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Learning at its Best

How to Make a Class Behave

My class is well-behaved right now. You might not notice it at first glance. At one table, a group of girls are working on their STEM project. It’s a solar oven and they’re frustrated with trying to keep the heat from escaping. A visitor comes in and leaves surprised that English Langauge Learners are engaged in critical thinking. Students are spread out, backs against the wall holding their Chromebooks, writing on their blogs, digital stories or Storybird books.

Another visitor asks me, “How do you make them behave so well?”

“I don’t,” I say.

She looks at me skeptically and I feel like a pompous ass. The truth is that there are moments when I’ve been super-strict, during read-alouds or in direct instruction. But right now . . . it’s not work. I’m not making anyone do anything.

The volume moves through an ebb and flow, but it never gets too loud. Kids are free to choose, free to move, free to approach me with the questions. It should be anarchy, right? It should feel chaotic and scary? It should be “out of control.” And it is out of control. Out of teacher control, at least. But there’s a lot of self-control mixed with a lot of passion.

It turns out kids don’t want to scream when they’re excited about their work. It turns out they don’t want to wander around for no reason when they can sit where they please (even if it is up against the wall). It turns out they don’t want to yell across the classroom when they can sit by a friend. It turns out they can keep a reasonable volume, complete all their work and learn new things when given a ton of freedom.

This isn’t news to me, but this is news to them. Many of them are surprised by how well they can handle freedom.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “How to Make a Class Behave

  1. John, you are so right on this one. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of work upfront to establish a community that will cooperate. This takes courage, too. I’ve experienced it at various levels of success over the years. Much of the outcome depends upon MY attitude and perseverance toward that goal. For some reason, perhaps an unwillingness or lack of knowledge, teachers find it hard to let go of the status quo of rigidity, uber structure and schedule demands to allow students that freedom. Unleashing them toward meaningful learning is about all we can do if they’re going to engage. Lecture, review and test just doesn’t fit most of the kids any longer. The rapid-fire access to information has decreased their interest in the mundane procedures of the past. Happened fast, but that’s how the information age works. Can’t fight ’em, join ’em.

    Posted by Sandy | September 21, 2012, 6:26 pm
  2. Excellent article and excellent reply. Students are more responsible and perform better in a less formal environment. Our EFL teachers in Hungary and Lithuania find that students speak readily, speak fluently when they are out walking with their teachers or at a picnic with them.

    Posted by Jim Witherspoon | September 21, 2012, 6:56 pm
  3. Have you ever been to a conference where adults are asked to listen for long periods of time while someone reports or instructs? They get lost in their phones, walk around and leave the room, start side conversations. They are less annoyed when they sit by their friends.


    They have a similar capacity to handle freedom as adults. They are just usually not in a position to show it.

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg @farrisberg | September 21, 2012, 8:43 pm
  4. Oh, sir, Please! It is just a small typo but: “a solar oven and their frustrated with trying to keep the heat from escaping” Not “their”, please, “they’re”. we have to keep you looking Good! Thanks for the edit! (But you see, a kid might read this post…)

    Posted by Pete Laberge | September 22, 2012, 4:07 am
  5. Yes John, this is great. A wonderful set of observations, as usual.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 22, 2012, 12:40 pm

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