Assuming we are back at school tomorrow, I will have seen my students for less than four full school days out of ten. I love a surprise day off of work just as much as the next person, but six days off in the span of two weeks??? Even the students are tired of it. Yesterday, as I sat at my desk during my extra time in the morning due to the two-hour delay in our district, a substitute poked her head into my room to ask a few questions. One of her questions was, “The kids are going to be just nuts today, aren’t they?”
Quite the opposite, actually.
The goal is to create a culture where students want to be at school. Our building has a dedicated group of adults who go out of their way to build meaningful relationships with individual students and to provide a safe and engaging learning environment. When you know your students want to be at school, the next step is to utilize each moment as efficiently as possible. For me, this is where my arts-integration training has changed the game.
A university student spent time in my classroom during first semester this year. It was her first classroom experience, and she had never taught a lesson in her life. When the day of her lesson came, one of my largest areas of feedback for her was in knowing when and how to avoid wasted time. Furthermore, what I find is that most wasted time during class occurs when transitioning from one activity to the next. So how do you establish efficient and effective transitions from one activity to the next, and how do you ensure quality learning is taking place without rushing content – especially when facing SIX unexpected days off of school?
Routine – Practice – Action – Engagement – Challenge – Purpose
First, a routine needs to be established, and it needs to be practiced. Over and over and over again. It is usually at some point during the early stages of establishing and practicing a routine that I can be caught asking myself, “Why am I doing this again?” Months later, though, I find myself criticizing former me for ever having doubted the master plan.
Another necessary point to consider is how often students are physically up and moving around. Before diving head-first into project-based learning, I was putting a lot of my energy into action-based learning, which is based on research linking movement with learning. Studies say the adolescent brain requires some sort of movement as often as every 15-20 minutes. Many teachers have adopted the use of “brain breaks” in their classrooms, where every so often, they all stop and take some sort of active break: stretch, exercise, dance, etc. to reboot brain cell stimulation and feel ready for more learning. With the use of arts-integration, I have found ways to incorporate movement into the learning so even less time is wasted.
Every so often I look around my classroom and think to myself, “Someone should see this.” Yesterday was one of those days. Don’t get me wrong, not every day is perfect. We waste time. We get off track. Things don’t go as planned. But way more often than not, I am so impressed by the environment and the culture my students and I have built together. With so many recent absences, on top of a shortened schedule yesterday, I was determined to use every single moment of my 35 minutes with each class. Here’s how it looked…
- When students entered the room, they saw my notebook on the document camera with a writing prompt written at the top, reminding them to take out their notebooks for our 30 day writing challenge. As soon as the bell rang, the screen was changed to a 6 minute timer, signalling their writing time had begun. At the sound of the timer, students turned to their neighbors to share their writing. (8 minutes)
- After about a minute of share time, I pushed play on our “contract song.” As soon as they heard the start of the song, without a word, students made their way to the center of the room, forming a large circle. Once all were there, we initiated the silent signing of our daily “contract” where we use five movements promising that for the remainder of the day, we will each be in control of our bodies, voices, imaginations, concentration, and cooperation. (1 minute)
- After signing the contract, I did a quick concentration check in which students participated in a concentration challenge we practiced early in the year. I feel it is incredibly important to mention that we spent three or four weeks completing the concentration challenge during first quarter. Yesterday, it took me about a minute to complete the concentration check in which all students remain in complete control of their bodies, keeping their eyes fixed on one focal point for an extended period of time. No speaking. No movement. Calm. Balanced. Focused. (2 minutes)
- From here, I explained our drama warm-up for the day (Four-Headed Monster) and the goal of the warm-up (Building on other people’s ideas to form an interesting and coherent story). During the activity, students were engaged either by actively participating or by observing. The idea is so fun, they can’t help but watch. (10 minutes)
- Instead of announcing the end of the activity, because that always allows for time-wasting comments about how they want to keep going with the warm-up, I immediately launched into our cooperation challenge (another activity we spent weeks on at the start of the year). “By the time I count to 6, you will be in a group that has at least 4 people.” In this challenge, every single student is required to stand and move around the room to form groups of various sizes. After a few rounds of the challenge, they were told to sit down facing their group members. (2 minutes)
- From here, we conducted our one-minute tableau challenge. A tableau is a silent, frozen image created with your bodies. I present the topic. They have one minute to work with their groups to create a tableau that represents their ideas. Of course, the tableau process took several days to perfect, allowing all group members a chance to think, to share their ideas, to agree on one idea, and to decide how to bring the idea to life in a frozen picture. Stay tuned for a blog post all about the use of tableau in the classroom. The challenge is in the timeliness. I remind them repeatedly during the learning stages of the tableau process that there is no time for overthinking, over-discussing, or disagreeing. You need to cooperate and just make it happen. (2 minutes)
- After one tableau creation, I kept their focus on me and the whiteboard as we worked through our mini-lesson of the day about different forms of silent communication used in film – specifically facial expressions. After generating some ideas about various emotions or thoughts that can be expressed through facial expressions, we used the one-minute tableau challenge to practice using that silent form of communication to express an idea several times. (8 minutes)
- I was able to use the remaining time to explain my goals for the days to come and how we will continue to build our understanding of communication methods used in films so they can incorporate those ideas into their own film creations this quarter. (2 minutes)
I apologize for the lengthiness of that description, but I find it rather remarkable how much can be packed in to a 35 minute lesson. Creative writing, sharing of said writing, drama exercises that are fun, challenging, and content-driven, practice in concentration, cooperation, collaboration, and critical thinking, and all the while, they were fully engaged, both physically and mentally. The ring of the bell was followed by at least one comment after every class, “Already?”
Some final thoughts:
- None of this could possibly fit into 35 minutes without laying the groundwork ahead of time. Each of these exercises and strategies has been practiced and developed over time and will continue to develop over the remainder of the year.
- I cannot take credit for ANY of the strategies used in my lesson yesterday. If you’re an educator who found any of these ideas even remotely intriguing, I highly recommend you read Sean Layne’s book: Acting Right. In this very short read, he outlines the Contract, Concentration Challenge, Cooperation Challenge, and the One-Minute Tableau Challenge and he even scripts out what to say when teaching the strategies to your students!