Managing a classroom with brain food
Tina Maples' eighth-grade language arts students are serious about their work they do. When students work on projects they care about — what Maples calls "brain food" — they manage the classroom themselves.
Tina Maples’ students are serious about the work they do in her eighth-grade language arts classroom. This is what brought us to visit her classroom a second time. Her students are not doing schoolwork because they want to get a good grade or because their parents are pressuring them to do it. They don’t even seem to be doing it to please her. They seem to be doing it because it is important to them, because it is their work. So how does she make this happen?
When we first asked Maples this question, she was surprised. She doesn’t think she does anything — it just happens. She says this as if to ask, “Why wouldn’t they be serious about their writing? It is important work!” This response contains the first answer to our question: her students take their work seriously because Maples takes it seriously.
But as we continued our conversation with her, it became clear that her classroom management skills have a lot to do with it, too. She spends a lot of time helping her students learn to manage in her classroom. To do this, she has to get to know each of her students. Once she knows them, she can give them work that will take their minds off of everything else — what she calls brain food.
Helping students manage in the classroom
Teachers spend lots of time thinking about what their students should do or how they can “manage” classrooms full of students. This attitude alone can be the source of the problem. Students often resent being managed and will try to confound any system set up to manage them — which makes teachers want to manage them more closely. To break this cycle, a teacher must be willing to help students manage in the classroom, not the other way around.
Tina Maples starts off her school year with community-building activities. (See “A Room for Students” for more about these activities.) She does this so that each class can develop its own collective identity and so that the students in each class can learn to trust one another. She says this is important because “if there is no trust, no safety that you can make a mistake and not be made fun of, then you’re not going to make mistakes and you’re going to be the one who makes fun of other people.” This trust is especially important when students are learning to show rough drafts of their writing to other students to get feedback.
She also helps students learn to manage their work. The kind of work students are expected to do in Maples’ eighth grade class is often very different from the work they did in seventh grade. She tells us that for the most part, in seventh grade, students “still have day by day checkpoints. And with eighth grade…it’s much looser. There are longer projects, they have more pieces, they’re due later. I may tell them to take this journal entry home and we may not look at it until next week.”
Maples works with the other teachers on her team to help parents and students transition to this new way of doing things. They believe it helps students in the long run because “they need to get used to writing in their assignment books and keeping track of their assignments. They’re not going to have a homework hotline in high school or college, if they go there.” But this is not to say that the students are left to sink or swim. “We have strategies to help kids…like places to put things in the binder, homework folders, or signing the assignment book. You can check in with us weekly to see if they’re missing an assignment, but we’re not doing the kids any favors by keeping up with things for them.”
In order to help students manage in a classroom, Maples tries to make the more subtle expectations of school explicit. “School’s sort of like a game,” she says. “If you know the rules, you do very well. But if you don’t know the rules, if you don’t know the subtext of how to approach a teacher, how to ask for help, how to check your grade, all that stuff, then you’re not going to do well. And it’s not because you’re smart or not smart, it’s because you don’t understand how it works.”
In order to level the playing field, Maples tries to make her expectations clear. If a student turns in a paper that is messy, she asks her to rewrite it. If he throws a paper on her desk, she asks him to try again. She wants her students to be taken seriously as writers when they leave her classroom. “If you want me to pay attention to you,” she tells them, “approach me like you want me to pay attention to you.” She hopes to help them manage not only in her classroom, but in real-life situations they will encounter later.
Maples also helps her students manage in her class by grouping them in ways that help them learn. To do this, she has to think about how each student learns. One student in her class, for example, “is bright and wants to do well, but he also wants to look cool, so if I’m careful about who I sit him with, he can be successful.” Another “is very shy but very bright, and if I put her with somebody who is not abrasive, she tends to do very well. But if I put her with somebody who is going to demand something of her, who is very loud, she is not going to do well. She will not speak.”
At other times, Maples deliberately makes students a little less comfortable. “One thing I’ve tried is pairing kids who are normally very willing to sit back and let someone else do the work. And I even ask them, ‘Do you know why I put you together?…Because you usually don’t do the work and I figure that you’re not going to let him slack off and you’re not going to let him slack off, so you’re probably going to get some good work done!’”
Getting to know your kids
In order to be able to help her students in these ways, Maples must spend a lot of time getting to know each of her students. She has several strategies.
Spending more time with students than grading papers.
In her fourth year of teaching, Maples has discovered that she cannot do everything. This is a difficult thing for teachers to admit. We all say “If I just had a little more time I’m sure I could…” Setting priorities (and sticking to them) is one of the marks of an experienced teacher. Maples has chosen getting to know students and parents over paperwork. “I made a very conscious decision…that I wasn’t going to spend every hour at school looking at papers. I needed to see kids, I needed to pull kids in for tutoring or talk to them, or make parent calls or emails or whatever.”
Talking to students and to their parents.
Making parent phone calls is not easy for Maples. “I hate making parent phone calls — but it’s very good. Every time I get off the phone, I’m really glad I talked to that parent and built that relationship!”
As strange as it might sound, she also finds it difficult to talk to students. She explains, “It’s hard to talk to kids one on one, it really is. I’m always wondering what it is I’m going to say and what they’re going to say to me. It’s like a little island up at the front of the room.…Just taking that step out of the front of the room — every time, even four years in, it’s still hard.”
But Maples says that these conversations help students engage in the subject matter. “Putting yourself right next to them, they ask questions. They’re not as likely to ask the questions from their seats, at least not in my room.” Sometimes she has to force them to engage by saying things like, “How’s this going? Show me your favorite paragraph. Show me what you’re having trouble with.” She takes the first step in these conversations, but the students are now comfortable talking to her. “They’ve gotten to the point now where they’re used to asking me questions.”
When there is a conflict, Maples often finds that simply talking to students and parents provides a solution. She finds that when she takes the time to stop and say, “This is what I’m thinking, what were you thinking?” she and the other person almost always find common ground.
Keeping a binder.
At the beginning of each year, Maples makes a binder. “I keep a binder with each class period in a section. Each kid has their own piece of paper and they fill out a survey in the beginning of the year, which tells me a little bit about what they like. Then they do a short little writing piece that introduces themselves to me as a writer.” In this binder, she keeps notes about each student — “whether it’s that I call the parent, or I had a conversation with a kid about something good or something bad. If it’s memorable, it goes in my book.” Like parent phone calls, this work is most intense at the beginning of the year. “I put a lot of time into it at the beginning of the year because that’s when you’re really cementing your ideas.”
Reading their writing.
This is particularly appropriate for language arts teachers, but it can also work for others. Maples finds that “the journal stuff is a great place to get to know kids on a more personal level and ask them to make more personal connections to literature and to whatever’s going on in the classroom.” In the second semester, she switches from purely personal writing to what she calls “warm-up reflections.” But even these help her continue to understand each student. Even if she doesn’t grade each paper, reading them informally as she helps with drafts helps her get to know these students.
Hanging out in the hallway.
It might seem like those teachers who stand out in the hallway and joke with students between classes aren’t doing their work, but maybe they actually are. Maples thinks this is important time. She says teachers should “talk to students during lunch, during class, and in the hallways. Standing out in the front of the hall is great, too, making eye contact and saying hi to the kids by name.” Just learning students’ names tells them that you are interested in them and what they are doing at school.
Giving students real work to do
The key to Maples’ success is that she gives her students real work to do. They work on projects that interest them, and they write for an audience they care about. She calls these kinds of projects “brain food projects.” These projects are designed to help groups of students stretch their minds together. Maples’ students don’t have time to think about anything except these projects. She manages their behavior, she explains, by managing their learning:
I think when you get to something that asks you to think, that asks you to find this that or the other and you’re capable of doing it because you have the basic knowledge, but you haven’t done it before, it forces you to stretch a little bit. It takes the edge away from worrying about “Am I saying the right thing? Am I cool with this person?” Because you’re so focused on the work because you know you’ve got to get it done at a certain time. It’s somewhat interesting for whatever reason and definitely challenging, so you’re not really thinking about “is my hair okay?”
These projects often focus on the kind of questions even adults find interesting. As part of a unit on the Holocaust, for example, students have to consider “humanization and dehumanization.” They chart author Elie Wiesel’s feelings about his faith or his relationship with his father over time. “These are things you can sink your teeth into,” Maples says.
Students are also motivated to do these projects and their individual writing because they are producing work for an audience they care about. Their work is almost always read aloud in class or posted in the hallway outside the classroom. “When somebody else besides the teacher is going to look at it, or when somebody’s going to put it out in the hallway,” Maples says, “the quality changes dramatically.”
Of course, there is sometimes conflict in this classroom, just as in any other classroom. While standing in the hallway between classes, Maples recently saw a student showing her friend the poster her group had made. She was pointing out to her friend how it didn’t turn out the way she had wanted it to. Maples explains what happened:
There’s usually somebody who really cares about how the poster looks. You know, it’s got to be in this handwriting. And she was copying all the names down and this boy wanted to write his own name and she wouldn’t let him. She was saying, “No!” and he kept reaching over and trying to write his name and she was like, “No!”
And they’re getting progressively louder and so it gets my attention and I come over and figure out what happened and pulled them both aside and get both sides of the story. And I issue my decree that both of them are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. “You’re right it should look nice. You’re right you should be able to write your name down. You’re wrong, he should be able to write his name down. You’re wrong, you could have gone about this much more politely.”
They figured it out and I saw her in the hallway later talking about how his name looks so bad. But they were — they were civil the rest of the period. They usually get along pretty well, those two kids. It was kind of funny to see somebody take her on.
Yes, these students were arguing. And they were talking too loudly. But they were arguing because they cared about their project. Their work was important to them.