Noise is one of the hardest parts of Project-Based learning for me. I love creating the projects; I love introducing them and watching the students eagerly take on the task. The conversation that starts, “Look what I found,” just makes me smile, as they engage with the information, beginning to collaborate with each other. It is the chatter that then so often starts that is always a challenge for me – chatter that is off-topic and seemingly distracting that always is a challenge for me. While my head knows that middle school students are social creatures and the breaks that they take can support their learning, often helping them to reconnect and remember more, because of the chance to be social. I know they need those breaks to make them feel happy and secure. But the “Old School Marm” in me always wants to clamp down, exert my authority and seemingly regain control over my students. So I am working on a balance.
This week, I introduced a research project on the role of the Executive Branch of government and had the students investigate the life and powers of the President and his cabinet, using www.whitehouse.gov. There is an amazing amount of information there, and I wanted them to follow their interests and instincts while still aiming for a general goal. They eagerly set to work, silently at first, making their way to the website and beginning to investigate. After 3-5 minutes the conversation began, in whispers at first and then with increasing volume. Much of it was directly connected to their research, as they excitedly shared a new fact, pointed out a picture, discovered a tour of the White House. They were genuinely interested in what they were finding and in sharing it with their peers. Those are the times that make me glow! I love creating an experience that makes those kinds of interactions happen.
But then, within a few more moments, there were snatches of, “I wish it had been a snow day,” and “What are you up to this weekend?” My impulse is always to immediately intervene and call them back to the work before them. I so want to clamp down, forcing obedience to some ancient standard of what an engaged and focused student looks like. Intellectually, I know that desks in rows and silent, rote learning are not tools I want to use, but there are times when I find myself turning towards them, rather than away.
I struggle to accept, when it is happening right in front of me, that those times of reconnecting with friends, are important for the energy and learning of my students. They are not direct affronts to my authority, but instead are simply signs of middle school students being who they are. It really has nothing to do with me or the lesson, and it has everything to do with their social needs. Having listened to a presentation last week about the importance of accepting middle school students as social beings, this time, I took a deep breathe and just waited to speak. I wandered around the room, making my presence felt, but not taking control. Often the simply aspect of the teacher moving closer caused them to refocus, but not all of the time. I simply passed on, even if they were talking about unrelated topics.
I let this go on for about 5 minutes, as the volume slowly rose to one that felt too loud for work to happen. At that point, I told them that they needed to be silent for 4 minutes. I decided that rather than setting a long period of silence, I would set one that was achievable for them. They each know that they can stay quiet for 4 minutes, maybe not much more than that, but they can do 4. They immediately fell silent with absolutely no whispering or conversation of any kind. They took on the task of focusing for a set period of time and went to it. The part that caught me off guard was that they stuck to it, long after the 4 minutes was up. they read and recorded, not looking at the clock or squirming in their seats. They tackled their research without even a question. I simply stood there, shaking my head. They never cease to teach me something new, if I will only listen and observe. While the Chatter Time is often like “fingernails on chalkboard”, I may well have to learn to let it be an accepted part of my classroom.