Some classrooms run smoothly; others do not. The ones that run smoothly do not all share the same rules, procedures, or lesson plans, but they do share a spirit of working together collectively toward a common goal. As a teacher for a quarter of a century, I have experienced my share of successes and failures creating a collaborative classroom, and I have found that using some specific strategies can facilitate the process. I believe a culture of collaboration can be achieved in every classroom by following this blueprint for success:
Make students feel welcome.
• Design your classroom layout to be welcoming, engaging, and student-oriented. Inviting quotes and displays of student work can make your room seem homey without investing a lot of effort on your part. Carefully consider placement of furniture to ensure everyone has a clear visual path to the board and relevant displays. Make materials easily accessible and be sure it’s convenient for students to put their materials away appropriately. Invite students to change a daily whiteboard with an inspirational quote, and give students a space for random doodlings and sayings. In my classroom, a small whiteboard spent several weeks this year as an incubator for student-shared vegetable puns. (Our favorite? “Lettuce romaine calm. Help will turnip soon.”)
• Meet students at the door, every day, every class period. Make eye contact with all of your students, shake their hands, and call them by name. When students have been absent, say, “Welcome back.” If you have an assignment to pass out for the warm-up that day, hand it to students as they walk in. A person-to-person, eye-to-eye connection starts class on a positive note.
Enlist parental support.
• Email or call parents with positive messages—before there is a problem. When a student does particularly well on an assignment, shoot an email home. When a difficult child has a better than average day, make a phone call to share the good news. Establishing a positive relationship early on sets you up to get unconditional support from family members if there ever is an issue with a student.
Put students in charge.
• Empower students with leadership roles in your classroom. For example, in a classroom exercise that I based off the Capturing Kids Hearts model, students share a positive thought from their own lives for a few minutes at the beginning of class each day. A student is in charge of leading “Good News” each week. Even shy students enjoy leading as they call on classmates and provide a short feedback or follow-up. It is also a fantastic opportunity for students to experience a leadership role. After leading, students often feel empowered to step up in the classroom, teaching a portion of the lesson and sharing their knowledge with classmates.
• Let students take ownership of obvious classroom jobs—passing out papers, collecting books, straightening the computer cart cords, or even taking attendance or writing on the board. These tasks give students a feeling of belonging and being needed, which translates into feeling like a part of the classroom community.
• Designate a student or two in each class to take charge when you are absent. Ask him or her to control behaviors, follow classroom procedures, and keep the ball rolling in your absence.
Offer students choices.
• Give students choices as simple as submitting a card with their seating preferences, or as complex as choosing from a tiered lesson with different options for demonstrating mastery. All of these choices equate to students feeling like they have some control.
Break the mold with varied and unique lesson plans.
• Even though routines are important, remember that you as well as your students can get into a rut if the lesson and assignment pattern are always the same. Change things up occasionally. For example, change how students are linked with a partner—instead of working with their elbow partners, ask students to find someone who is wearing the same color shirt. Review using an online quiz format like Kahoot instead of a written study guide. Anything that breaks the mold will create excitement in your classroom.
Be predictable. (Yes, I realize I just told you to be varied.)
• Implementing a predictable classroom schedule gives students a sense of comfort in knowing what to expect. It also creates a routine and rhythm students can follow every day without getting off task and wondering what is going to happen next. Simple things like having your daily learning target and lesson activities on the board can relieve the anxiety students often feel about class. Students ought to have a clear understanding of what they should do upon entering the classroom, what is expected when they are working on computers, or how they are to put away materials/textbooks.
• Maintain consistent behavior expectations for all students, all the time. Don’t make students wonder what is allowed and what is not.
• Breaking the mold while also being predictable—these do not have to be contradictory activities. Basic expectations should apply regardless of the activity, and maintaining these consistent expectations will allow you to be spontaneous and change things up. Your students will be well-prepped for change if they understand that the basics never change.