(Dis)organized students

My middle school students this year are very scatterbrained. It seems to take forever for them to get focused at the beginning of class and to find the materials they need when I ask for them during class. When it’s time to get into groups for a lab activity, there is a lot of commotion. Then they have lots of questions about what they’re supposed to be doing. Last year’s classes weren’t like this at all. What can I do?
—Margaret, North Carolina

It’s a common topic in the faculty room: “My classes last year were _____. This year they are so _____.” Teachers fill in the blanks with words such as cooperative, talkative, immature, energetic, needy, noisy, or inquisitive. It sounds like you would use disorganized to describe this year’s students.

For these students, you may need to establish routines to help them get and stay organized. Established routines free up time for more important topics and activities than dealing with logistical issues.

Visualize what a class activity should “look like.” In your mind, go through the activity in slow motion and focus on what the students should do to accomplish the task in an orderly and timely fashion. For example, you might establish routines for students to get their notebooks, access lab equipment, or enter/leave the room. Here are some routines that worked for me.

The beginning of a class period can be hectic as one group leaves, another enters, and the teacher takes attendance and performs other duties. Try posting an “agenda” that students see as they come in. Set aside a section of the board or project the agenda onto the interactive board. The agenda could include the purpose or big idea of the lesson, the activities for the class period, assignments they should have ready for you to check or turn in, and what they need to have ready at their seats (laptop, notebook, paper, pencil, textbook, etc.).

It may take a few days for students to get used to the routine of reading the agenda and getting things ready at their seats. I found that combining the agenda with a brief warm-up activity helped students focus for the rest of the period.

Rather than students selecting different teammates for each activity, use the same lab groups for a while. Assign students to groups, with a promise that you’ll change them in the future. Designate a space for each team to work on lab activities. Appoint one student in each group as the “coordinator” whose job is to get the materials for the activity. He or she should be the only one from the group who needs to move around the room. But you can minimize that movement by having all of the materials for each group in a box or tray. Designate another student in each group to be the “liaison.” This student is the group’s spokesperson and is allowed to ask you questions about the activity on the group’s behalf.

Routines at the end of the class period can help students organize their thinking before going on to the next class. For example, ask the students to complete a brief exit activity before departing.  This can be a written summary in their notebooks about the day’s activities, thoughts about an upcoming lesson, or a reminder of due dates for tests, projects, or other assignments.

When students are learning your routines, you’ll need to demonstrate and model them and provide opportunities for practice. Since the school year has already started, it may take a while for students to catch on to them, but the effort is worth it.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Tasha
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I am having the same sort of problems. I really like the idea of giving the students an agenda to keep them on track and on task for a lab.

    • Mary Bigelow
      Posted October 9, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Tasha — Let us know how this works for you (and your students).

  2. Amy
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I think that no matter the age, this is a problem. Students have trouble during transition times. They just aren’t on the same fast-paced schedule that we are. I like the idea of the agenda as well and think I could utilize my tv-ator (computer connected to tv) to post this daily.

  3. Uriel Richardson
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I have seen,heard and experienced that type of behavior sometimes. Some of the best things to do in situations such as this are to establish routines, get parents involved and follow through with consistency with regards to esatblished rules and procedures and consequences. Make the eonvironment structured and have to plan ready everyday to be implemented. You must always be ready so that the students see that type of behavior bening modeled. It is not always an easy answer but you can try these.

    • Mary Bigelow
      Posted October 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Uriel — You make good points about the importance of planning and consistency!

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