School Time

September 9, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 

Longer ago than I care to think about, when I was teaching a very bright and motivated group of individuals that comprised my 5th grade class, I made an unintended remark that has stayed with me all these years. My class was busily working away at various projects and there was the usual healthy buzz of talk and activity in the room that assured me that my students were engaged in their pursuits. I was working on some task at my desk. I don’t remember what it was, but apparently it required a level of concentration that I was missing because I rather spontaneously said, “Hey, guys, I need about five minutes of school time.”

I’m not sure why I chose those words, but my students immediately went back to their desks, got very quiet, and stared at me.

I stared back at them for a few seconds as the weight of what I said sunk in. First, I was surprised that I had dredged that term up. I didn’t say, “Sit down and be quiet.” I didn’t say, “Return to your seats and listen to me.” I just asked them for some school time. The fact that my students knew exactly what I meant by it spoke volumes to me about how my students perceived school–and, by contrast, my classroom.

It frightened me. School, to my students, was sitting quietly at their desks waiting to be told what to do. They had to stop activities in which they were happily engaged so that I could have some School Time. Whatever task I was working on was quickly forgotten as we spent the next 30 minutes or so talking about why they reacted as they did. The consensus was clear–in school, you sit at your desk, keep your eyes forward, don’t talk, and wait for instructions.

I asked them if they thought that our classroom was different. This was a tough question for most of them. We were in a school, after all, and there were desks and books and all the other familiar trappings. And yet, they clearly perceived that this experience was different, as evidenced by their quick return to their desks after my remark. Mindy finally offered a suggestion: “This is school, but it’s fun.”

Ouch, again. Wasn’t school fun? Not really, apparently. School was a set of rules that often countermanded what students really wanted to do. But don’t we have rules in this class? Yes, but they make sense. Why do they make sense? Because they let us learn.

AHA! It finally made sense to me. School wasn’t fun, but learning was fun. Students who were happily engaged in learning followed classroom rules because those rules facilitated learning rather than restricting it. When a classroom is about rules, you get School Time. When it’s about learning, you get a group of engaged students.

I did have a set of classroom rules posted on my wall. I did so because we were required to have them. They were:

  1. Be nice.
  2. Study hard.
  3. Use your brain.
  4. Don’t ask the Forbidden Questions.

They seemed to work in just about every circumstance.

For the rest of that year, whenever I needed some quiet in the room, I asked for School Time. In some ways, I regret that, as it tended to reinforce the notion that school was about rules. But it worked.

Oh. The forbidden questions were “How long does it have to be” and “Do I have to?” Tough habits to break.

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6 Responses to “School Time”

  1. wmchamberlain on September 9th, 2010 3:54 pm

    You should add, “What am I supposed to do?” as another forbidden question. That seems to be a favorite of my students.

  2. Skip on September 9th, 2010 7:41 pm

    🙂 I occasionally get “Are we getting graded on this?” from my post-secondary students. We’ve trained them well.

  3. Richard Byrne on September 10th, 2010 11:32 am

    I get that same question from high school students. My response is usually, “eventually.” Then I explain how the task I’ve asked them to do will lead into larger graded assessment. The first month of school that’s confusing for students, after that they get it.

  4. @kkemp70 on February 7th, 2011 3:33 pm

    I love the forbidden questions! In my class, I have the forbidden comment: “I don’t get it”. They soon learn to say “could I please have some help?”. Saying you don’t get it is just complaining – they need to problem solve and self advocate.

  5. Skip on February 7th, 2011 6:54 pm

    Very nice solution. We should compile all of these somewhere…

  6. Jason Strickland on August 15th, 2014 12:31 pm

    Skip, that was teaching done right. 20+ years later and I still think of that class. One of the things that stuck with me was how you went about teaching. You started class with a song (1814 we took a little trip…) to get us engaged and to help wake up our groggy minds. You let us pick projects that had meaning to us (but still had context in the greater syllabus), making the lesson plans more engaging and personal.

    Constantly challenging us to do better, grow as students / people, and all in all arming us with the power of critical thinking and the ability to analyze problems. Know that for some of us, your teaching didn’t end with the class, but has followed us throughout our lives.

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