Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.30.16How to Start Class: Starring Alonte Johnson

Alonte JohnsonThe first moment of your class is in many ways the most important in setting expectations for what will happen there for the next hour.  That’s why I love this clip of Alonte Johnson starting his 7th grade English class at King’s Collegiate in Brooklyn.  He’s clear and direct. His routines are simple and efficient.  He balances just the right amount of formality to show that the endeavors of his class are serious without being harsh.  And he communicates so much of what he expects with his tone and body language.

AlonteJohnson.StrongVoice.StartingClass from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

Here’s a bit of play-by-play.

  • Alonte’s meeting his kids at the door. He greets them warmly enough but not over the top.  There’s a hint of formality that says, “I am your teacher. I care about you; but I expect to be treated with respect. I expect us to do work together.”  Notice that he’s also handing each student a packet. Now they have everything they need in their hands when they cross into the room. There’s no plausible reason not to enter, take your seat and get right to work.  Notice also his calmness.  Almost like he can’t imagine a universe in which students wouldn’t do as was expected.
  • Next Alonte enters class. Notice the healthy routine he’s installed.  Everyone’s seated and getting started. They do it this way today because they do it this way every day.
  • At 3:49 he reminds students to have their homework out.  Not “please take it out” but “it should be out” delivered with just a hint of playful in his voice, that shows he’s confident his students will do as he asks.
  • Now his first direction: “Make sure your packet has a first and last name and your advisory at the top.” Good economy of language here. Fewer words are better. They show he is prepared and knows exactly what he expects. Plus they have things to do. “Make sure” assumes the best… it asks students to self-check their own follow-through and assumes they will adjust immediately if they have failed to do so.
  • But notice here the subtle shift in Alonte’s body language. He’s signaling that things are getting started. He’s standing up very straight- symmetrical, shoulders back, facing the class directly. There’s a hint of formality in his air that keeps expectations high.  His movements are very limited.
  • A student asks him a question. The start of class is all business so he’s not chatting.  “No,” he says. He’s neutral in tone but diligent about his economy of language.
  • Now he repeats his directions. Again, no extraneous words but the use of “please” to underscore an air of civility but also that touch of formality.
  • From 4:17 to 4:23 you can see him scan the room carefully, looking to make sure he has follow through and making it subtly clear to students that when he gives a direction he looks to see if they follow through. He cares that they follow through. We call this “being seen looking.”  Notice also how still he is.  This communicates that there is nothing else on his mind but making sure his students are getting ready.  And he holds his gaze on one student in the back he appears to be concerned about.
  • At 4:29 his active instructions starts. Again a single, simple crisp direction first that he can see students do: “Track me” given in a calm voice. Easy, confident, a bit of formality.
  • Again he scans the room to make sure his students have done as he’s asked and that he has them all with him from the outset.
  • 4:32 One student is still struggling to get basic expectations completed. He corrects him but, crucially, drops his voice to a stage whisper.  He is doing his best to keep it private, not make some kind of example of the student and the drop in his voice communicates that to the child in question.  As a result there is no blow back.
  • 4:36 Now the teaching begins. Notice the economy of language: “So, today we are going to finally stamp the learning”—(this phrase means clarify and finalize our knowledge of a topic in writing). There are no extra words here. No chit chat.  That comes later.  But also notice that his voice is different.  When he talks about the book they are reading there is more levity and inflection in his voice.  He is expressive, happy talking about books with his students.  When they successfully make the shift to the topic of their study, he is at his most engaging.  Among other things general demeanor of contentedness shows how much he values the content and that all is well.


So there you have it- a case study in getting down to the business of learning with finesse- no  tension and stress, just a bit of modeling of expectations and a hint of formality.

Is this the only way teachers should start class, you ask? Of course not.  Each teacher has their own style. Want to be perkier sometimes, be perkier.  But it’s important to have in your arsenal the tools to communicate in a warm and respectful way, we have work to do here today and to be able to get down to it as quickly and simply as possible. And of course Alonte can be more chatty and casual during class as he wishes. Once he’s used his formality to establish expectations, there’s plenty of room to shift his tone to something more casual.

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3 Responses to “How to Start Class: Starring Alonte Johnson”

  1. Samantha Little
    April 1, 2016 at 11:25 pm

    I agree that there are many different ways to start a classroom. Alone Johnson’s approach is direct and structured. I feel like a lot of time is typically wasted at the beginning of class to get the class settled and started. He demonstrates how simple it can be to command the room and get class started in a timely manner. It is evident that he has established this routine with his students. The change in his voice helps students understand when the formal lecture will begin. He gives a lot of verbal cues to the students. I agree that the need to speech with formality to establish expectations is a crucial part of class time because it reduces the amount of class time that is wasted.

  2. Callie
    May 12, 2016 at 12:50 am

    Would love to see more examples of entry routines in your early elementary classrooms – curious about the balance of setting a focused tone vs. creating a feeling of warmth and community in Uncommon KG, 1st, and 2nd grade classrooms. Do you have in-class morning meetings? Breakfast? What are the implications for the start of the day and the tone set in the classroom?

    • Doug Lemov
      May 25, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      thanks, Callie. good questions. i’ll see what we can dig up.

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