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Today’s elementary classroom is an active community. This is a great thing as kids are active learners; however, for teachers, this activity can be overwhelming. It is important to think about organizing your activity to make it through the year successfully.  Teaching expectations at the beginning of the year will increase engagement all year long.

Interruptions: When students are working that time is golden.  It can be collaboration, research, testing, reading or any number of things involving engagement in your classroom.  However, there are three things that can bring that engagement to a sudden halt, interruptions!

“Ring, ring!” All the students suddenly turn towards the phone. “The phone is ringing!” shouts out helpful student A. As if being an adult you are unaware of the cause of a sudden ring. This causes all attention to now be diverted to you as you cross the room. Who has won the lottery and gets to leave the room? The phone system can divert learning faster than anything in the classroom.

“Please excuse the interruption, but we need…” you can insert a million things into this one from a single student to a group of students to information for part or all of the masses. The intercom causes attention to be diverted from the task to everyone now quietly whispering because this might not apply to them, but we certainly want to know what is happening.

This last interruption often just makes a wave through the room, starting slowly until all are disengaged.  Surprise! A random student or adult walks into the classroom to…again, a million reasons. They may need help, an item, be dropping something off for the class, or bring by a celebratory cupcake. Again we pull that attention from the task to the human in the room and all learning is paused.

Interruptions in the elementary classroom happen more often than not. It is important to have a system for how you react and what students should do in each case.  You need to explicitly teach students how to respond to these interruptions.  It is also helpful to have a place on your desk (or even better outside the classroom) where all deliveries can be quickly placed. Be sure to keep sticky notes and pens by the phone to jot information and move right back to teaching. Also, have a system for redirecting students back to work. If you can calmly and quickly respond to and remove the interruption, you can redirect learning with minimal time lost.

Apps: Using technology brings so many wonderful resources and opportunities into the classroom, but you need a plan to keep engagement occurring. Our kids love apps. This is their world. And many students have used apps at home and in other classrooms.  So they always have ideas and suggestions.  “Can we use…insert app of the week?” or my least favorite, “I’m done now can I play…?” Apps allow students to receive immediate feedback and move through activities at their own pace. But for educators that the virtual world can be a management issue pulling student engagement in directions that do not align with learning.

Of course in today’s classroom teacher engagement is a priority.  You must be up and moving, roaming to see what is happening.  There are also some options to help.  Apple Classroom is one solution to get your eyes in their world. This resource allows you to see each student’s device as well as lock it down when their attention needs to be redirected.ClassHub is another solution.  It works with most student devices including Chromebooks, iPads, iPhones, Surface Pros, Mac and Windows computers. There are other options, but if you are using devices in the classroom you must be actively involved in student learning.  Work with your tech department to find something that allows you to see all student screens and get into those apps.

Little Minds: “Can I go see the nurse? Guess what my….did?! This weekend we are going to…!” Elementary students have a whole world outside of our classrooms. They bring to school their ailments (real or imagined), stories, experiences, disappointments, and hopes. They want to share these with you and often times at the most inappropriate or inopportune times.  But connecting with students and having empathy for their concerns, big and small, is what develops a classroom community.

These little things are important to find a way to structure them into your classroom.  Start or end your day with a sharing time. Allow student time to share with small or large groups their personal thoughts. When students known there will be time to talk you can save learning time. Provide a mailbox for sharing.  Students can send you “mail” that celebrates home successes, shared important news and gives you their concerns.  If they know you are reading this mail it can be a valuable tool to not only increase engagement but to make connections which will enhance their learning.

Walking into elementary classrooms today draws you into a hub of activity. Students are discussing and creating and actively involved in their learning. Facilitating all of this learning is a huge responsibility. Be sure to reflect on the systems you have working in your classroom so far this year. What goes well? Why? What causes you the most stress? What can you change to make this system work better?  Teach students about the structure of your classroom and enjoy the learning that comes from this management.


Lori Rice is a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary in Wamego, Kansas, who has taught K-2 reading...

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