Channeling student enthusiasm

I’m a new elementary teacher, and I love seeing how students get excited doing hands–on science activities. But the students can get out of hand and I have a hard time focusing them on the activity. Any advice on channeling their enthusiasm with good classroom management would be great!
—Carolyn, Hartford, Connecticut

Most students of any age enjoy being active mentally and physically. As you noted, the key is to capitalize on the enthusiasm of your students in productive ways.

It’s important that students understand a science activity is as much of a learning event as a worksheet, lecture, technology application, or teacher-led discussion (and probably more so). You want them to enjoy the activity, talk with each other, and get up out of their seats (if appropriate), but students need to understand that doing the activity is purposeful and not “free” time. So before they get started, introduce the purpose of the activity and emphasize what students are expected to produce as a result (e.g., a report, a table or graph, a drawing, a model, a list of questions, a summary, or new ideas to share). For example, you could introduce an activity with “Can you remember a time when your heart was beating really fast? [discuss] Today we’re going to explore how your heart rate changes with physical activity. During the investigation you’ll collect data in your notebooks, and then we’ll compare and discuss our findings.” Remind students of any safety issues.

Before the class period, gather all of the materials and make them accessible for students. I found it helpful to have a numbered tray for each group stocked with necessary supplies and an itemized list to help students inventory and return the materials. Keep additional items handy.

Teachers often assume students know how to work cooperatively, but we know assumptions are not always correct! Demonstrate or model the routines you expect (such as getting materials) and appropriate language for group work. For some classes I had to help students practice the routines. One thing that worked for me was to establish teams of 3-4 students. We changed the teams periodically, but students knew where their workstation was and who was in the group (this saved a lot of time and discussion). Each member of the team had a colored dot on their notebook: red, yellow, blue, and green. For an activity, I would say that the red dots would be the recorders, the yellow dots would be the equipment managers, the blue dots would be the question-askers, and the green dots would supervise the clean-up (substitute whatever roles you would have). For the next activity, I would change the roles, so everyone had a chance at each. The roles were clearly defined and I modeled the expectations of each.

During the activity, walk around, ask students about what they’re doing, and reinforce appropriate behaviors. This is also a good time for formative assessments of students’ skills in lab and safety procedures, measurement, and data recording. Immediately address individual students or groups who are off-task or engaging in unsafe, disruptive, or distracting behaviors. If things really start to get out of hand, stop the activity and refocus the students on the activity.

It’s hard to estimate how long a new activity will take. Give yourself and the students enough time, even if you continue the lesson the next day, to avoid rushing through it. If some groups complete the activity in less time than you thought, have some suggestions for extensions or additional ideas to investigate, rather than letting them use this as unstructured time.

Allow enough time to summarize or debrief on the activity (and clean up) before the end of the class period. This gives students time to settle down, focus on what they did, and transition to the next class.

For more ideas, see the July 2009 issue of Science Scope with the theme of Classroom Management. The articles would be appropriate for upper elementary classes, too.


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