Student Well-Being Opinion

Empower Students to Be ‘Captains of Communication’

By Starr Sackstein — February 12, 2017 5 min read
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Guest post by Brian Klaft

When I was in college, I was tasked with the challenge of making a seating chart by looking at each student’s abilities and behaviors in order to ensure the best learning environment. Most teachers have had an experience like this in a college methods class, I’m sure.

Years later, I see classroom management and the importance of quality seating arrangements through a much different lens. It is not enough to focus solely on academic ability, or the behavioral mindset of students to generate seating charts that promote effective classroom management.

Every student in our class has strengths. The dilemma is finding the trait in our students that has them become student leaders alongside of their teachers.

Teachers do not always focus on important life skills as we arrange our classrooms. The best way I have found to organize groups is to focus on the communication skills of my students. Communication is necessary in all aspects of our lives, and at all ages and developmental stages. Putting your effective communicators in charge of student groups is a way to use a life skill to your advantage.

In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards were released. Since that time, science teachers have been adapting to the needed pedagogy shift that allow proper NGSS implementation. The focus on claim, evidence, and reasoning (CER) brings challenges to the classroom which is now present in most curricular areas since CER is common in many different academic subjects.

One of the largest impacts CER brings is how a teacher effectively meets with a group of students, yet still monitors and guides the other groups in their class. I’ve had 2-4 minute chats with a group as they examine a phenomena. It is easy to lose sight of the other groups during collaboration periods.

To attempt to handle this issue I thought back to my college days and how to form student groups. Instead of building groups around my strongest science learners, I began to build groups around my best communicators. I call them my table captains. Their jobs are to keep the flow of activity, or discussion, moving forward during class sessions. In essence, they are my “co-teachers.” Since implemeting this strategy in the fall, I have been floored by the different ways this strategy has impacted my classroom. The most notable impact was in student engagement.

When groups are constructed around strong student communicators, student engagement increased. My class now has the ability to work bell to bell, to the point that my students often lose track of time due to their engagement. I have heard “time flew today” on more than one occasion. Time flies when learning is deep. Increased engagement was not the only benefit of having table captains.

A good communicator has a way of making a group safe to engage in, which leads to more academic risk taking, which leads to deeper questioning and understanding of science phenomena. Questioning and understanding phenomena is the goal and communication is the key.

My students have a safe zone through which they can take part in class in a more active way. They are not just going deeper due to NGSS and its three dimensions, but also do to the safe dynamic of the group. Having a class designed on safety of communication has also resulted in fewer students on the periphery that only engage under teacher supervision.

This shift has resulted in classes working from bell to bell with high levels of student engagement. These aspects have been seen as I review video of class sessions. Seeing the increased engagement has reinforced that group captains is a viable method to structure student seating arrangements.

A second benefit is seen within the captains themselves. Many of my captains are not my most knowledgeable science students. These students have often taken a more passive attitude due to their self perceived lack of background knowledge. I told my captains to “just lead and communicate with your group; your work together will bring everyone to a high degree of understanding.”

The captains are growing as much as the other group members. Their growth is in science processing, content knowledge, and academic confidence is measureable. Captains have commented to me that they are now considering a path in a science/STEM field because they have more confidence in what they bring to a science class. This leads to a third benefit.

My class has a culture where students, of all abilities and knowledge levels, want to take leadership in science class. I had a student ask me, “Can I be a captain next quarter? I think I would do a great job with my peers.” My students see how their captains have grown and want to experience that to make themselves better. To me the sign of a good strategy is when students are asking to take part in it.

This year my captains have been male and female, of varying racial demographics, English Language Learners, and IEP students. There is only one requirement to be a captain in my classroom; the ability to communicate.

There are some improvements to make in the group captain process. I need to meet with captains as a group and individually to get their feedback and help them with their growth as leaders. I need captain’s input to refine the process. Another improvement will take place on the second day of the year. I will give all students job descriptions for the different roles in class. If I spell out the expectations of each role I will have students who are more intentional in their actions. It will not matter if they are a captain or team member, knowing their current role, or a role they hope to achieve, will benefit group interactions.

Even though there is some tweaking to be done with this strategy one thing is for sure, putting my strongest communicators in leadership roles has made my classroom higher functioning. I see it in their conversations, in their collaborative work, self written work, and assessments. It has helped all students grow in many ways. Give it a try the next time you rearrange your class. It won’t take long for you to see the positive results.

All teachers know the importance of seating arrangements. Good classroom managers have key traits they focus on as they set up their room. What is your key trait? Where do you put communication skills in your hierarchy of importance of student leadership skills?

Brian Klaft is in his 26th year of teaching middle school. He currently is teaching at Francis Granger Middle School, part of Indian Prairie District 204, in Aurora, Ill. He has also taught in Chicago Public Schools and South Berwyn District 100. Brian has been part of IPSD's science curriculum team for the past four years. During that time he has worked with other science colleagues to align the NGSS standards to district curriculum. This past fall Brian became a NSTA curator. He will be overseeing middle school waves and electromagnetic radiation as part of NSTA's physics curator team.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.