As class teachers, we are sometimes assigned a class with sweet, accepting, open-minded individuals and sometimes the class is a complete opposite. This article describes my ongoing experience as a class teacher of a challenging class. It includes some exercises I used as baby-steps towards our simple goal: feeling good at school.
Key words: class atmosphere, groups, physical activity.
Last year in September, I was thrilled to accept a class of only fifteen students under my wing. I did notice that out of fifteen there were five talented students, two students with special needs, one immigrant from Bosnia and one Romani student but totally optimistic, I focused on all the plans I had for our four years together. What could go wrong? I was an experienced teacher, after all. Boy, was I wrong.
After numerous fights over nothing between students and my countless lectures and individual conversations with them I remembered Einstein who said that it’s insane doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That’s why I decided on a different approach. The priority became good class atmosphere and acceptance of all individuals.
The process of improving class atmosphere
I began by reading many books giving advice on how to encourage students to cooperate, not compete. I attended workshops, listened to webinars. All of them had something in common – use movement, outside and fun activities of all sorts to excite an interest and cooperation among students.
Humour and/or music have a great effect on emotional state of our students. But movement affects emotions the most. Physical activities that focus on connecting class members result in:
- the much needed brain rest,
- improved ability to communicate and understand subject matter,
- possibility to solve problems and higher thought processes,
- laughing and having fun,
- better motivation and discipline,
- higher interest for participation during lessons,
- better relationships and true interest in each other,
- feeling of belonging,
- -mproved self-confidence (Prgić, 2018).
While educating myself on bettering class atmosphere I gained many ideas and I will present a few we put into practice that turned out really well.
1. Random groups
In English classes students communicate with each other a lot. These pairs and groups tend to be formed according to the sitting arrangement in the classroom or students’ wishes.
I decided to use stones with students’ names on them to draw pairs or groups. During holidays students got a home assignment to find a pebble or a stone that they like and write their name on it. They had to discuss their good qualities with their families, pick one and write it on the stone. The adjective had to begin with the same letter as their name. Now whenever we do some pair or group activity, I or one of the students use the stones to make groups. Of course, also other objects like table tennis balls, pieces of paper or anything else may be used. I prefer sustainable living, so I picked stones.
We used one class period for a brisk morning walk. At our schoo
l each class has two class teachers: one does all class-related tasks and the other one steps in when the first one is absent. So in this activity both of us were present. First, we drew pairs (the teachers also got partners for this). Then we did a “walk-and-talk” activity. During the time we were walking, we were allowed to talk only to our partner. The goal was to get to know him/her really well. We discussed our likes and dislikes, abilities and our wishes for the future. In addition, we had to make our partner laugh by telling a joke (for the brain to remember information better) and find something that we have in common.
After we returned to school, each of us decorated a paper puzzle in such a way that it represented our partner we had talked to. Secondly, the puzzle contained one half of what was in common to both students. For example, if they both liked basketball, one of them drew half of a basket and a half of a ball and his partner drew the second halves. Then we decorated our classroom with these pieces of art to be reminded every day how unique every one of us is on the one hand and that we also have common points on the other.
3. Group pre-test revision
3.a Using phones
At our school, students are forbidden to use mobile phones. In return, we provide them with a variety of board games to play while waiting for the classes to begin in the morning. This way, they spend time communicating to each other.
But it’s common knowledge that nowadays students use phones for so many purposes and are really good at that. So we decided to revise for a history test together. Each of them picked a topic that they found especially fun/interesting/challenging. Then they wrote a summary and three to five questions on the topic at the end. They recorded the text and sent it to their partner. This way they heard the topic from their partner’s perspective.
It’s easier to do things we don’t like if we combine them with things we like doing. (Shetty, 2020). Since learning usually isn’t one of the top five priorities for students I asked them what can listening to the recording be combined with. They suggested taking a walk, playing computer games, playing with pets or drawing.
3.b Popcorn (exercise found in Prgić, 2018)
During our class period we always dedicate some time to revising for different subjects. One of the exercises students absolutely love is “popcorn”. The first few times they were a little reluctant to play it, but now they find it fun. When popcorn is baked, we never know which grain of corn will jump next. We play the activity in the same way.
All participants sit down (preferably in a circle, so that they see each other). Randomly they stand up and say a piece of information – related to the topic we are currently revising, of course. We started by revising verbs in English, for example: the first student stood up and said: ”to play – igrati”, then the second stood up and said: ”to write – pisati”, ets. Then we spread this activity to Geography and Science.
4. Physical activity
Physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, which has positive effects on impulse control, ability to concentrate, social and test-taking anxiety (Amen, 2016, pg. 175). That is why I include many physical activities into my English lessons as well as class periods. In the following paragraph there are some that we tested and students enjoyed:
Estimate and measure
We carried out this activity outside. First, we collected materials in the nearby woods, then we used them for the exercises. In two groups students did four challenges – in each one they had to estimate how successfully they would carry it out. After that they had a minute to discuss the tactics for a better result. The challenges were the following:
- How many leaves and cones can a group carry from point A to point B in 3 minutes?
- How fast can they come from point A to point B? In these two activities they were tied together at their knees (because they are “tied together” as a class as well)
- What’s the length of a line they can make in three minutes if they carry leaves and pines one by one from point A to point B?
In this activity only one member at a time was allowed to move.
First, they saw the challenges as a competition. While doing the second exercise they realized they competed with their own result. After that, they effectively used the time for discussion on how to do the activity more successfully.
Here are the results:
While evaluating the activity we reached the conclusion that tasks were completed more successfully when they decided on how to carry them out. That’s how we projected this finding onto the situation in our class. We are more successful and can put up with everyone better (even those that don’t feel much affection for each other) when we listen to each other, form rules together and don’t try to bend them.
I’ve been teaching as described above since we returned to school in February after homeschooling, which in Slovenia lasted for four consecutive months. I started noticing differences only in September and October. Students are calmer, don’t argue as much and more often try solving their differences among themselves. Even other teachers who teach this class noticed the changed atmosphere.
Trying to create a positive atmosphere is never a finished task. In my opinion, being consistent, imaginative, prepared to learn and taking time for students helps a lot.
So when you get a challenging class, you should baby-step. Breathe. Learn from your mistakes. Try again. When it is hard, look back to see how far you’ve come. Repeat.
- Amen, D. (2016). Change your brain change your life. Great Britain: Piatkus.
- Prgić, J. (2018). Kinestetični razred. Griže: Svetovalno-izobraževalni zavod MI.
- Shetty, J. (2020). Mislite kot menih. Brežice: Primus