This past week I changed two lessons on the fly in class. The lessons I planned were not well-designed for the class in which I implemented them, which left me with the choices of drowning for forty minutes or taking a drastically different route than what I'd mapped out. It went as well as could be expected- no mutiny in the classroom, although a couple students tried.
Monday I planned a lesson to engage students in the vocabulary that they need to know for the unit that will unfold over the next month. We did an activity that helped them to review the definitions, and then were going to play charades to help them visualize the definitions and hit hard on kinesthetic learning. My first period class has been my most troublesome this year and at the point in the lesson when I was trying to explain how to play charades they wouldn't even get quiet. At that point it became deafeningly apparent that getting the students up in front of the group to act out words like "suffrage" or "labor unions" was going to be tough. Trying to talk in front of a group who isn't listening at all whatsoever is incredibly difficult. That task becomes infinitely worse when it's in front of a group of peers, of course, and I knew from a similar incident last year that if I asked students to come do anything academic in front of a crowd of their jeering friends, I'd have a classroom of eighth graders refusing to follow directions and shutting down my lesson, thereby shutting down my authority in the classroom. That incident last year resulting in an entire class refusing to come up to present because the rest of the class was talking to much and being rowdy.
It was at that point on Monday when even I couldn't get the group to listen that I switched gears and picked up the speed of the lesson. Instead of charades I told the students to turn the vocabulary handout over, make four boxes and then pick four words we covered. The students then created a graphic representation of the word (they drew stick figures), wrote the definition in their own words, and used the word in a sentence. The incredible thing was for one of the first times this year the class got quiet and nearly every student completed the assignment as directed. What is more is that I don't think they noticed that the lesson had changed at all.
T I was going to show a film (Iron-Jawed Angels) to help illustrate what the women's rights movement was all about in the 1800s and early 1900s. My first period class already lost movie privileges because they couldn't handle watching a film with some mild violence without laughing hysterically at very serious content. This time during my last period class the students would not get quiet to discuss the things we needed to in order to prepare for the movie. The general feeling in the room was far more talkative and rebellious than usual, so I told them if they were not quiet in fifteen seconds that we would scrap the movie and do another assignment, as I couldn't have students talking through the movie. They didn't and I couldn't balk.
I didn't say anything at the end of the fifteen seconds. I just started counting how many students were present with my fingers- something that actually got the students curious and quiet. I walked to the bookcase, stacked enough books for partners to share at the front of each row, told them to pass them back and as they did I flipped through the book hoping to god there was something I could do with women's suffrage. Luckily there was (if there hadn't been, I would have used a different activity from the unit), and I gave the direction to open the books to that page and complete an assignment distinguishing fact from opinion using a suffragette article. Done. They all completed it and one student even asked near the end of the period if that was the assignment I'd planned for them, which got some snide remarks out of other students. At least they were aware that they'd misbehaved and a privilege had been taken away.
Last year I was so terrified to switch things up mid-lesson and so bad at it that I very rarely tried it. Those times that I did it was so apparent that I was very irate that the students took the switch personally and didn't do anything, which meant a long period of floundering and a classroom full of students defying adult authority. That of course leads to a lot of issues down the road, which in turn made the situation even more stressful. Of course the goal is to not have to switch things up mid-lesson, but sometimes you realize that the students are simply not going to get anything out of the lesson for whatever reason. Try to be cool-headed about the switch, pick an activity that is ridiculously straight-forward (the text can be a decent option), and don't back down. If it isn't necessary don't immediately point out that they are being terrible and you are switching things up, just switch and try to get them working. If possible, to the end of the period you can have the conversation about what you wanted to do, why you couldn't do it and how to move forward from the incident.
If this happens remember that the breakdown is most likely due to their behavior, not an unsound lesson. Whether your management is an issue or not, the point is that if it's blindingly apparent that the students aren't really going to do the lesson and if they aren't going to follow directions, you need to give them something that they will do, regardless of how it compares to your original lesson in terms of educational value.
Today's Wine: Il Borgo Montepulciano D'Abruzzo 2008- pretty good red. It had some kind of a strange earthy feel when I drank it. It might have been what I was eating or something, but it was different from what I normally drink.