Solutions To Your Biggest Classroom Challenges

Julie, head of content and curriculum, shares solutions to common classroom challenges. She draws on her own teaching experience and suggests teaching strategies and small shifts you can make in your practice so that these issues become a thing of the past.

Updated on: October 15, 2019

Solutions To Your Biggest Classroom Challenges

Chances are you are experiencing a classroom challenge that you need a solution for. Rather than go through the process of trial and error, I have posed some common classroom challenges and provided solutions. These were the challenges that I experienced most frequently in my classroom, and the experiments I tried to solve them. I hope that they work as well for you as they did for me.

Classroom Challenge:

Students come into class talking and it is impossible for me to get them settled.

Experiment: Morning Pages

I wish that I could take credit for this one, but I can’t. Morning Pages is a daily writing practice that Julia Cameron outlines in her book The Artist’s Way. The premise is this: Free write and fill up one page and/or write for ten minutes. There is no prompt or topic and the exercise is meant to unclutter the mind so that real thinking and engagement can begin. Morning Pages are part of my regular writing routine. I make my coffee and I do my Morning Pages. What if Morning Pages became part of the classroom routine? Students come into class and they sit down, get out their notebook, and write the Morning Page. They can write about anything they want. This isn’t graded or collected. Julia Cameron describes the process as a dustbuster for the mind. It clears off the dust and leaves a shiny new surface.

Here's How It Works:

  • Consider requiring or providing notebooks for every student;
  • Have students use the same notebook for their Morning Pages;
  • Encourage students to keep this notebook in the classroom;
  • Create a beginning of class routine where students write for 5-7 minutes;
  • Display a visual timer;
  • Consider playing soft music to set the tone for writing.

Classroom Challenge:

During class discussions, I can’t call on everyone, and my students are cross-talking and off topic.

Experiment: Parking Lot

Time is one of the biggest barriers in our work. When it comes to class discussions, we want to hear from everyone; we need to hear from everyone, but it’s hard. It is even harder when students ask unrelated questions, interrupt each other or take the discussion off course. If any of this sounds familiar, try setting up a Parking Lot in your classroom.

Here's How It Works:

  • Take a large piece of chart paper, and draw a rectangle for each of your students;
  • Write each student’s name in a rectangle or “parking spot” ;
  • Post the chart in the classroom where students can easily access it;
  • Explain to students that you want to hear from everyone, but when we interrupt each other or go off topic we can’t have a meaningful discussion;
  • Share how the system will work.

Before a class discussion, give students a sticky note. Explain to them that when they have a question or insight, and you are unable to call on them, that they can write it down. When the discussion is over, they place their sticky on their parking space. You will read what they wrote, write a response on the back, and return it to them the next day. During discussions, when students interrupt or are cross-talking, simply say, “Park it!” as a signal for them to refocus.

You can use the Parking Lot for a formative assessment at the end of the discussion by asking all students a question, having them write their responses, and then post them on the Parking Lot on their way out of class. Using this strategy is a way to respond to individual students, and to honor all voices in your classroom. Students who may not want to share in the discussion can still participate using the Parking Lot.

Classroom Challenge:

My students aren’t following class expectations. I have to review them constantly, and it is taking too much time away from teaching.

Class-generated Expectations

In my experience, students follow expectations when they are involved in the process of generating those expectations. In addition, I believe that expectations are fluid, and will shift and change as the students’ do.

For example, in the beginning of the year it may feel important to establish the expectation that all students come into class, sit down and quietly begin the Do Now. However, by mid-year, this is part of the classroom routine, and no longer an expectation. I find it helpful to revisit the expectations with students throughout the year, and revise and change them as needed.

Some of my favorite expectations that I have generated with students are:

  • Do You;
  • Stay In Your Own Lane;
  • Move With Speed;
  • Put Yourself In Someone Else’s Shoes.

Use the Chalk Talk strategy to invite students into the expectations generation process. This is a silent discussion protocol that encourages equitable participation. Students have time to process and think through their ideas, as well as build on their classmates’ ideas.

Here's How It Works:

  • Place large pieces of chart paper on tables or tape them to the walls;
  • Write down these questions on the chart paper: What do you need from your teacher? What do you need from your classmates? What do you need to learn best? What do good teammates do?;
  • Give students markers, and ask them to respond to the questions;
  • After they have completed their first pass, ask them to read what their classmates wrote and write comments and questions;
  • Use the posters as material for a whole-group discussion where you generate the class norms together;
  • Keep the posters up and refer to them to name positive behaviors and to support students to get back on track;
  • Revisit the process throughout the school year as the answers change for students.

Classroom Challenge:

My students don't know how to get started on their work.

Experiment: Consistent Procedures

The more consistencies you create for your students, the more likely they will find success. You can do this on the macro level and micro level. In my school, my colleagues and I decided to streamline our classes for the 8th graders. We have all transitioned to using interactive notebooks for the bulk of the students' assignments. We also created cross-curricular expectations for how the notebooks are organized, i.e. what the table of contents looks like, how the assignments are documented, and that we want handouts glued in. In every class, students come in and automatically grab their notebooks on the way to their seats and are ready to start with their bell work.

That's a big-picture procedure that may or may not be possible in your school or your department, however, there are some strategies to help students within your four walls.

Listed on the daily agenda for my classes, I always put where the assignment can be found next to the items on the list (if you aren't familiar with our prior posts, in the last couple of years I have shifted to my students having more independent work time). I have also pared down where I post assignments in order to help students be more independent. Students will either find their work on Canvas, our Learning Management System, in "the crate"--the one crate I have on the side of the room that holds task cards, or I will have our unit with folders and handouts laid out on the bulletin board--I ultimately label Canvas, Crate, or Bulletin Board (BB).

Because students only have three places to look for assignments, they are trained really well! They come in, get their composition notebook, and then if they see "Canvas" written on the agenda, they automatically get a Chromebook. Sometimes I find myself trying to slow them down with getting started.

Remember, this is a strategy for independent work time. It can also help students who missed class find their missed work--I have an online agenda I use instead of one on my whiteboard, so students can easily access all daily agendas.

If I am teaching whole-group and the assignment is given out at my pace, then I do not disclose where the assignment is in order to keep students from grabbing it before I want them to!

Reflect on how you communicate where assignments are located in your classroom. Decide if you can streamline and simplify where assignments can be found to allow self-sufficiency in your classroom.

Here's How It Works:

  • Choose no more than three places where you are going to put assignments, whether it be an LMS, crate, folder, table, window sill, etc.;
  • Each day next to your agenda items, write down where the assignment is located;
  • Swap out assignments in the location as needed.

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Julie Mason is the Head of Content and Curriculum for TeacherVision. She brings an expertise in blended and personalized learning, instructional coaching, and curriculum design to the role. She was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years and most recently taught at Dana Hall, an all girls school in Wellesley, MA. She was a blended and personalized learning instructional coach for K-12 teachers at BetterLesson for two years, and she has presented at The National Principals Conference, ISTE, and ASCD where she shared her expertise on how instructional coaching builds teacher capacity in K-12 schools. She has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development for teachers, and she oversees the TeacherVision advisory board.