Starting the Class 2
What's the problem?
Students take an inordinate time to settle down. Usually this means lots of chatter, moving positions, rummaging in bags for books and notes and pens, giggling admissions to each other that they have forgotten them, and completion of that urgent text message.
What does it mean?
If it is the first class of the day (especially on a Monday), it simply means that the class is a social group and they have news and gossip to catch up on—despite the fact that they have been texting each other and speaking on their mobile phones all the previous evening. When you are an adolescent, this is serious business (remember?)
That is of course no excuse. You have work to do.
The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it requires a critical mass. The next time it happens, observe its disippation. At first it is everybody—then the more serious students settle down and isolate one or two cliques. When they become aware that the rest of the group is relatively quiet, they look up rather sheepishly and settle down themselves.
How can I handle it?
In schools, the traditional method is to greet the pupils outside the classroom, and get them lined up and quiet before admitting them, with explicit instructions as to how they should behave once let in. This can be used in some college situations, particularly in workshops, laboratories and computer suites, but generally ordinary classrooms are open, and students often arrive before the teacher—particularly if you are hot-footing from a previous class at the other end of the campus.
You can ritualise your start—even your entrance. This doesn't mean anything very dramatic: my usual "OK, folks, let's get started!" is hardly a fanfare, but it is a clearly recognisable marker. That's purely aural, but switching on the data projector (linking up your laptop to the data projector and finding the right presentation can really mess up a clean start) provides a visual signal.
That's all one-sided. You need also to get them in work-mode. This is one occasion when targeted questioning is useful. Not just, "Can anyone remember what we were doing last lesson?" but "Ranjit, how many items can we generally hold in short-term memory?" Ask this very specific recall question of a student who is on the cusp of "settling down". It not only gets their attention, but also that of others, who wonder whether they'll get the right answer. Do not go for students who might be humiliated by their ignorance—it sets the wrong tone—but do not concentrate on the usual suspects either. Throw the question open if you don't get the correct response straight away.
Or move about. Use the time to group students for later groupwork, or return assignments, or give out handouts or exercises. Visit each clique and settle them in turn, with something work-related rather than merely disciplinary.
In short, regard this as a process which has to be deliberately managed, rather than just allow it to sort itself out.