Serving up appetising lessons

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Organise your classroom as if for a dinner party and your teaching time will be profitably spent, says Jenifer Smith.

Managing and organising a class is like holding a large dinner party. If the cook doesn't have the ingredients to hand or doesn't take account of different cooking times, souffles go flat and sauces curdle.

A class needs just as thoughtful and detailed attention for it to function efficiently.

However, just as a suitably equipped kitchen allows a chef to create a masterpiece, teachers need to establish an appropriate learning environment before they can make a nourishing and mouth-watering "mind-meal". But what works for one may not suit another.

Although I do not (hopefully) fit the stereotype of a teacher - tweed coat, rope-pen draped alluringly around neck - I do have some strong compulsions.

When I'm out with friends in winter, I have to check that everyone is wrapped up and, when crossing the road, that they take the nearest hand. I make endless lists, ticking items off with a red pen and prioritise using a highlighter. (Yes, it worries me too.) However, organising and managing large groups effectively is essential in the classroom.

Establishing procedures and routines, arranging resources and furniture to the best advantage ensures more profitable teaching time - and lessens the number of alluring calls of "Miss, what shall I do?" Queuing may be a British pastime, but it has limited value in schools. You must avoid rows of fidgety children seeking guidance.

Children inevitably work at different rates. Providing a supply of independent activities for those who have completed set work as well as labelled trays for "work-in-progress" or "to be checked" ensures that they know what to do without having to ask.

Resources need to be accessible. Just as the rush-hour results in road-rage, bottle-necks in a porly laid-out classroom will make tempers flare. Consider which resources are everyday tools and which are specific to an area.

Desk trays mean children have easy access to rulers and pencils; keep board pens in a suitable location and paperwork, such as school letters, in named box files.

Consider what information needs to be readily available to the children. Planned events, group lists, requests for art materials and homework requirements can be displayed on a pin-board, allowing documents to be updated.

Few teachers have modern, purpose-built classrooms. But when you consider how much of the day you spend inside its four walls, it deserves careful consideration.

Popular TV programmes, such as Changing Rooms, prove that, with a little imagination, rooms can be easily transformed to create different atmospheres. Re-arrange the furniture: adding cushions, carpets and plants can inspire a cosy, calm mood in the reading area. Interactive displays and relevant resources encourage purposeful enquiry in activity areas.

Ask the children for solutions to problems. Discussing classroom issues with them promotes a sense of ownership and helps to ensure systems are maintained. They can be given specific responsibilities: monitors can keep areas tidy and carry out more difficult tasks. While it isn't easy to find the time to instruct children in how to use a library, for example, it is worthwhile in the long term.

Reflecting on the principles underlying the way things are organised helps to re-evaluate their effectiveness. Missing out these vital ingredients could lead to the teaching equivalent of Can't Cook, Won't Cook.

Jenifer Smith taught in primary schools for several years before creating a comprehensive education programme for a large charity. She now produces education resources and is a supply teacher in inner London

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