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Keep your finger on the pulse.

Posted by adrionna on Jun 22, 2016 in Information Station, Teaching

How do you get your students’ attention when they seem checked out before the bell even rings?
Why do students seem fine one period and then bonkers the next?
Do I really need to change my lesson if my students don’t seem “ready”? 

I remember the realization well, in my first few weeks of student teaching: what was exhausting about the new full-time teaching experience wasn’t that you’re on your feet most of the time, are expected to be in touch with each and every student, or even that you have poured your soul into this plan that doesn’t seem to be working. In fact, what made it exhausting was realizing that one class period would be the most amazing hour ever and the next hour, it seemed as though students couldn’t even lift their heads up – and I was teaching with the same enthusiasm! The mood swings are what got me – and they weren’t the consequence of my own hormones. I had to learn quickly how to be ready for (and accept – embrace, even) that classes literally changed within a 20 minute time frame. This is not something that was taught in my education courses.

Now, almost a full year into this experience, I have learned to put the mood swings in the following context. You must think of your classroom as a living organism. You are the heart and the head of the operation, but so many different things can affect your environment at any given time – besides the obvious germs your students bring into your metaphorical body, they also bring little stresses (like spats with friends and romantic interests) and serious traumas (the loss of family because of serious illness or violence). On any given day, the body you are trying to manage and teach can be weakened because of the broken wrist (student couldn’t do homework because his sibling was in the hospital all night) or the knee could be bruised (a student’s parent was angry and asked her daughter why she couldn’t be more like her sibling). On the other hand, we have students who are excited because the dance is right around the corner and finally – finally – all that studying paid off with an A on the World History exam.

We can have the BEST intentioned, BEST standards-aligned lesson on the planet, but if we don’t keep our fingers on the pulse of our classroom, that lesson could be null and void in five minutes. Don’t get me wrong — all the cuts and bruises and sprains are NO EXCUSE for not teaching your lesson. As growing human beings, we quickly learn that the world does not stop just because we have a cast around our ankle. Nor should teachers throw in the towel when they see a student struggling. On the contrary!! What does medical staff do even before the examination begins? They take our blood pressure – literally getting a reading of our pulse and how it could be affecting us. Similarly, it is important for teachers to get a read of their class’ pulse – whether it is before the bell rings or in a minute-long “check-in” with your students immediately after the bell signals the beginning of your adventure. The moment I see withdrawn faces and lethargic movements, I ask one of the students before the bell rings (or all of them after the bell has rung), “Aw, man, y’all look beat. What’s been going on today?” I very quickly learn that the tired eyes aren’t from laziness or a lack of desire to be in my English class. Instead, I learn that they’ve had 4 quizzes today (or they’re already feeling those ominous vibes from the quiz they’ll have to take in an hour). I now know that I might need to change my bell-ringer. Obviously they don’t need another deeply reflective question (they’ll have four of those in different content areas today. English loses for now. Oh well.) BUT they can handle a fun creative question that also gets at the heart of what I’m going to teach them (but they don’t have to know that).

Some examples:

My original plan – Bellringer asks students to recall as many literary devices discussed in class yesterday; students are also challenged to think of reasons why an author might use these devices in their writing.

My revised plan after I see blank stares – Students can turn to their partners (they need to be loud – they’ve been quiet in their seats all day!) and try to come up with as many literary devices as they can remember from what we discussed in class previously. Then, create examples of those literary devices that they could use in a funny fictional narrative (get those creative juices flowing!)

Instead of continuing the trend of being quiet, independent, and, frankly, brain-taxing, I make a quick decision to modify at least the beginning of the lesson to be more social, more loud, and engaging. After I get their attention this way, I can proceed to teaching them the way I had originally planned.

I took their blood pressure, did a quick diagnosis, came up with an action plan, and felt the change as the class’ pulse came back to normal. Now I’m able to proceed with my lesson – I just had to remember to check the pulse.

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