Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Noise" In A Classroom - It's Not Always A Bad Thing!

When I first starting teaching (oh so many years ago!), I wanted a quiet classroom.  Almost to the level of hearing a pin drop.  Why?  Simple.  A quiet classroom, in my mind, was a sign of great classroom management.  It meant that my students were engaged, working and I was in control of the room.  I dreaded the question "can we work together" because working together leads to noise, noise leads to chaos and chaos lead to bad classroom management.  While I was right about chaos equaling bad management, I have learned that I was very wrong about the rest.  Noise and chaos are not the same thing.

A few years ago, as I got more comfortable as a teacher, as a part of the staff and with my subject matter I started relaxing a little and exploring other classroom structures.  I found that when a teacher structures it correctly and with strong expectations in place from the beginning, student collaboration can be one of the most powerful tools a teacher can use!  The key, I have found, is to start small at the beginning of a year or a term, before jumping into stations or collaborations that require a great deal of movement around the classroom.  I would describe the progression like this:

Step one:  Establish clear communication with your students about what your expectations are when they are talking to each other, participating in a classroom discussion or engaging in a group activity.  The clearer you are about what you expect, the easier it is to control the classroom and the students without requiring silence.  

Step two:  Start with small discussion pieces that are short and structured.  I will ask students to turn to their neighbor and complete an example problem together and then pick a random pair to come to the board to do it for the class.  This serves several purposes:

      ** It sets a time limit and destination (solving the problem), 
      ** It gives them clear direction for their talking
      ** It allows me to rotate and hear what they are talking about
      ** It gives me insight into whether they understand what we are doing (and I can correct it with questioning immediately)
      ** It involves all students since they don't know who will be called to go to the front board.

Partner Worksheet
Fold It Up
A great resource that I have found that helps to transition from this step to the next is made by Teaching High School Math called "Algebra Solving Equations Partner Worksheets".  In this activity students are paired up.  Each student works their problems individually, then they compare answers (which are the same even though they did different equations!) and talk through them if their answers don't match!  

I also really like a resource that I found by Live Love Math called "Fold It Up - Multistep Equations Practice"  It has students create a foldable and solve problems at the same time!  This is great for getting students talking and to break out of the mold of stand and deliver for note-taking.  

Step three:  Do an activity that requires small movement and group collaboration.  Task cards or investigation activities are fantastic for this!  I like using task cards because they can be used so many ways.  You can have the students pass the task cards from pair to pair or between small groups.  Additionally, you can set-up the task cards at stations and have groups of students rotate from station to station.  I also like investigation activities at this point because they require interaction, collaboration and hands-on learning but don't have to require students to be up and moving if your students aren't ready.

Congruent Triangles
Left, Right, Answer
I feature a few investigation activities in my TpT Store including Cut and Paste Activities.  One of my favorites is on Proving Triangles Congruent.  In it, students work in small groups to identify the method or methods being used to prove the triangles congruent and then cut them out and paste them under headings.  The discussion and collaboration that comes out of this is amazing.  I have included it in a money saving bundle that includes proof practice as well.

Task cards are fantastic!  I cannot say enough how much I love them!  They break concepts down into small tasks, help students to focus in on specific topics and encourage great collaboration.  One of my favorite ways to take task cards to the next level is made by 4mulafun called "Left, Right, Answer".  It turns using task cards into a game and more!  (You can check out a blog post about how to use them here.)

Step four:  This is usually the final step.  At this point your students are used to talking to each other and know what your expectations are when they do so.  They are (usually)  pretty good at keeping the noise level at a reasonable level and staying focused.  At this point you can really start having fun.  You can do activities that require large movement such as relay races, gallery walks where instead of tasks being at centers, they are posted on the walls and students are in almost constant movement. Getting to this point really is my favorite place.  I LOVE to see my students up, moving, interacting, collaborating and just generally getting to experience how much fun math can be.

Relay Race
I have seen so many products on TeachersPayTeachers that work here so well.   All Things Algebra has a fantastic relay race on Solving Systems of Equations.  This activity has students checking each others work and racing to get it done. I love it because the students have to not only be able to complete their part but also have to be able to look over the work of others to make sure it is correct!   Prizes could definitely be involved.  

Miss Math Dork has relay races where students do problems and draw a part of a figure.  One of my favorites covers the topic of Circumference and Area of Circles around a circus theme!  Which even team gets the circus scene drawn first, wins!  And as we all know, middle and high school students love competition and prizes! :)  She also has templates so that you can make your own!  

No matter what pace you take it at, collaboration and communication between not only teacher and student, but student to student as well is of critical importance.  I look back at those first few years and wonder why I thought I had to have a silent class to have control of it!  What do you do to encourage collaboration and communication?  What are some of your favorite activities?


  1. Wow, this is powerful advice for a new teacher! Thank you so much for the amazing ideas! I hate just sticking to the textbook, especially in math, and can't wait to have a classroom in which I don't have to constantly be dealing with noise management and in which kids are having fun! I think this definitely applies to upper elementary grades as well, and has definitely made me rethink about just diving in to group collaborations at the start of the year! I agree with you about having to first establish those expectations, and I will now just begin the year with partner work before I move on to small group. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you! I am so happy that I was able to help you out! There is so much power is group collaboration but many teachers shy away from it because of the prep and management needed! I am thrilled that you are going to give it a try. If you need any further suggestions, email me!



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