Productive student partnerships

I teach science to seventh and eighth grade students. It seems that every year there is a class period in which learning suffers due to the behaviors of unengaged students. The time spent dealing with these behaviors is time lost; learning doesn’t occur while discipline problems are being dealt with.

In past years, much of my effort to lessen such disruptions was reactive. In essence, I allowed the tone of the class to become negative before responding, and it’s very difficult to change a negative environment into a positive one.

My goal this year has been to create a classroom environment in which students are respectful to each other and work cooperatively in all of my classes. My intention is to create a classroom that is comfortable, safe, and inclusive for all, so each student can perform to his or her maximum capacity.

Self assessment
I began by having every student in each class complete a Learning Preferences Self-assessment to determine how they learn best. I then posted chart papers around the room on which were questions about learning styles. Students moved from chart to chart, writing their names in appropriate spots in response to statements that fit their learning styles, such as I need absolute quiet all the time; I learn the most when I work with a partner; I learn best by working with my hands; etc. This data was interesting and led us to a better understanding of how important it would be to acknowledge and respect differences.

Social Contract
Next, each class contributed to a “Science Class Social Contract,” a document we all could use to help guide our behavior. I was impressed by the level of thought that students put into each item in our final contract. Everyone participated in the creation of potential rules, then we worked together across classes to narrow it to four or five.

When we were ready to vote on whether to commit to the contract, we did so by consensus. All were on board! Students individually signed the contract in front of their classmates. They were proud! The Social Contract is prominently posted in the classroom. It reads:

Yourself and others
The environment and property
Remember the golden rule

Positive Participation
Be involved in class
Acknowledge the rules
Practice self control

Open and Fun Environment
Accept and encourage all ideas!
Ease up!
Tap your creativity!

Turn in your homework on time
Be on time for class
Be responsible for your thoughts, words, and

We often refer to the Contract to clarify why behaviors are not acceptable. All we need to do is check any behavior against the Social Contract and see whether it supports it or tears at it. Of course, creating and referring to the Contract wasn’t enough. Here’s a rundown of the other practices I put into place:

Take a break
We designated a corner of the classroom where students visit when they are getting distracted and need to refocus. We’ve been calling it a “vacation” spot. Students have used this as a place to cool down when they are in an emotionally unsettled state or when they break a rule.

The vacation spot has generated several discussions about self-control and recognizing how to regain it before a negative behavior escalates. These discussions have helped students to understand that “taking a vacation” is not punitive, but rather a proactive way to self-manage. It’s great to see a student get up during class, silently sit by the window for a few moments, and then return to his seat, ready to learn.

Signal for silence
It has always been a challenge to get students’ full attention at the start of class or during an activity. I would ask them to listen or to give me their attention, but this often had no effect other than frustrating me, leading me to raise my voice. Now, I simply raise my hand and calmly wait for silence. I have been amazed at how this simple gesture quickly creates silence in our room and gives me the students’ full attention. No yelling required!

I have modeled much of what I expect of students. Students retain more when it has been demonstrated and reinforced. Since modeling several processes and generating with students why it should be the way I modeled it, they have become much more aware, and the distractions have been reduced. There have also been times when I have needed to remodel an expectation.
I am noticing increased student awareness of the surroundings in general, and as a result, more courteous, respectful behavior.

Social interaction
I introduced Clock Buddies to assign work partners for activities that include social interaction. Students prepare Clock Buddies ahead of time, identifying a different partner for each hour of the day. When it is time to partner up, I simply say, “Find your 10 o’clock partner.”

Since I started using Clock Buddies to pair kids, I have seen and heard far fewer rolling of eyes, negative statements like “Ohhh, man,” and so forth. In fact, what I see now is quite the opposite. When we need to pair up, the kids quickly locate their Clock Buddy sheets and are excited to see with whom they will be working. I see students paired with peers they would not seek out in other. This has had a significant effect on how students view and treat each other.

Feedback shows improvement
I wanted to know in some more objective way whether my work had paid off, so I created an anonymous questionnaire for students in all four classes. After analyzing the results, I found students felt accepted, listened to, and respected, and most felt class was sometimes fun. Most striking were the results of my second period class, the one I initially thought may prove to be my toughest:
• 87% agreed or strongly agreed that their opinions count in class
• 93% felt the behavior challenges occur with far less regularity than at the beginning of the year
• 92% agreed or strongly agreed that the class interacts well.

As I review the student feedback, I can’t help but feel pride and satisfaction. What I am striving to do well is have a positive impact on students’ lives, and these results are concrete evidence that I am succeeding and am an effective educator.

Building on success
In the future, I will refer to the Social Contract when things are going well, so students see that it’s not there just to get us back on track. It’s also there to invite us to climb as high as we can. When we’re headed in the right direction, I will say so.

The students have suggested painting the break corner with a calming and relaxing scene-a beach or mountaintop. This would be a good project for the students to work on themselves, continuing the spirit of self-motivation.

Janet Smith teaches 7th and 8th graders science at Milton Middle School in Charlotte, Vermont.

Published January 2012