Putting Students in Motion

“My class seems really quiet this semester. Is there something I can do to get them talking more? Anything I can do to get more energy in my classroom?”

This is a question I’ve been asked frequently this semester. I can understand why the students don’t seem as lively as they did during the fall semester. It’s cold. It’s snowing. And when it hasn’t been snowing, it’s cloudy. This is the perfect weather for staying in, reading a book, watching a movie, watching t.v. Who really wants to bundle up and trudge around campus?  And once our students actually get to our overheated classrooms, it does seem time for a nap.

My answer to this question is simple. Get the students moving. Don’t just let them sit there. Get them up. Get them walking around. This will wake them up and get their blood moving. Put them in groups and make them talk to one another early on. Don’t just let them settle into their chairs. Half-way through class have them get up again and move around. The more active they are the more energy (hopefully) will be in the classroom.

This does seem simple, but I’m going to have to admit something. As a teacher it took me a long time to take my own advice. I used to tell myself that it would take up too much time to ask the students to form groups with students across the room rather than with the people sitting next to them. I used to tell myself that it would be too chaotic to have all these people walking around a small space. It would take too much time to bring the class back together once they had been moving around. In other words, I was afraid of losing control of the class.

Since part of my job is to visit classes, I had observed several of our graduate instructors doing just what I had advised. To form groups, these teachers would have the students select shapes out of a hat and would then have them walk around the room to find the people who matched their shapes. These teachers would have the students do revision exercises that required them to move from station to station within the classroom. Whenever I observed these classes I was always envious of how these teachers were able to get the students out of their seats and interacting with one another. The energy level in the room was always increased. The classroom on the surface may have appeared to be chaotic, but it was clear that everything was under control. I wished I could do this too. But I was still hesitant.

Okay, I was actually afraid.

During my observations I would see teachers with a range of teaching styles. Some would sit at the teacher’s desk, some would sit on the desk, some would sit at a desk in a circle with the students. Some would move around the room, sitting, and standing. This made me notice something about my own teaching style. I realized I was always standing. I would move around the room, but I would never sit at the teacher’s desk. Some times I would sit at a desk in a circle with my students, but I would get up to write on the board and remain standing.

I could say this was my preferred teaching style. But I’m not sure that was completely true. After thinking about I realized it wasn’t so much that I felt more comfortable standing in front of my students as I felt the need to be standing above them. In other words, I was confusing authority with height. I’m short and the majority of the students are taller (and some are really a lot taller) than me. I felt being physically above my students gave me more control and authority in the classroom.

But one day I went to observe a class where the instructor was like me – a short woman. During this particular class she had the students standing and moving throughout the entire class meeting. She had them do one activity that asked them to move around the room asking one another questions. When they were ready to transition to the next activity she called them together and they all stood around her and listened. Watching her I realized that authority comes not from height or age, but rather from being prepared, from having a purposeful plan, from speaking with confidence. I realized that I didn’t have to speak over my students to gain their attention or their trust.

So I tried it. I first had the students move around in order to get into groups. When that worked, and I felt more comfortable I began incorporating activities that asked the students to move around the room. I still catch myself standing a lot. I still feel a little uncomfortable when a really tall student comes up to speak to me after class.  But I just try not to let my discomfort get in the way.

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