'Let It Go': A New Set of Classroom Management Strategies for the 21st Century

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I’ve made a promise to myself and my students: I have decided this year that I am making over my classroom into a “21st century” classroom. “What is a 21st century classroom?” you ask. 21st century classrooms include flexible seating, 1:1 technology, and student-led learning—in my opinion. But as in all classrooms, moving into the next century doesn’t mean that you completely forget everything you know. And what’s one crucial part of every successful K-12 learning environment—perhaps even the most difficult part of being a teacher?

Classroom management.

Making this move, which requires more of a hands-off approach, isn't easy for me. I am a classroom management perfectionist, and so letting go of control of my classroom—or rather, changing the type of control I had—is unnerving for me. But, it’s been worth the transition thus far, as I can now share with you what I have learned.

What’s Changed—Then and Now

In the traditional classroom, students were assigned seats and placed in neat little rows. Students were taught to be quiet, and to only speak when spoken to. Interaction between students was discouraged, and the teacher was the sole source of teaching. That worked back when the factory model was king, but no longer.

Flash forward to modern day, where today’s classrooms are filled with diverse learners and varying needs that we now recognize. Employers are reporting that college graduates entering the workforce lack necessary and vital skills, so how do we encourage teamwork, verbal communication skills, and integration of technology into students’ lives and learning? Well, by creating a classroom management strategy that supports high levels of engagement, improves retention of learned content, and encourages collaboration and problem-solving.

For example, take seating. Classrooms contain an array of different kinds of seating options. These seating options include floor seating, raised seating, use of stability balls as seats and covered crate seating. Let the students be in control, and pick the seating option that works best for them. There are no rows; students sit in groups that encourage rich discussion. Students follow interactive lessons on their technology, and produce most of their work digitally.

Varying options for new classroom setups, including tables for group work (bottom righthand corner) and bouncy balls for flexible seating (upper lefthand corner). (Jamie Schnepp)

Seating and physical classroom set-up is something that has gotten addressed by other writers and bloggers, but there are several other ways you can ensure your students stay engaged in their learning throughout the school day. Here are four, to start.

Classroom Management Strategies for 2016

Step 1: Establish Rules and Procedures Around New Classroom Set-ups

Freedom for students is a wonderful thing—if they know how to handle it. With new seating arrangements or groupwork spaces, students need to understand the purpose of their new classroom set-up.

During this first week of school (for the 2016-2017 year), my students were shown the different seating options, and how to properly use each option. The students then used the first five days of school to try each option, so they could determine which seating option was best for their learning.

To support them, I also created anchor charts with the rules for classroom seating, technology use, and classroom discussions, shown below.

Sample anchor chart. (Jamie Schnepp)

Step 2: Create Learning Contracts

In addition to establishing rules and procedures, we created a learning contract. Learning contracts are tangible documents that can be referred back to that hold students responsible for their behavior in the classroom.

Within these contracts, I include the purpose(s) of flexible seating, the importance of focused classroom discussion, and proper use of technology in the classroom. Students sign these contracts and keep them in their “leadership notebooks” so they can be reviewed throughout the school year.

Step 3: Show Students How to Have Discussions

Students love to talk to each other, but they sometimes struggle when it comes to discussions about their learning, such as getting distracted from the point of conversation. So, during the first week of school, I teach them the social norms of face-to-face communications. Students practice facing other, making eye contact, and making silent affirmations with nodding or gestures.

The next week, the students began using sentence frames during whole group and small group discussions. “Sentence frames” are pre-written sentence starters that help students frame their thoughts into a coherent discussion. As the school year progresses, students are able to frame their thinking in complete thoughts using academic vocabulary, without the need for sentence frames.

Step 4: Convey the Purpose—to Students AND Parents

Students are inquisitive, but too often, educators forget to explain why we ask students to do things a certain way. So, as I went through each of these steps above, I made sure that we discussed the purpose behind everything that we were doing, as a class. I also included articles about flexible seating and the like—I find that when you share the facts, research, or reasons for your classroom rules and procedures, students tend follow them and refer back to them when they aren’t being followed.

And don’t forget the parents! Send information home about the benefits of the 21st century classroom, to explain to parents the reasoning for changing up the same old classroom structures.

Go to it, educators! The 21st century classroom is an exciting place full of innovation and creativity—and should not be feared as a possible classroom management nightmare.

Jamie Schnepp (@LOLTeaching) ‎is a 5th Grade Teacher at Luke Elementary School, in the Dysart Unified School District in Glendale, Arizona.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Arizona). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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