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How do I keep control of my classroom when I’m teaching with manipulatives? (Part 1)

Date: February 9th, 2016
By: Tom Schersten

Tom_0453_4Before I put a single manipulative in front of a single student, I invest a little time in telling them about my expectations of their behavior.

By doing this, I am nurturing the relationships that allow me to routinely make respectful requests and expect compliance (that is, to be in control of my classroom).

Further, I make it fun for them to learn what I expect of them.

Oh, it takes a little time, but not much. And I assure you, for every minute I spend setting clear and precise expectations, I gain hours of time I don’t have to spend in power struggles. It’s the old Ben Franklin adage at work, “An ounce of prevention….”

It is imperative that we learn how to keep control of our classroom while teaching with manipulatives, because our students need them to learn! Especially our youngest learners. If they can’t get concrete about math they are never going to fully understand it. Why? Because they are concrete learners.

So here is how I keep control of my classroom when I’m teaching with manipulatives.

First, I tell the class, “We are going to be using some math materials during math class today. When I first pass out the materials, the first thing you are going to want to do is NOT a math lesson.  What is the first thing you are going to want to do when you are handed these materials?”  The inevitable response is that they would like to play with them.  So I say, “I will give you an opportunity to explore with them before we begin the teacher-directed portion of the lesson.”

Then I stop talking, and I enjoy watching the students express their delight!

I continue, “During the lesson there will be times when you will be using the blocks and not listening to me, but there will also be times when I want you to be listening to me and not handling the blocks.

“When I want you to take your hands off the blocks and look in my direction, I will say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks and look this way.’

“Do you think you know what to do when I say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks, and look this way’?”

Usually the class signals in the affirmative.

I continue, “Good.  Please show me. Please pretend you’re building with the blocks at your desks.”

Now I wait about 5 seconds while students busily mime building with the blocks.

Then I say, “Please take your hands off the blocks, and look this way.”

I compliment the class on their rapid response to my request.

Then, I ask them, “How long do you think it should take for everyone in the class to take their hands off the blocks and look at me after I say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks and look this way?’”

If the answer is given in a number of minutes, I chuckle out loud and suggest that the reaction time really should be measured in seconds.

If, say, 10 seconds is suggested, then I tell them we will use my stopwatch to investigate if this is sufficient time.

“OK, let’s see if 10 seconds is enough time for you to take your hands off the blocks and look at me after I say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks and look this way.’ When I say, ‘Go,’ please pretend you’re building with the blocks, but keep listening to me so that you can take you hands off the blocks and look toward me when I ask you to.”

I then say “Go.” After maybe 5 seconds I say, “Please take your hands off the blocks, and look this way.”  I start timing 10 seconds on my stopwatch, or whatever time they have chosen, and invariably it turns out to be a very long time, to everyone’s surprise. In fact, everyone has complied in less than one second, and then we wait in silence for another 9 seconds.

Although the most zealous students will want to comply instantaneously, typically others will suggest only one second.’ (This always gives me a good laugh, too. One second! How demanding they can be of themselves when we give them a chance to measure up. Kids are really wonderful.)

Then I tell the kids that since I am so generous, I am going to give them twice as much time as they need—2 seconds!  Of course this delights them further. And so the expectation is set, and everyone is pleased.

We then practice this command two or three more times before the students ever have the materials on their desks or tables.

BEWARE: It is a grave mistake to allow students to handle the materials before the expectations are fully explained in detail and practiced with repetition.  When the students begin their exploration of the real materials, their relationship with the materials actually begins to form, and we want it to form in a particular direction—OUR direction. In my opinion, we must be in control of our classrooms, and the teacher has control over what the kids want: access to the manipulatives.  By following the instructions of the teacher, students will have maximum access to handling the blocks.  (My next blog will address enforcing these expectations and the consequences for non-compliance.)

It bears repeating: set up the expectation that all hands in the room will be off the blocks and all eyes will be looking at you within two seconds. Use a stopwatch for timing to make the expectation more concrete and more dramatic.

After the instructions and response have been practiced a few times on the empty desks or tables, prepare to pass out the materials for exploration time. All eyes will be on you—here come the much anticipated math materials! (Can you believe how pleased they are now feeling about math materials? We are building a fire in them and associating it with math. We are making math fun. We are indeed teaching math in such a way that they will want more.)

But then I stop, with all eyes now on me, and I say, “You did a great job of taking your hands off the blocks during practice, but you did not actually have blocks in your hands.  Do you think you could do this even if you really had blocks in your hands?”

The kids invariably assure me, “Yes!”

So I continue, “Well, we’re about to find out.  Shortly after you begin building with the blocks, I am going to suddenly interrupt you and say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks, and look this way.’  Do you think you will still be able to take your hands off the blocks and look this way in 2 seconds?”

The answer is again invariably, “Yes!”

I respond with, “Good,” and I begin passing out the blocks to the tables or clusters of desks.

(Note: As you continue successfully working with manipulative, whenever a new manipulative is going to used with the students, plan on giving the learners exploration time with the new hands-on materials before you attempt teacher-directed activities.  When people of any age are presented with something new and exciting, they like to take a look at it, handle it, and discover relationships on their own.  We do not want to discourage this curiosity.  Getting familiar with the materials is valuable, so write this legitimate learning activity into your lesson plans.  Ask the participants what they noticed, and conversations will begin to open up, full of math potential.)

Practice the “hands-off” procedure a few more times during the students’ 3- or 4-minute free exploration time with the new materials, and consistently reinforce the classroom expectation whenever you say, ‘Please take your hands off the blocks, and look this way.’

Using this protocol, by the time the active part of your lesson begins, your students will be in the habit of taking their hands off the blocks and returning attention to the teacher whenever requested.  Having the ability to call your class back to your attention can make a decided difference in your comfort level with using manipulatives and perhaps in the ultimate success of your use of math modeling.

This blog has dealt with setting up expectations, and the next one will address the enforcement of this expectation AND the consequences of non-compliance with the instructions.

Meanwhile, send me your questions and experiences here!