Would you go to a movie theater where they make you sit with the screen behind you or to your side? Me neither. Yet that’s exactly what I did to my students until a colleague set me straight. And I’ve seen this in a lot of classrooms since then, so now it’s my turn to set others straight.
The problem is that different teaching strategies call for different seating orientations, and teachers often fail to accommodate those differences. As a result, students face each other rather than the board or screen during whole-class instruction. Some students then alternate between turning their heads or twisting their torsos to see what’s on the board and turning around to record it in their notes. Many other students zone out or act out, while their teachers exhort them to pay attention.
But pay attention to what? It’s only natural for students to focus on what’s in their direct line of vision. That’s why you need a signal for students to re-orient their desks whenever you shift from whole-class instruction to a small-group activity and vice versa. (I used a train whistle for this purpose—see A Lighter Atmosphere and Tighter Ship.) Now granted, some classrooms may be less conducive than others to kids moving around like this, but there’s always something you can do. If, for example, your classroom is equipped with large tables rather than individual desks, advise students who sit with their backs or sides to the board to turn their chairs for whole-class instruction. The downside of this is that they’ll lose their writing surface, but you can always give them clipboards to compensate—some kids prefer this anyway, since they feel cool using a clipboard.
Whatever it takes so that students never have their backs or sides to the action in your classroom just as you never do when you go to the show.