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Cultivating Community (and Efficiency!) With Classroom Jobs

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If I could visit my earlier teacher self, I’d show up at the moment when classes were transitioning.

I’d shake my head as I saw my former self running around collecting papers, replacing every marker cap, straightening desks, scribbling the next class’s objectives on the board. As the next class streamed in, I’d whisper to her, “While you’re passing back graded work and recording classroom library books, Dina is worrying about her hospitalized mother and Luis has an important question to ask.”

I might even probe further: “Do you think students are incapable of helping run this community?”

Then I’d share what I know now: Create meaningful jobs for students. Share leadership of the classroom with them.

In general, students are capable of doing much more than we allow them to. Sometimes teachers need to step back. We need to hand responsibilities to our students, freeing ourselves to use our time and attention during class more effectively. Student jobs offer leadership opportunities while reinforcing the values of responsibility and community service in an immediate, authentic way.

Application Process

Here’s how it works:

In the first week of school, I post job descriptions and ask students to review them on a "gallery walk" in my classroom. The theme of the first unit in my English class is community, an idea we explore not only by looking at texts but also by considering students’ lives and our own classroom. So, during their gallery walk, students look at each of six job descriptions and answer the following questions for each one:

• How would this job benefit the classroom community?

• What would it take to do this job well (skills, attitude, etc.)?

• Is this job appealing to me? Why?

Then students share their responses and questions, and I distribute job applications. I encourage students to complete an application for homework—although an alternative assignment is available for those who don’t want to apply.

The application is simple, asking students why they are interested in the job and what makes them good candidates for the position.

I rotate the jobs every marking period, so most students can have a job at some point in the year. I also offer a few points of extra credit (up to three, depending on how demanding the job ends up being), just for the marking period when they serve in the role. This is to balance out any class they may have time lost while doing their job. (And it’s the only extra credit I offer in my class.)

So what sort of “jobs” are these, anyway? Here’s a sample:

Teacher’s Assistant: The TA is my go-to person for passing out and collecting papers: handouts, student work, forms, etc. This student also saves extra copies of handouts in the class folder for absent students to pick up when they return. The assistant needs to be focused and fast on his or her feet, able to distribute and collect papers quickly. The TA also needs to be someone who is reasonably mature in dealing with other students’ work. (For example, when collecting homework, the TA should not share an observation that another student has sloppy handwriting.)

Supply Manager: The supply manager manages inventory of all classroom supplies, distributing them and collecting them as needed: markers, rulers, construction paper, sticky notes, colored pencils, note cards, etc. Reusable materials like markers or glue sticks require special attention: The supply manager ensures they are all returned, stored, and maintained in good condition. The supply manager needs to know the inventory well in order to identify any missing materials during collection.

Director of Maintenance: The DM has oversight of the physical space, taking care of ongoing tasks like watering plants, straightening notebooks on the class shelf, and wiping down desks with Lysol wipes every week or so. The DM is not in charge of cleaning up other students’ personal space; however, this student has the very important role of dismissing students, one table at a time, when the surface and space underneath them are tidy. The DM also watches to see that students push in their chairs as they go. (If a student forgets to push in the chair, the DM can dismiss that student last the following day). There’s a lot of power in this job, and I love putting it in the hands of students. As long as I end class a minute or two early to allow this process to take place, there is no need for me to tidy during every transition.

Librarian: The librarian keeps the classroom library organized and neat, with books in their proper bins, categorized by genre. In theory, the librarian keeps track of books students check out of the classroom library. This is easy to do for text books or whole class novel studies, when books are numbered and students check them out and return them pretty much in lock step. I have to admit that tracking independent reading is difficult—the librarians and I have tried a number of systems, each with its flaws. This year, in a technological leap forward, we’ve bar-coded all the books in classrooms, and English teachers at my school may (fingers crossed) be receiving real library scanners! If so, I will allow my classroom librarian to use the scanner. Meanwhile, we’re struggling to keep good paper records of outgoing and incoming books. (I encourage teachers with great systems to share in the comments section.)

Griot: The term griot originates from West Africa and refers to the traditional role of a storyteller or historian who is known for vocal expertise. I’ve loosely borrowed this term for the classroom to create a role that involves important speaking tasks. For example, I hold a daily class meeting, and the griot officially begins the meeting with the words, “The meeting is now in session,” and then shares the agenda aloud. You can get really creative in customizing the tasks of this role for a particular class or student. The griot could be responsible for verbally summarizing the key points of the class period, for example. Sometimes I’ve met with a griot to carve out class time for real storytelling. More than anything, I like bringing students’ voices into the infrastructure of the class and this job helps facilitate that.

Scribe: This highly customizable role calls on a student to take on writing tasks that can help serve the classroom in any way. He or she can keep notes for absent students in a special class notebook or on an iPad. On some days, the Scribe keeps track of how often each member of the class participates on a clipboard—we use this to collect data that we can reflect on together. The Scribe also creates occasional posters or signs for the classroom.

Of course, students with jobs need support to be able to fulfill their roles well. I need to provide time for them to actually do their jobs, as well as occasional reminders, check-ins, and praise about how they are doing. I also set aside time to reflect with them on ways to work even smarter. Since it takes a little time for teachers to adjust to the role of facilitating specific jobs for students (rather than doing these tasks themselves), I recommend starting with two or three key jobs and adding more once you and the students find the new rhythm.

It all comes back to the theme of my first unit: community. My classroom is a healthier community because students feel like they play valuable roles. It is a community that they help to own and manage. Meanwhile, by giving up control of some aspects of my classroom through student jobs, I can focus on my own job: to facilitate learning. No more chasing marker caps!

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