Each year, the first week of school is always the most chaotic! Classroom management strategies are always at the forefront of every teacher's mind - I mean, how will you make it through the year without a clear classroom management strategy implemented on day 1?!
Furthermore, with the amount of the curriculum to get through in such a short amount of time, it's easy to get swept up into starting curriculum day 1 and neglect collaborative strategies right off the bat, because, hey, it's a lot easier to just hand out the rules and move on, right?
But curriculum doesn't build relationships.
It can, when it's delivered by a trusted adult who approaches curriculum from a place of relationship building. But in these instances, curriculum comes second...
The key to building meaningful relationships with students lies in allowing them freedom, flexibility, and inherently building mutual trust and compromise into your structure. Although there are multiple ways to do this and this is an ongoing process throughout your time with students, I've found that co-creating as much of the class as possible helps develop that feeling of safety and support, and a level of student control that promotes both trust and accountability.
None of what I'm about to say is new. It's tried and true, but it's easy to skip this step when the pressure of timelines and student outcomes loom.
With junior classes (grades 9/10), typically the amount of co-creation differs from a senior class (11/12). I often let my senior class decide the course outline entirely, particularly in my theatre classes. In this article, I'll cover how I conduct both and how I set up the safety to do this in both my English and my drama classes.
Co-Create Classroom Expectations:
In the first class, I like to review class guidelines and expectations; however, instead of telling students what these *should* look like, we co-create a "contract" that outlines how students can help themselves to find success and how teachers can make sure students have what they need. This is called "My Job/ Your Job." (I got this from my supervisor teacher when I was on practicum, so I can't take credit, nor can I tell you where this originated...)
Essentially, as a class, students formulate a list of all the things they need to do to find success in the course. This often contains things such as "bring a pencil, finish homework, come to class on time, use class time well, etc."
They then make a list of all the things they shouldn't do or things that would lead to them not finding success in the course. This often gets silly, and I encourage you to support that! It will often contain things such as "Not do homework, talk back to the teacher, throw chairs, etc." The silliness is an opportunity to build relationship.
Once the class has gone through both sides of a student's job, review it as a class and fill in anything that you think is missing. Do this conversationally and explain to students why you might be adding something additional to the list.
Finally, repeat this for what students need from you to find success! This often covers things like "give all the materials to do the work, be flexible with deadlines, be understanding, be patient, tell students before you email home, give regular progress reports, etc." Allow students to brainstorm, and then formulate the list. Add what you think is missing, same as above, and explain to students why you are adding this.
Once your list is compiled and agreed upon by both you and the class, you have a contract for classroom management that was created collaboratively! This is now a document you can refer to regularly throughout the course. A student is missing a ton of work? You can be flexible with their deadlines, while also reminding them that they agreed that in order to be successful, they needed to submit their work on time. Having trouble teaching over all the background chatter? Remind students that they agreed to listen to instruction in order to be successful, but that you'll let them chat when it comes to independent work time. It's all about the compromise!
Co-Creation of Curriculum:
This is much trickier and I suggest you reserve this for your senior classes, but if you have a junior class you get good vibes from... try it out!
Start by knowing what kind of content you have to cover. In BC, Canada, we're pretty lucky with our recent curriculum revamp. It's quite open to interpretation and doesn't dictate specific texts that need to be covered. It's more guiding folks through specific skills students need to learn and themes that should be covered, which can be done in a myriad of ways.
Once you know what you have to cover, decide what assignment/unit you're going to include no matter what. For me, in English I will do a novel study and in Drama, I have students complete a theatre inquiry project.
Then, after completing the "My job/Your Job" and co-creating the grading rubric (lesson plan for drama - adaptable to any subject - available on my TpT here!), I will make a list on the board of all the possible units we can cover. In theatre, this looks like a range of in-depth topics we can dive into, such as play devising, production elements, role plays (available in my TpT), script analysis, auditioning, etc. In English, instead of possible units, I will give a selection of plays for our drama unit (both Shakespeare and Modern works), possible novels to cover in our novel study, options for poetry unit projects, and short-fiction selections and unit projects.
Although in English the unit and assessment measure might be the same regardless of chosen text, the autonomy to choose the texts goes a long way! Even better - give students choices on how they demonstrate their learning at the end of the unit! You may choose to only provide 3 options, and realistically, the students might hate all 3, but it saves you from designing 30 separate grade and curriculum appropriate assignments, while also giving students enough choice that they can find an assignment that reflects their skills and interests!
Although students still have a lot of work to cover in a semester, giving them opportunity to explore areas of greater interest will provide greater buy-in and overall student success. Will some students be disappointed with the results of the democratic vote on certain units? Of course! But where there's one unit they dread, there are others they can bear.
This kind of co-creation early in the semester sets a tone of collaboration and equality throughout the rest of the course. Students know, right off the bat, that your overall goal is their success and that you want to support them as they discover what their interests and abilities are. Although this is not a flawless system, and one that's ever evolving, I hope you've found something useful as you approach the start of the year with your next group of students!
Co-Creation, in any context or manner, will make all the difference in building trust and mutual respect and accountability! And there's no simpler form of classroom management than student investment!
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