As far as I can see, if the students are engaged in meaningful, sense-making learning experiences, a good classroom experience just happens.
I just got a new Teaching Tips from Coach G today, where he provides a couple of suggestions that I had learned previously, but they are worth repeating, since I'm not, unfortunately, practicing them yet. In a tip called Replacing Classroom Chaos with Control, he recommends using "data" to identify problems that have already arisen. This is data from a coach or peer who observes your classroom, or from a video.
Among the solutions are:
- Always have some easily understood, but somewhat time-consuming, activity on the board when students come in, so you have time for taking attendance and whatever has to be done in the beginning. Don't give students a chance to get going on something else, but give them the opportunity to be quiet with math for a few minutes in the beginning of class, to get focused on what will be happening during the hour.
- Although I want students to learn by doing, in cooperative learning groups, there is still a need for up-front, whole class teaching. I discovered during student teaching that it is extremely important to face the class as much as possible, keeping your eyes moving. That means using overheads, document cameras, or pre-prepared slides or activities on an Electronic White Board, so you don't have your back to the class while you're writing things.
- On the other hand, if things are pre-prepared, be sure to give students enough time to read and take notes from what is there. My student teaching master teacher would display on the white board, and then write on the overhead as he was talking about it - although that makes the students look two different places at once.
- Equity sticks or cards, one for each student, color-coded by class, so you can keep track of them. Students know that they will be called on. If you replace the cards at the back of the pack, then everyone knows they will be called on. On the other hand, they also figure they won't be called on again. So occasionally shuffle the cards, so students get called on more than once. Cards are great, but I found them clumsy to work with, so popsicle-sticks might be a better solution.
- I expect that group boxes of materials are common-place in elementary school, but I think they would be great in high school, too, so you don't have to take time handing out rulers, markers, scissors, etc. to groups. I've bought my boxes, but not having a class, I haven't gotten around to equipping them.
- My master teacher in preteaching discovered that we (at least I) kept looking for my markers, equity sticks or whatever, so she gave us all a simple canvas tool belt filled with supplies as a getting started gift. It has not been in use yet, but Coach G suggested the same thing. Don't waste time looking for stuff during class. Make sure that everything you will need is available - either in group boxes or your tool belt, or somewhere else front and center.
- Seat students in primarily in cooperative learning groups, but angle the groups so that everyone can see up front. I've observed classes with groups, where some kids had their backs to the board. Either they had to turn around to look at the board (strain on necks) or they just looked in front of them, and missed things. It might be possible to work out a way to quickly move the desks into "looking front" position, and then back to groups.
- As Coach G suggests, teach only long enough that you know that at least one person in each group "gets it." Then let the groups figure out themselves how to make sense of it all. And be sure to hold every member of the group responsible for understanding, so the group ensures that everyone gets it.
- Of course, while the students are learning in groups, you are working the classroom, trying to position yourself so that you still have an eye on everyone while you work with a group, asking questions, giving tips or leads, but not giving the answer! You have to be ready to move on quickly if need arises.
- Some teachers change the groups regularly, so the class gets to know each other - or to avoid conflicts arising in groups. It seems to me that Groups that function well together and learns well should be able to stay together. Disfunctional groups may need help to learn to work together. It takes time to learn to cooperate effectively.