builds a class culture in which students feel more in control of their learning and students are given space to advocate for their favorite use of class time.

This strategy goes hand-in-hand with the way I assign class jobs. Essential jobs in my classroom are (1) the librarians to whom students pass their independent reading books about 2/3 of the way through the period so that the librarians neatly return the books to the shelves, (2) the computer kid who sits at my teacher desk and controls the computer which is projected against the white screen at the front of the room, and (3) the class artists who illustrate our One Word Images and define the visual branding of each class.

In each case, the jobs are often assigned to a willing student in the beginning of the year and are rarely changed. The computer kid sits in the comfiest chair in the room and often raids my candy drawer… but is so integral to a smooth-running class that I keep that candy drawer well-stocked! The librarians protect the books from damage; I don’t mind if they miss a few minutes of class conversation while they do their job. The artists provide endless discussion in the days and weeks after creating a OWI as we glance at the back of the room where the OWIs are hung.

These are all student allies that help our class work smoothly.

And the student allies who actively advocate for one choice or the other move the class energy forward rather than stagnating in a miasma of “we don’t want to do anything that you suggest”.