About Dana Dooley

Dana Dooley teaches high school AP Government, Government & Economics, and Yearbook near Sacramento, Calif. As a former journalist and graduate student, Dooley is a super policy nerd and fascinated with political theory. She's won some teacher awards, and she loves her students immensely as family.

We all know that the best way to manage the classroom is to create a positive, structured environment. That’s an adorable concept — but it is downright difficult to figure out what the heck that positive, structured environment ought to constitute. We learn a handful of suggestions in Teacher School; but in practice, these suggestions often feel like shoving a round peg into a square hole.

Last week, I wrote about why you need a classroom mission statement — but I left out one crucial reason: a mission statement is important because it becomes the foundation upon which all classroom practice is predicated. In other words, your mission statement tells you how to structure that positive environment for your students.

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What do I mean? Your mission statement already articulates the goals of your class, as well as the mechanisms by which to achieve those goals. For example, my statement describes my classroom as “a loving, welcoming, purposeful space where we work intentionally and efficiently toward becoming knowledgeable, efficacious citizens empowered to effect change.” I specifically state that we work intentionally and efficiently. These are the magic words! Every routine and policy I institute, then, needs to be there for a specific, articulated, reflected-upon reason (“intentional”), and will work us toward cutting down on fluff-time in class so that we are constantly working (“efficient”).

My classroom’s routines focus on intention and efficiency — but it wasn’t easy getting there. Here is what I have landed on (and continue to refine) after years of trial-and-error with my high school seniors:

During passing period, students walk into music playing in the room, and a warm-up being projected on the board. They are expected to take out their notebooks and begin answering the warm-up question(s) quietly and independently before the bell rings. As soon as the bell rings, I immediately turn off the music and say, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for taking out your notebooks and starting in on today’s warm-up.” The statement sometimes functions as a kind reminder more than it is an observation — but nevertheless, most students are quietly working within the first few seconds of class. The music signals a welcoming space for students, but the warm-up shows them that we do not waste time. Learning starts immediately!

We then share out answers/ideas from the warm-up, using that to direct attention to the focus question and the agenda for the day, written on the board. Having a question establishes purpose and relevance for the day’s learning, and an agenda shows how we are getting there. I instruct students to write down the focus question — and at the end of class, I encourage students to answer it. This helps them self-assess whether or not they got the “big idea” from class that day, and to see how the material relates to their lives. Sometimes my warm-up is the day’s focus question, so students are able to see what they can add to their initial answer at the end of class. Directly saying the focus question gives us a common goal for the day, which helps us stay efficient and intentional (and helps hold me accountable!).

To that end, I seek to build in an intentional closer to my lesson. This is often a revisitation of the focus question. Sometimes, though, that focus question lends itself to a position paragraph, which I will ask the students to write on a half-sheet and turn in on their way out. Sometimes I will ask students to do a quick-response “ticket out the door,” which I will then tally up their responses, crunch some data, and share out results to start class the next morning. It can even be a simple formative assessment where students hold up fingers to answer a question quickly. Taking time to close the lesson reminds students what they learned and why they learned it, and it provides a nice bow to your well-executed knowledge present.

Students sit at collaborative tables of four, and are assigned a color in their group (red, blue, green, or yellow). I use these colors to jigsaw activities and build accountability. For example, students recently analyzed some of Trump’s executive orders. Their color determined which executive order they were to read and annotate, and then each summarized their order to the rest of his/her group. I also use the colors to turn in assignments, such as asking all the green people to collect their table’s work and walk it to their period’s turn-in basket. Groups show students that the knowledge in class is not bestowed by the teacher, but rather derived from the group. We are a collaborative family who help each other out, and all are expected to contribute. I change the seating chart every few weeks, encouraging students to meet new people in the class and create a deeper sense of family.

I minimize homework — in part by cutting out what I would consider “busy work.” After all, that would run contradictory to being intentional and effective! I seek to have a clear, reflected-on reason why I am asking students to allocate their outside-of-class time to a specific task, and that each homework I do assign works us toward becoming “knowledgeable, efficacious citizens.” I wrote more on this subject here.

Now, for the big distractions…

Bathroom breaks? After a lot of reflection this year, I moved away from big bathroom passes to instead a clipboard sign-out system. I teach seniors, so I tell them that I will trust them to know when they have to go to the restroom, and that of course they are held responsible for anything they may miss in class while out — thus I do not limit how many times they can go during an academic term. Instead, they must first ask if they can go (and I can ask them to wait until a more opportune time), then they sign out with their name and time on a clipboard hanging by the door, subsequently signing back in when they return. I also use this clipboard system for any reason they may leave the classroom, such as visiting a counselor, grabbing something from the library, etc. The students tell me they appreciate not having to carry around a big pass or do a potty-dance while they sit through class — and I have a tool that lets me know where everyone is for how long at all times.

Big distraction #2: cell phones. Boy, this was a doozie. I realized that if I forced cell phones to be stashed away at all times, students would try to do the secret crotch-check. I felt like this violated trust and respect because they were trying to be sneaky. I didn’t want to force them to turn in their phones using a repurposed calculator holder, though, because I felt like that, too, violated trust and respect — that it conveyed to them that I couldn’t trust them. So after a lot of trial and error, I settled on my policy: I encourage cell phones to be out on students’ desks, but flipped upside down. This way a screen notification won’t distract them, I see the phone at all times, and they feel like they have their safety blanket next to them. Furthermore, this lets me use phones easily as educational tools, asking students to look up information or complete a google form or play Kahoot. If a student finishes a task early, it’s OK to check their phone — as long as it is flipped back once we transition to something else. Establishing this respect (again, with high school seniors) has been quite a huge success in classroom management.

Of course the physical environment of your space needs to support any routines you set up — otherwise your routines lack reinforcement. I started on this by sharing that I post a focus question and agenda on the board… but we will discuss this more intentionally next week, so stay tuned!

What routines have you established that tend to work well? What has failed? As teachers, we are all different. Obviously, please don’t think I’m telling you what to do. This stuff happens to be what works for my personality, students, and classroom. I’m hoping to share my routines for the purpose of starting a crowdsourced discussion wherein we can all contribute to what works for each of us. The best learning emerges from discussion, so please, please, please don’t let this conversation end with me. Comment below, and let’s synthesize our collective knowledge!

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