HARBORCREEK, PA — I used to look upon fire drills as annoying interruptions to my classes. After all, our school schedules nine of the practices each year. What we are learning is extremely simple. We walk out of my classroom and make two right turns to get outside. Then we walk 100 yards away from the building. I've even asked myself, "Do we really need to practice this simple procedure nine times per year?"
Then it occurred to me that many of the laboratory skills my students use are practiced before they are actually used in a laboratory experiment. Practicing these skills before we really need to use them is somewhat like practicing evacuation of a building before we actually have a fire.
My students spend one class period learning how to use a balance and another on reading various cylinders, for example. Even a part of one class is used for learning how to light the Bunsen burner and make adjustments to the flame.
Recently, I decided that this same drilling technique needed to be used to start the lab. Upon entering the room on lab days, some of my students would put on their safety glasses and aprons right away. Others would sit and wait for my inevitable last-minute directions, and some were back at the lab station without putting on safety glasses and aprons at all. One day I said, "Today, we are going to practice 'starting lab.' "
I then proceeded to tell them that, on lab days, they were to come into the room, sit in their regular seats, get out the lab paper or directions, and then wait for any instructions over and above what I may have said the day before.
When my instructions were over, they were able to put on their aprons and glasses and go to their lab stations. Two minutes were allotted for doing this. Then I told them to pack up their books and go out in the hall because we needed to practice "starting lab."
Some classes needed more than one practice. When lab day arrives now, however, things go much more smoothly.
I think high school teachers assume students have already learned how to behave in certain situations. We think they learned how to start class, for example, in grade school. Actually, starting class is different for every teacher and every subject.
My instructions for the beginning of class go like this: Students should sit in their assigned seats and look at the agenda written on the blackboard. They should get out the textbook, worksheet, notebook, pencil, or whatever else is going to be needed to complete the agenda. When I stand in the center of the room and look at them, they are to stop talking because that is an indication I am ready to start class.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's amazing, however, how many students need to practice this. The practices, I am convinced, are worth the time. I no longer have to yell "settle down" in order to get class started and then tell them what to put on their desks. Classes begin without many of the frustrations I formerly had.
I find I am practicing behaviors and procedures in preparation for various activities more and more as I mature as a teacher. As a consequence, things go more smoothly. Having fire drills nine times per year also makes sense to me now. I no longer question the need for them or complain about the interruptions to my classes.