A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.
I model a lot of what I do on the teachers that came before me, the ones that stood out in the course of my schooling. I mused on my various math teachers a couple years ago and tried to think about what made the good ones stand out. It has been a focus of the way I manage my classroom to bring a family atmosphere to the room, to make students look forward to walking in the door, and taking advantage of all the increased productivity that provides.
Where It Was
You can't really start with explicit goals about classroom culture, especially when you're new. You spend so much of your time the first couple of years wrapping your head around the teaching aspects that some classroom management is a second priority, if not lower. At the end of the school year you'd just like to be able to say that students generally do things you ask and seem to know a bit more than they did before.
I did notice that it is possible to not enjoy teaching a particular class. I've had groups where consistently there wasn't much noise unless I was the one talking. Students rarely spoke with one another and the minutes just dragged. If it felt boring for me to teach, what must it be like on the other side?
To improve student communication, I started playing around with desk arrangements. This was motivated by a desire to improve how students worked together and a need to accommodate growing class sizes.
Where It Is
I'll skip all the variations, but after a few years I settled on something that worked reliably. Tables that sat six people, each area with its own screen. It can hold 36 kids really comfortably, you'd be surprised.
The goal is to reduce the size of the room. Yes there might 30+ kids in here, but any given student gets to spend their time focusing on five others. These arrangements start out random and eventually students get input about who they're with. By the end of the year it can be hard to tear them apart from their tables.
Not every group becomes the best of friends, but nearly all of them become productive working units throughout the school year. When a student has questions, I'll catch them whispering to their neighbor about it first. When it's time for classwork, the questions are flying across the table. When it's time for a project, you really see them come together like a family, even if they aren't working with explicit partners. I have a soft spot for kids flinging "please" and "thank you" as they share supplies, jamming out to whatever pop music I have playing.
I encourage their bonding in a number of ways. Central to that is friendly competition through a little chart I operate on the board.
It's a game with no rules that has a million rules. Some groups get REALLY into this competition, others are a little less concerned. In all cases it's a small way of encouraging kids to work together for a common goal, even if that common goal is a bunch of made up points. A couple of times I've overheard Pre-Cal students strategize how they're going to beat the system in Calculus.
This desire for group identity comes from my 6th grade math teacher, who assigned us teams throughout the school year, complete with jobs and an in-class economy (you were paid a regular salary and could buy stuff from a store). While its tough to remember how well some of these groups worked, we were 11 after all, the concept was fun. That idea is one of many reasons I loved his math class. Throughout the year many students embrace classmates that ordinarily they'd probably never talk to.
As students work I make a point to visit each group, however briefly. Each takes up its own identity, each has its own little jokes, and I think it is important to allow them a private audience with me. They use these audiences as opportunities to ask questions, get feedback, or just talk about something random. I feel this face time is the most important and something that stuck with me in school. There were teachers who were personable and would take a minute to talk with kids informally, and there were others who were all business all the time, the ones you couldn't be sure knew your name. I felt the ones who demonstrated that there could be time for informal chats were the ones who got the most production out of their rooms. It's not about making them like me, but making them like their learning environment. It brings out the risk taker in them. Kids aren't afraid to be wrong around me.
Where It Is Going
The six-person dinner table style has been the most efficient use of my class space for years now. While there are classroom management challenges that come with arranging kids this way, the benefits have been more than worth it. The grouping encourages me to be efficient with my time at the podium and to give students as much time as possible to get to work. Student conversations are lively and friendly. I field a lot of questions, but a lot fewer than I would if they were sitting in rows. Kids in rows tend to look for you first. Kids situated around their own dinner table and more likely to spend several minutes dealing with issues themselves, either eliminating the need for me or saving me as a last resort. It also MUCH easier to field repeated questions when you can talk to a small cluster at once.
Next year I am keeping this methodology but with some more flexible furniture. I'll fill in some details later, but now I have some purpose built tables on wheels that allow for more dynamic arrangements. I will have smaller classes (some as low as 15) next year that will allow us to go from multiple dinner tables to one giant family gathering.
Kids are more willing to take risks when they are comfortable. Giving them a small little family to work with has improved the comfort level for so many of them. It's easy to feel lost in giant classes. Reducing the number of people you have to focus on and arranging everyone such that it's simple to strike up a conversation gets even the quietist kids talking.
Math class doesn't need to be an individual experience. Giving students the opportunity for "math with friends" has paid tremendous dividends for me over the years. Some groups have taken the family concept to some amazing extremes. I have had instances of groups refusing to be separated, buying each other Secret Santa presents, and throwing their own private end of the year parties. And in some cases these were kids who didn't know each other well or at all at the beginning of the year. In fact, they were assigned that table at random and got 4 or 5 best friends out of the deal.
This method of grouping may not be feasible with your arrangement, but find a way to improve student to student communication. Encourage it as part of your normal procedures. You need to be a regular presence, but you don't always have to be the star of the show. Students, even the difficult ones, are interested in learning something new in math class. Raising the comfort level is an excellent way to foster that urge.