I feel so fortunate to be able to observe outstanding teachers from time to time as I travel. Last month I had the privilege of observing two in California: Doug Stone and Alina Filipescu. I will share more observations in the weeks ahead, but today I want to focus on starting class. Both teachers greeted their students at the door. Students are not allowed to enter the class until and unless they shake hands and make eye contact with the teacher. I see this as a preemptive classroom management move–it is much harder to disrespect someone with whom you have just had personal contact. I have also seen Carol Sutton do this with her classes. As I have shared before, I have done this before, but never as intentionally as Alina, Doug and Carol seem to do it.

Making physical contact with each student is an almost instinctual way of establishing rapport and control in the classroom. As Frans De Waal noted in Chimpanzee Politics, the ape with the most connections, the one that touches others the most, has the most influence in the group. It may not be the biggest or the loudest, but the connections make it the de facto leader. I want to be that big ape in my classroom. And the mandatory handshake is a daily formalization of that process.

But Alina takes it to a new level, as she does with so much of her teaching. To get into her classroom requires a handshake AND knowing the password. Password is written in a pre-established place in the classroom and pre-taught. all of the students that I observed knew it quickly and well.

As soon as I returned back home to Colorado, I implemented a “secret word” policy in my classroom. And it has been working like a dream. Students may not enter the classroom until they greet me at the door. this provides me with a little bit of “me time” between classes to clear my head and it established the classroom as a special space. Not just anyone is allowed in here–only those that know the password. students help one another if a classmate does not know it, or if they say it wrong, they can step aside and listen until they get it right. We start speaking in the target language before class starts and it also demarcates the class a special one–no one else in the school is doing anything like this.

Here are a few passwords, usually set forth in the form of questions, that we have had fun with so far (all are in the target language, but translated here):

What time do you go to bed?  Password: I go to bed at…

What time do you get up in the morning?  Password: I get up at…

What do you think about the weather? Is is going to rain?  Password: It seems to me that it is (is not) going to rain.

Are you ready?  Password: Yes, I am ready.

In what year did Christopher Columbus arrive in the New World?  Password: In the year 1492

In what year was the Battle of Puebla (cinco de mayo)?   Password: In the year 1862

I encourage all teachers to try this out next school year. Let’s start a list of useful phrases for passwords.