Classroom management, or teaching ‘tips and tricks’
Any planning should identify the strategies you will use to communicate with your audience. These strategies should reflect your approach to managing students and classroom discipline. The following ‘tips and tricks’ include some of the most effective teaching and classroom management strategies identified by experienced teachers and author presenters.
Relevance or finding that ‘hook’
To have students engage willingly and enthusiastically in their own learning should be the goal of any educational planning. When students are engaged they are focused, absorbed and usually far more manageable. The key to this engagement is relevance and the use of a ‘hook’ to gain and maintain their attention.
For authors whose work is already highly popular with students, this can be as simple as identifying themselves — students’ undivided attention is assured. In most instances, however, it is important to consider carefully what ‘hook’ you will use, as it must be sustained.
Chat to kids who are the same age as the students you will be talking to, to gauge their interests. Buy or borrow children’s magazines that would be popular with your target audience and do some background reading.
Humour, of course, is an excellent way of getting a group’s attention. Some popular authors like Andy Griffiths and Felice Arena are ‘funny’, telling jokes and relating humorous stories. This makes them popular with kids. But not everyone can be funny. It is more important to be yourself, and show your sense of humour, as it happens naturally, for example, you could begin by reading a funny incident from one of your books.
Remember, however, that humour is a tool that, if not carefully used by a presenter, can lead to discipline problems and other management issues. If you are going to use humour, be sincere, make it novel and unique. Regaining the attention of students after the laughter can be a challenge.
Managing talkative or fidgeting students
Being well prepared with a good hook for your session, providing a variety of activities and involving the students in some way should minimise interruptions from misbehaving students. The teacher should always be in the room with you and is ultimately responsible for maintaining discipline. Some teachers jump in too quickly and ‘speak’ to a child they consider to be misbehaving while others leave it up to the presenter. It is best if you are prepared to take charge and have a few strategies ready, just in case. Here are a few techniques teachers use:
- The stare — practise your ‘I’ve got my eye on you look’
- Keep talking but move to stand right beside the offending student
- Ask the offending student a question or to read their work aloud — praise them at the first possible point for a good answer/act/question
- Never talk while students are speaking to each other — if you do, you are giving them permission to speak while you do
- Whisper or lower your voice for effect
- Mention that you will need some responsible students to help with your presentation
- As a last resort ask the student to go and sit beside the teacher.
The power of the name
One of the best classroom management techniques is to address students by name ... listen as the more boisterous ones are addressed as they enter the room. Knowing their names shows you are interested in them. An alternative technique is to request that students, teachers and, most importantly, you the presenter, wear name tags.
The development of good questioning technique is essential for classroom management and quality presentations. Questions that encourage students to think about and analyse why a particular piece of writing sounds good or makes them laugh will assist their learning, impact on the way they write and push them to think in different ways. Wherever possible use questions that are open-ended, stimulating and of a higher order.
An internet search on Higher Order Thinking provides insight into what constitutes quality teaching. For insights into the development of questioning skills in the teaching and learning process see the Questioning Toolkit online.
Once you’ve chosen a student and had the answer you’re happy with ask for all remaining hands to be lowered and any chatting to stop.
Can I bring some of the children out of the audience to help? Can I have some simple props for them to use? Should I use music or instruments to add effect? Look at the piece you have selected to read and find any part where the children can participate by making sound effects or repeating a catch cry.
Is there a character that they can boo every time you mention their name?
Connect with the children as much as you can, for instance by eye contact, using names, praising exciting answers, laughing with them, referring back to earlier answers before continuing. Flapping or waving hands can be a distraction to you but more so to the rest of the class.
Different learning style preferences exist in any student group, and an understanding of these styles can be a major tool for a non-teacher. Some students will learn best by listening, while others prefer visual learning — studying images, noting actions and body language. Some students need to interact with their environment while others (known at kinaesthetic learners) learn best by doing things. Ignoring these differences and delivering your presentation in one mode only can cause frustration and boredom for those whose learning preferences are not being catered for. Discipline and other management problems can then occur.
Most teachers would agree that the kinaesthetic learner, in a session where a talk is being delivered with or without props and displays, can become a discipline challenge. There are many articles about learning styles and multiple intelligences available on the Internet.
Think about how you can involve the children. If they are left to sit and listen for an hour without any type of participation you may lose them. The younger the audience the more important participation becomes. Most primary school students are keen to participate and assist in presentations so this can be an incentive or reward for good behaviour.
Discuss audience participation with the teacher beforehand so they can lead the way. They might also suggest some children who may wish to get involved. You may set up parts of your performance with certain children before you start so that it is a surprise for the others.
Using props and display material
Keeping in mind the need to cater to different ways of learning and the importance of ‘hooks’, using props can be an important asset to a quality session. (It is equally important to use such items in moderation, not only to avoid distracting some students away from the message you are delivering, but also for your own good as you are the one who has to transport them from session to session.)
The younger the audience the more useful props are in engaging their attention. If you are talking to infants school classes, a puppet of a character from your book will be a real attention grabber. You may be able to buy a suitable commercially made puppet but some authors make a puppet themselves or pay someone to make one for them. Arriving with a ‘box of tricks’ (copies of your books, enlarged copy of the cover and illustrations, puppet or toy character, favourite poem or book, draft of next book) which you can delve into if their attention wanes, usually works with younger students.
You can create a portfolio showing the development of your book from first draft to final proofs. You can use examples of editor’s comments to show how a story can be improved by sharing it with someone. Discuss some of the changes the editor suggested and how they improved your manuscript. If your book is illustrated collect some of the early sketches and covers to show how they may have changed as the book evolved.
Using classroom technology
Most Australian schools have access to technologies such as computers, data projectors, interactive whiteboards and videoconference cameras. It is far more common than just a few years ago but make sure you use only the technology that suits your presentation.
Deb Abela is one who has taken advantage of the technology.
‘I use Interactive whiteboards to show PowerPoints and videos (for example, the trailer and images that inspired the creation of my novel, Grimsdon). I show kids a photo of the Thames Barrier in London and discuss how it inspired the main complication that propels the action of the book. I also have segments of the kids’ TV show I wrote and produced at Network TEN.’
James Roy advises caution when planning to use computers and other similar technology.
‘I don’t ever rely on laptops or PowerPoint presentations or anything like that — I’ve seen sessions half-wasted as the presenter and a teacher-librarian try to get technology to cooperate.’
This is certainly an important consideration, but, if you are keen and confident enough to use technology for your presentation, leave sufficient time before your session to satisfy yourself that it all works. For writer-in-residence sessions or all-day workshops it is definitely worth investigating the use of technologies. The key is to be prepared — the unforeseen can happen. Know what you will do if all technology fails and sure you have a backup plan. Always be ready to switch to your plan B or even C. This gets easier with experience.
The importance of voice
Classroom teachers are used to spending day after day addressing classes, but most writers don’t have this level of experience.
Visiting authors should not be expected to present for more than the equivalent of three hours per day, but even this can still be very demanding. See Part 3 The Business of School visits.
In addition to being aware of the need to protect your voice from strain, it is also extremely important that an author’s presentation varies in modulation, projects well and captures the interest the whole audience. Performing arts specialist Maria Cauchi Simpson suggests, ‘varying the tone, finding character voices, using a whisper or a loud voice to emphasise key moments — all help to keep your audience captivated.’
Add impact to your presentation by really looking at the audience. Look from child to child, but don’t stare at any one child for too long as it may make them feel uncomfortable.
As Maria Cauchi Simpson says:
‘You have spent many years honing your writing skills and fine-tuning your novel. Now it’s time to bring it to life. To personally share your story with an audience is a wonderful opportunity for you … For some people public appearances can be a little daunting. Being stressed will affect your voice and performance. Being calm, relaxed and prepared means you will be able to perform at your best.’
Reading your own work aloud
Reading your work aloud, without timidity or self-consciousness, is important and it’s something students and teachers really value.
In your planning you need to select some of the more engrossing segments of your books to read. Use anecdotes, humour or suspense to build up to the passage to be read aloud or select one that needs minimal introduction. Action or humorous extracts will capture a young audience. Have a few selected pieces that will suit different audiences and moods and that you can read if you have time at the end of your presentation. Practise reading the passages beforehand.
Writing on the whiteboard
If you intend to use a whiteboard, practise your writing so it is legible. Many authors begin by writing their name on the board. While whiteboards can be useful for brainstorming sessions and recording instructions for exercises they also have some limitations:
- Impact. If the group you are addressing is large, the visual impact of using a whiteboard is extremely limited.
- The quality and the colour of whiteboard pens can be problematic. While black is usually quite safe, writing with red or other bright colours may look fine to you but to many students can be almost unreadable. Cleaning the board and then writing on it again after cleaning can exacerbate this problem. The residual colour builds up gradually causing new writing to be blurred.
- The left-handed writer is also disadvantaged as much of the information remains covered until the writing is complete — again a further distraction and potential student management consideration.
- Unless the whiteboard you are using is one that allows for copying of what you have written before you move to another screen (not many schools have invested in this technology), then the notes you have made cannot be kept for future referral.