Sometimes with the learner-centered approach to teaching, we teachers may forget that we must still maintain control of the class in order to assure that each student gets his or her fair share of the learning experience. For instance, what to do about the cute couple, young man and young woman, in the last row of the classroom, sitting hip to hip, arms around each other, cooing to each other, distracting those around them and arriving late to each class?
 
Luckily, we have group work as a core component of classroom management. In the case of the two students above, of course, I could have told them that they behavior was inappropriate, but, honestly, it was awkward. And time was coming to form groups anyway. Here are some criteria I use (based on my own experience and that of colleagues):
 
So that students don’t think you are breaking them up into groups because of anything they have done wrong, or to alleviate the annoyance students may express at having to pick up their backpacks and move around!-- explain to the students why you think having them work in groups is a good idea. Explain the purpose of the groups. If you are teaching a writing class in which the students base their writings on readings, explain how small group discussions really will help them better understand what they are reading, and that before any writing begins, it is crucial to understand the readings. You can also explain that they can “test out” their ideas on each other, not you!
 
Through groups, students are able to get to know the other students in their class and share ideas with people they might not otherwise. You can explain you like to get a mix of female and male in groups, so that those perspectives are shared as well. The idea to emphasize is that through sharing their own ideas with others, and also hearing the perspectives of others, students will be better able to form their own opinions.
 
Another item to consider, although not one you necessarily must discuss with you students—although you could, is the nationality of the students. That’s another area in which you may want to mix things up. It can help solve the problem, if it exists, of students speaking in their home language to each other; and, again, speaking with students from other cultures offers more opportunities for new perspectives.
 
Speaking English to learn English  “’Tough love’ is how I start things out,” said Pat Koblenz, lecturer in both the Composition for Multilingual Students (CMS) Program and the American Language Institute (ALI) at San Francisco State University (SFSU). “I make expectations very clear in the beginning. Come off firm and clear and then throughout the semester make it clear that you’re on their side; it’s not us vs. them.” In her ALI classes (a pre-university program for international students), Koblenz had her students do a journal entry on “why we ask students to use English to learn English.” Because the ideas the students came up with were so good, sincere and well-thought-out, she has decided, going forward, to type up a list of the students’ ideas so that when mid-semester doldrums roll in and the students slip into L1 speaking, she’ll pull out the sheet as “a reminder to come back to.”
 
Koblenz also uses flattery of sorts; she reminds students who are where they are in the learning spectrum to keep them on track language-wise. “With the higher level students, I tell them, ‘You guys are advanced, and so you need to practice English at every opportunity you have.’ But, I also do that with the incoming freshmen by saying ‘You’re in college now, and this is how college students act.’” And when the gentle reminders don’t work, she talks to students one-on-one in conferences. “And then,” she said, “I’ll say, ‘Do you need to write an essay about [speaking in English] to make sure you understand? Because if I have to talk to you again about this, that’s what you’ll have to do.’” Koblenz laughed and said, “They usually get the message then!”
 
Chit chatting, not working  What happens when the students are speaking in English, but not about their work, rather their weekends, boyfriends, and the like? And they do it continually?
 
Mary Warden, another lecturer in the CMS Program at SFSU and also at Skyline College, said, “If they’re not on task and talking a lot, I call on them.” She explained that she always has something for them to do: reading comprehension questions to fill out or a worksheet related to the writing skill they are working on. Warden also uses the board for more than her explanations and elucidations of the subject at hand. “I make [the students] work at the board,” she said, “Which forces them to do their work.” Of course, teachers don’t use the board to be punitive because it offers many opportunities for the students, teacher and the class in general.
 
Whether the students are off-task or not, getting students up and working at the board can energize the students and the class in general. The students are forced to move around and focus on the task at hand. Students can then compare work, see what their classmates have done, read aloud from their work and become engaged at another level.
 
Managing peer reading  A common activity in university composition classes is peer reading in which students will read drafts of a partner’s essay and answer specific questions. And the word specific is crucial here. Students need to be guided on what to comment on so that they don’t comment willy-nilly on someone’s work. Here are some recommendations for peer reading:
 
Introduce students to the concept: what is it, why do it, what the benefits are,
  • Hand out guidelines which instruct students to answer only the questions on the peer review sheets and to treat their classmates with the respect that they themselves would like

  • Monitor closely

Now, if the students don’t follow the guidelines, what is a teacher to do? Warden recently had this experience. In her case, the students had done their commenting through iLearn, SFSU’s electronic “classroom,” and one student disregarded the guidelines and “wrote the meanest, out-of-line peer review,” said Warden. Her first action was to tell the recipient of the excoriation to completely disregard the remarks, and then she, herself, gave the student constructive comments. Then, she met one-on-one with the offending student and reviewed the class’s original peer review guidelines with the student. The student responded better on the next peer review.
 
Wrapping up  Engagement seems to be a positive key to managing one’s academic classes, indeed to most classes! When students are clear about what is expected of them, are given activities that engage them and let them exhibit their language learning they generally will respond well. Tough love’s good too!