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NYC Helpline: How To: Manage Your Classroom

Keeping Order in a Three-Ring Circus or Managing the 7th Grade Class
Rebecca Hollander

It's last period on a Friday and my seventh graders have been contained in small spaces for six hours. It's time for theatre class and I know they’re going to be, what’s the word? Hyper doesn't encapsulate the feeling of 25-30 hormone filled pre-teens who just want to get out of school for the weekend. They are young lions who've been caged and are about to be set free. It's mealtime, and if I'm not careful, I'll be on the menu. Don’t get me wrong. I love their energy and the joy they bring with them when they enter my room. It's just that I know that I am responsible for teaching them, and that before I can do that, I need to find a way to organize them! I (one adult) must somehow reign in their natural enthusiasm and joy for life and socializing and redirect it towards learning.

How do I get them to listen? When they are working in groups and their enthusiasm grows beyond the levels of normal “inside voices,” how do I get their attention without raising my voice, without allowing their mania to influence my mood. How do I keep that feeling of enjoying school and loving learning?

I have many strategies for keeping focus. These strategies have developed over the years. They change from class to class and age group to age group. But they tend to work for me. There is one rule that is constant. I never deviate from it. That rule: I don’t allow myself to raise my voice, no matter what. No matter how frustrated I get, I keep my voice even; I keep myself calm. 

How do I do this? I start out slow. At the beginning of the year, I promise my students that I won’t ever yell to get their attention. I explain my reasons to them and list my “yelling alternatives.” I get them accustomed to watching for the signs when I want to move on. We begin with what I call the, “repeat after me training.” I do or say something and the students have to repeat it. It might be a simple clapping rhythm. It might be a “miming action” that they have to copy (like patting my head or jumping up and down). We practice this a lot. I might try to catch them off guard and time them to see how quickly they respond! Eventually we get it to run pretty smoothly. Once they get good at one strategy, I move on to another. 

Sometimes, if they are too involved with their group work or too excited about something that has happened in their day, they don’t respond. Then I have to get more direct with them. I might actually say, “If you can hear my voice, repeat after me,” or issue a direct command, “If you can hear my voice clap three times.” This usually gets their attention, and sometimes, just for fun, I even say, “If you can her my voice, repeat after (a chosen student).” Usually the chosen student makes a funny noise or just says, “Stop copying me.” In general, it works. The strategies keep the class lively and focused.

Sometimes I am tired. Sometimes the thought of entertaining the students makes me want to scream! So I try different strategies. I might wait patiently, looking first at one student and then another. Or maybe I just look at the kid who is disrupting the class. And eventually (a minute or so later) they all say, “Shhhhhhh! She’s mad. Stop talking!” Sometimes I sing a little song and look at my watch, or talk about puppies frolicking through fields. Again the response is (a minute or so later), “Shhhhhh! She’s mad. Stop talking!” and eventually they settle down. I have, at times, had to remind them, “Just because I’m not yelling, it doesn’t mean you’re not in trouble.” But I have never had to raise my voice. And I think that makes all my efforts worthwhile. The class exists with a kind of trust necessary for theatre and for learning. The students know I respect them and they behave (usually) in kind. 

So I come back to my original question: It’s last period on a Friday and my seventh graders have been contained in small spaces for six hours. How do I get them to listen? I guess I’ll just start singing and see what they do!


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