If you listen to some critics, TLaC is a book with sixteen chapters on making kids stand in line and not much else. I always find that ironic. First because there is great honor in doing the thankless work of building a respectful positive and productive classroom environment, and that fact would be clear beyond any plausible doubt to any one whose child actually spent significant time in a school where the behavioral environment was not that way. But it’s also ironic because while I believe there’s value and honor in engineering behavioral environments to make them positive and orderly, I deliberately waited until after the academic chapters in TLaC 1.0 to even mention behavior. In TLaC 2.0, the behavior chapters also come in the second half, but I am happy to say they are some of the chapters where I’ve learned the most. 100%, for example, is now broken out into four different techniques. And this time around I’ve tried to make the case for behavior a little more directly. Here’s a draft of my intro to chapter 10, Setting and Maintaining High Behavioral Expectations.
There’s something paradoxical about classrooms like Erin Michels’, where the focus always seems to be on learning in its most rigorous forms. On a recent morning Erin asked her fourth graders to figure out the area of a complex, irregular polygon not in “square units” as most fourth grade teachers would but in “triangulous” units, for example. She called on a student, Jared, for the answer, and when he gave the correct answer she pressed him for more: “Go ahead, Jared. Tell us how you figured this out.”
His classmates watched attentively as he sought to describe his thinking process in words. “I figured it out because at first I had to try and… first I had to trace around the whole entire shape.”
“What were you tracing?” Erin interjected. “Use that mathematical language, Jared.”
“The perimeter of the shape,” Jared clarified as Michels encouraged him. His classmates followed him with their eyes and no noise broke the spell of his thought, “And then, after I traced the perimeter of the shape, I removed the shape and started counting each square unit,” he continued.
Listening carefully, Michels asked for clarification: “Each square unit?” she asked.
“I mean each triangulous unit,” Jared corrected, “And I kept going until I found thirty triangulous units.”
The interaction demonstrates several strengths that are typical of a classroom with a culture of high academic expectations. The ratio is high, for example, and Jared does most of the talking and thinking, with Erin merely prompting him occasionally. Jared is asked not only to arrive at an answer but, even after he gets it right, to Stretch It, to explain his answer using technical vocabulary. And of course the problem is rigorous, complex, thorny and pushes Jared and his classmates to a stronger conception of what area is. Who knew that it could be defined in units that were not square?
Erin’s classroom, you might observe, is the kind of place people imagine themselves working when they enter this profession; her conversations about math and science and literature are the kinds of conversations aspiring teachers hope to have. Truly, no one I am aware of enters this work because they love to tell students to pay attention or sit down or stop calling out. Most of us would all love to leave all that behind and ride off in the direction of why and how and can you use a more precise word to describe that? But of course none of the academic moments happen without a foundation of behavioral expectation-setting that is at times stoic, almost always consistent, and seasoned with love and tenacity. Jared’s journey starts with his predictable attentiveness, and his classmates’- Erin can ask him a question and not fear that his classmates will shout out the answer or, worse, make some banal distracting “funny” comment as Jared takes the time to think. Only in such space is Jared’s elaboration and self-correction possible. Only in such space can a teacher like Erin listen carefully to Jared’s answer without distractions from inattentive classmates eroding her capacity to prompt him just so- “Each square unit?” Further, Jared’s explanation is enlightening not just to him but to his classmates who, beyond eschewing call outs and hilarious bathroom humor at the critical moment, could still be slouched silently, entombing in a world that ignores the struggle towards knowledge and that features, instead, the lyrics to a recent pop song going round and round in their heads. But in Erin’s class, Jared’s classmates’ heads move from Jared to Erin as if at a tennis match. They are attentive. They ignore for the moment the brightly colored manipulatives spilling out of ziplock baggies at their desks. When asked to write and reflect on the math, they spring into vigorous action. They are 100% ensconced in the previously unimagined world of area expressed in triangulous units.
Students, whether they realize it or not, rely on teachers to create such environments. Nonetheless, many observers misunderstand them and think they occur naturally. It’s folly to think that–left to their own devices–a room full of people, almost any room full of people, will behave this way. Classrooms like Erin’s cannot be achieved without meticulous attention to building the behavioral environment step by step. Ends and means are easily confused, and because effective classroom culture, when it is complete, is nearly invisible for stretches of time, some people will not see the work that goes into it; they will see teachers who don’t talk to their students much about behavior and believe that the answer is not to talk about behavior much with your students. If you try to ignore behavior you will end up talking about little else, whereas if you are intentional about behavioral culture and establish clear expectations, behavioral issues will ultimately fade into the background as you talk about history, art, literature, math, and science. What you see in Erin’s classrooms is not ‘better kids’ who miraculously behave. What you see is meticulous intentionality in its dormant state.
You must have order to have a learning-intensive classroom. When I say that, I am not talking merely about kids of color in urban classrooms. A friend of mine recently visited one of New York City’s elite prep schools. He was impressed by the rigor of what they read and the encyclopedic knowledge of the teachers, not to mention their passion for their disciplines. But in several rooms, students threw paper wads at one another and mocked their classmates as they participated. Somewhere in that group, there is a student whose capacity to cure cancer or solve a municipal financial crisis has been eroded, just as there is a similar student across the river in the Bronx whose own capacity to cure cancer or solve a municipal financial crisis suffers from the same cause. Though my own focus is primarily on the student in the Bronx, all classrooms and all students deserve order, on both sides of the river, and all classrooms pose a potential challenge to achieve it.
And while some people fail to see that, there is another side to that coin. Orderly behavior without real and rigorous academics is an empty vessel. This is worth noting because the changes that occur in some classrooms when a teacher brings order to them can be so powerful they can be like catnip. Once you learn to get students to sit silently, the temptation can be to have them sit silently when they should be interacting. Once you teach students to line up in an orderly way, the temptation can be to line them up and keep them in lines. Beware: an orderly room must be orderly to allow academic rigor to thrive. Students must be silent so their classmates may speak in a climate of respect. They must line up quickly so they can get where they need to go for maximum learning. The goal is to get them quickly and quietly through the line and on the learning on the other side, not to keep them in quiet lines because it makes us feel more in control. I often tell skeptics of high behavioral expectations that just because a teacher can cause her classroom to be pin-drop quiet, does not mean she always must. It gives her an option she can exercise at will, not an obligation. And that reminder is good for those of us who believe in order as well.
The goal of course is to do that as efficiently and simply as possible and to maintain it with as little disruption to learning as possible. And though the concepts in this chapter may seem mundane, their results can be magical. Its methods are worthy of study, though few outside the front lines of teaching understand that value. The techniques here can be technical and nuanced. Watching champion teachers do the work so many beyond the walls of their schools struggle to acknowledge needs doing and watching them do it with finesse, skill, craft, passion, diligence- and without thanks- inspires me to share this summary of those teachers’ knowledge and wisdom with you. It is, I am happy to say, one of the areas I’ve learned the most about since the first version of this book and I can’t wait to share it.