I started teaching French in front of a classroom of kids in Louisiana. The year was 2005 and I had no clue what I was doing. A forty minutes period seemed endless and filled with perils. In front of me, 25 students were waiting, expecting me to do something. Anything really.
Forty minutes, are you kidding?
How could I occupy all this time? I started to count every second, trying to stretch every activity until it broke, eyes glued to the classroom clock. My planning was deficient, and so was my way of considering the whole business. Students were looking at their drowning French teacher with amusement. Time was controlling me, and not the other way around. But something far worse was about to happen. The wave was coming.
September 2005. Katrina hit the coast. Water was rising. After two weeks on the road, I was back in school. Among the desolation of the big city, we got lucky. Part of the roof of our school was damaged, and some rain got in the building. Nothing worse. Although our school was only 50 miles south of New Orleans, we were on the good side of the hurricane. Others were not so lucky.
Many families had to be relocated and the Lafourche Parish, where I was teaching, welcomed a few of the them. New faces appeared in my French class, grim faces, scared, angry faces. These kids didn’t want to be there. Their house had been flooded, sometimes destroyed. They couldn’t care less about learning French. Discipline problems started to appear. And there I was, drowning in my own time management crisis. I felt ridiculous. Something had to be done. Fast.
After reading “The first days of school“, I decided to start writing my lesson plan on the board. At first, I thought: “Writing the plan, then explaining it in French, then explaining it in English… Man, I can spend five minutes on that, easily. Five out of forty, not bad.” The whole point was to waste time, to occupy the lesson. But something almost magical started to happen. The plan on the board acted as a guideline, as an itinerary, as a roadmap through the lesson. I started to be more organised. I stopped wasting time. My pace was faster and the activities more focused. Then I realised that my discipline problem started to disappear. Something was changing. Evolving.
Having my plan on the board may seem a bit ridiculous, I know. But for me, at the time, it was a big step forward. It gave me a safety net to fall back to, a backbone on which to structure my lesson. The kids would see it too, and when we didn’t have enough time to do something on the plan that they thought they would like they would be disappointed. They suddenly got a little more engaged. In the Louisiana context of year 2005, that really meant a lot!
What started as a way to waste time became a habit. Now, there isn’t a lesson that I start without introducing my plan. I always write it in the same top left corner of my board, and I leave it on the whole lesson. I read it in French or Spanish, then (for the lower grades) in English. Sometimes, as we go along in the lesson, I put Xs next to the items that we have covered. Kids are used to it. It’s not a big thing, but it gives us context and structure. Like a path to follow.
It’s been years now since I had a real discipline problem in class, and I think that part of it is due to an effective planning. Short activities, varied exercices, lots of them. And all that is on the board. Of course.