Asking—and listening—to our students pays off
Last night I saw the play Dear Edward Hansen with my 14-year-old eighth grader, Zoey. It's amazing, of course, but one thing that really struck me was the audible sobbing during the show. This is a play about a suicide, social media, mob mentality, and absolute loneliness, so tears were inevitable. However, this was not just a sniffle, but very frequent heartfelt sobs. The theater was filled with middle school kiddos and their families, and I was astounded by the heaviness of the whole experience. It was cathartic, yes, but there seemed to be something else.
Flash-forward to this morning. As my daughter and I drove to school, and I contemplated this column and what "social responsibility" meant to a middle schooler, I decided to just ask Zoey and see what she said. "I don't know. I mean social responsibility can't be done alone by kids. They need adult help. I guess, I mean, thinking about the play last night, like why we all like it, is that it kinda puts the kids in charge of something. Just take care of each other.
So that's it. The real "social responsibility" in middle school terms just might be "take care of each other." Zoey was right. She can't buy things without our money and can't get places without adult help; most teens are in the same situation. But, as we approached the middle school this morning, it occurred to me that the lesson I will bring to my students from now on isn't one of taking on impossibly large and involved tasks, but instead, take care of each other.
The popularity of 13 Reasons Why and Dear Evan Hansen, as well as a resurgence in interest in Heathers—all involving suicide—leads me to believe that this profound loneliness in the midst of constant connectedness via screens might be a generation-defining issue. What if, as educators, our response was a full and intentional emphasis on the social responsibility we have as small (classes) and large communities (the entire social media world) to just take care of each other.
This means saying hi to someone lonely. Giving compliments when we can. Being kind when it is a stretch. Never excluding. Risking a little of our own selves to take care of each other. I'm optimistic that this is a kind of social responsibility that will resonate with middle schoolers: autonomous, specific, and based on the sobs I heard, a need they understand.
Amber Chandler is the coordinator of alternative education and interventions for Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, New York. She is a National Board Certified ELA teacher, the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, and a member of the AMLE Board of Trustees. Amber is author of
The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2019.
Taking the time to help your students navigate the highs and lows of adolescence
By the time Catie, 14, stormed out of her last class of the day, she felt disconnected from her emotions. She had no idea how deeply she'd been impacted by a minor fight with her mother on the way to school. In homeroom, she took offense when her friend Trevor made an innocuous comment about her weekend plans. At lunch, she felt rejected when friends turned her away from their full table. As the day went on, she was increasingly irritable. When her teacher chastised her for being chatty during seventh period, she yelled out to no one in particular that she always got blamed for everything, then ran out of class.
I counseled Catie that evening, and it took a while for her to identify the precipitating event. It's easy for middle schoolers to get derailed by an argument, rescinded invitation, or ambiguous comment, but hard for them to connect the dots between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Tweens may think bad feelings stick around forever, struggle to interpret feedback, or have no idea how to make themselves feel better. All of this can interfere with their functioning at school, but educators can use the following eight counseling techniques to help kids navigate the highs and lows.
Perfect the artful reframe.
Middle schoolers think in polarities. There's nothing more humiliating than making a mistake in class or clocking the slowest time in a relay. Getting disinvited from a sleepover, bombing a test, or getting excluded from a gift exchange all can feel like catastrophes. If you're able to reframe a situation—to help a child see it from a different angle—they'll experience it differently. Maybe that student who got disinvited from the sleepover knows deep down that they were spared discomfort and drama. Maybe no one intended to leave that kid out of the gift swap. Ask them how they'd reframe the situation for a friend or encourage them to pretend they're in a hot air balloon looking down on the situation. Do they see it any differently from that vantage point? Consider asking them to play it out. What's the evidence that the worst will happen? What's the evidence it won't happen? What would they need to cope with the worst-case scenario?
Challenge distorted thinking.
Students think they wouldn't lie to themselves, but they do. They catastrophize, think in black and white, overgeneralize, and discount the positive. For instance, they may get dozens of compliments on their presentation, but fixate on one snide comment about their voice cracking. If they bomb a quiz, they may conclude they'll fail at life. If they don't know the answer to #7 on the worksheet, they may feel they might as well bag the whole assignment. If a teacher changes their seat because they're disruptive, they may believe the relationship is irreparably damaged. Point out their faulty thinking and ask them to come up with alternative possibilities.
When a student makes a comment like, "I'm the worst writer," or "You never call on me," or "No one ever wants to be my lab partner," your instinct will be to refute the comment. Instead, validate it. That doesn't mean you agree or approve, it simply means you understand and empathize. You might say, "If I thought no one wanted to be my lab partner, I'd be pretty upset too. What makes you feel that way?" Consider sharing a time you felt similarly. Once a child feels heard, they'll be more open to problem-solving. Even if they behave inappropriately, start with validation. After saying, "If I thought everyone was laughing at me, I'd want to throw a chair, too," follow up with, "But here's why it's not okay."
Be an active and reflective listener.
Active listening is hard; it requires concentrating, matching a student's body language, turning toward them, eliminating distractions, making eye contact, and ensuring your tone, gestures and words are all in alignment. You'll lose credibility if there's inconsistency between what you say and what they perceive. It's tempting to multi-task when time is limited, but resist the urge to organize papers or glance at your computer. Make sure you listen reflectively, which requires repeating back what the student has just told you. That eliminates the potential for misunderstanding and increases the odds they'll feel heard. Bonus points if you reference any of their comments in a future conversation.
Counselor-to-student ratios are absurdly high; students don't necessarily relate to their counselor, if they know them at all; and mental illness is skyrocketing among middle schoolers. Educators can help by taking the time once a semester to define depression and anxiety and explain the difference between mental illness and the normal mood fluctuations associated with puberty. You don't need to be a therapist or school counselor to self-identify as someone who wants to help. If you need to involve the student's counselor, consider walking them there to help them tell their story.
Extinguish phobias with small exposures.
You don't want to shield students from all anxiety, but you don't want to traumatize them either. If a kid is anxious taking tests and has been taking them in another room, for example, focus on incremental progress. The next step might be having them take the test in the classroom, but with their back to peers. Similarly, if a student fears public speaking, try to avoid having them opt out altogether. Instead, scaffold the risk-taking. Perhaps they start by presenting to a few trusted friends or read from a script. Collaborate on any solutions.
Ask open-ended questions and make time to relate.
Lead with curiosity and open-ended questions. You'll improve the relationship if you use any one-on-one time to focus on learning about your student rather than delivering content or hammering home behavioral expectations. Even if you only can carve out five minutes a week, ask them how they learn best or what excites them. What progress do they hope to make in your class? If you notice a sports logo on their shirt, ask if they're a fan. Solicit their opinions, treat them as the expert in their lives and speak above their maturity level to convey respect.
Connect thoughts to feelings and behaviors.
Students concentrate better when you help them label feelings. Some teachers ask kids to fill out charts to indicate their mood or have them hang their nametag on a "mood clothesline" in the spot that best corresponds to their emotions. You can have your students share why they're in a bad mood, then exchange ideas with classmates about what they can proactively do to feel better. Don't forget to acknowledge their joy as well. If a student seems exuberantly happy, encourage them to savor the pleasant feeling for as long as possible. Tweens experience intense lows and are wired to remember the negative, and that makes middle school the perfect time to reinforce positivity and optimism. In fact, that might be one of the most enduring, impactful lessons you can impart.
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of
Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly
Career Confidential column and tweets.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2019.
How a chat with a former student reinforced and reaffirmed good teaching practices
I walked into a local business yesterday and stood in line waiting my turn. As I stood there, I knew that I recognized the face and the voice of the customer service representative eagerly assisting others. As I progressed through the line, I was taken back 21 years ago to my very first job as a middle school teacher. I was teaching sixth grade English language arts and social studies.
When my turn came and I stepped up to the counter, I simply asked the representative, "Are you Katie and was I your teacher in middle school?" She enthusiastically replied with a "Yes," and then explained what a great year it had been for her. After catching up on what she had been doing with her life—all good things—she made a statement that not only encouraged my heart but begged me to probe further. As I was about to leave, she stated in a positive manner, "I'm so glad that I bumped into you, as you are only one of two teachers that I remember from my entire middle school experience." I hugged her and walked away.
Again, I was immediately encouraged, but I really wanted to know what had made the difference 21 years ago, to the point where she was able to quantify that only two teachers throughout her middle school career really made a positive and significant difference. I asked her if she had just a couple of minutes to talk about what she remembered in terms of those two teachers making a difference. I wanted to take this informal chat and compare it to some things I have studied as a middle school teacher, middle school principal, and current professor.
I wanted to look through my lens as a researcher and compare to the role of practitioner. Katie agreed to sit down with me for a couple of moments and answer my questions regarding her powerful statement so we could share the information with others as a hopeful springboard for success.
As we sat down, I asked Katie to take just a minute or two to think about what she could really remember from middle school 21 years ago and what made the difference. After a purposeful reflection, I asked her as I was taking notes to simply describe the two teachers or the two classrooms she openly stated were the only ones that made a lasting impression on her as an adolescent. After another pause, she said the following:
"The classes were truly engaging, there were super-high expectations, and it was always clear that you cared about us."
I took those three components and decided to build upon them. First, I asked her what she really meant by "engaging" and if she could paint a picture for me, with words. Then, I asked her what she remembered or how she felt with these high expectations that she was referencing. Lastly, I asked how she knew that those two teachers really cared about her. Her responses are below and still hold true for any effective educator. They can also serve as a lesson for middle school teachers, principals, various stakeholders, and professors everywhere.
"When I think back to being engaged in your classroom, you really kept us busy, but in a good way. You moved at a really quick pace, and made it feel like we all had to keep up or ask for support and guidance. You did all of this in a way that didn't seem to bother anyone or make anyone feel inferior for asking for help. It was as if you made "asking for help" super cool and normal. We were comfortable raising our hand or asking a question or seeking clarification. It also seemed as though we were working but working in multiple ways. We may be reading, then writing, and sharing our thoughts with a partner. Sometimes we are working on a paper, or a project, or a presentation. It really was as though from the time we walked into class until the moment we finished up class, we were working hard, but again, doing good things and not really feeling like it was always work."
I found myself agreeing to everything she shared. She then proceeded to answer my question about high expectations in the following manner.
"I just really remember feeling like you had worked so hard to build a good and fun lesson, and that I couldn't let you down. But it wasn't an unhealthy pressure, it was appropriate pressure. You had high expectations, you were positive and offered us a lot of different supports, but in the end, if we didn't meet your expectation, we weren't just assigned a grade, and then the learning just stopped. If we didn't meet the expectation, we knew that at some point during the day or the week, and in some form or fashion, you were going to come back to us and we were going to have to close any gap or fix whatever component did not meet the expectation, that was within our capabilities."
In the end, she wrapped up with the following information regarding how students know when a teacher genuinely cares.
"To be honest, the first way that we knew that you cared about us, was by hearing you say it to us on a regular basis. It probably made you feel vulnerable with more than a hundred kids, but you did it, and you did it often. From day one, and probably every day after, you were honest and straightforward, and you said that you cared for us and that you would always do anything that you could for us. After that, we saw those words followed up with actions. I can remember you greeting us at the door. I can remember you dancing funny at school dances, just to make us laugh. And I can remember the constant high fives and hugs. Your classroom was a safe place. It w as a place where we came to learn, but we also knew that we could talk to you about anything. It wasn't like a lot of other classrooms. It really did feel like we were a team or a family, on most days. You were always proud of us and celebrating us, and you told us regularly that you loved us. In the end, it all worked."
My heart was full, and at the same time I was simply amazed. In a brief conversation, this young lady had captured so many things that our very best middle school teachers do on a regular basis, and she captured many different items that our very best administrators should ensure are happening in classrooms every day. Anyone could use her words as a checklist or a map moving forward for greater levels of success in the classroom: Keep students engaged, have a brisk pace, build students up, encourage everyone to ask questions, and vary the ways we teach children.
As I read her answers to my questions, the list continues. High expectations, appropriate pressure, positive interactions, differentiated support systems, and closing the gap. Lastly, more tips for all of us, educators at any level. Love kids, do anything you can for the students you serve, laugh often, greet them at the door with a high-five and kind word, build a classroom culture and a climate that is comfortable for learning and building relationships.
Regardless if you are talking to a student or a teacher who is reflecting on education 21 years ago, or if you're assuming the role of a more current researcher or practitioner, the bottom line is simple, a best practice is always a best practice, no matter when you use it.
James Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator at Coastal Carolina University, in Conway, South Carolina, where he works within the educational leadership department. He has been named both teacher of the year and principal of the year.
Published September 2019.
Collecting student work to keep track of and reflect on accomplishments
Recently, I offered a workshop in my district to teachers interested in creating digital portfolios of student work. My initial focus for the presentation was the digital concept of portfolios, but as I made my way further into my presentation it became clear to me that the conversation had to center around the purpose of having students keep a portfolio of their work in the first place.
A portfolio, or a collection of student work, can take many forms. When I began my career as a writing teacher of seventh and eighth grade students, this portfolio was a folder that was kept in a file bin in the corner of my classroom. As students completed final drafts of their work, these went into their portfolio. A few times a year, I would set aside time for students to reflect on one piece they had written. At the end of the year, they chose three and added these to their district portfolio, which would follow them into the upper grades.
Fast forward 15 years, and I no longer keep the hard copies of folders in my classroom. Instead, my students each have a digital portfolio, which for us means a Google Site that they have created with my assistance. My students add all major writing assignments and projects to this portfolio and keep track of all the books they have read since September. This portfolio is a living document that will follow them into the upper grades.
Our purpose is clear: the portfolio is a collection of the work they have completed in a given year, a record of what they have accomplished. However, as I delve deeper into the world of digital portfolios and find amazing resources shared by other educators, my idea of a digital portfolio is starting to change.
I found teachers who guided their students through the creation of digital portfolios, including not just written work but multimedia content as well. I found portfolios for science classes demonstrating lab experiments and music classes with recorded work. In addition, I discovered districts that had created digital portfolio templates for all subjects, where students placed examples of all different kinds of work they had completed in their classes. The most interesting portfolios to be found? Portfolios created by middle school students. The enthusiasm for these students to post and publish the work they were doing in class was infectious.
When we examine middle grades learners, we see students who need a high level of engagement, access to technology, and flexibility and control over their own learning. Digital portfolios are the perfect combination of all of these. Students can utilize their creativity and technology skills in the initial creation of a portfolio, which can be accomplished in many different formats. As the year progresses, they can share the work they have done with classmates, other teachers, family, and friends.
As we move through a world of ever-increasing technology, the concept of a digital portfolio is one that will continue to evolve over time for our students. What better way to prepare them for their future by providing them with the tools they will need to present their accomplishments to the world?
Kerry MacDonald is a sixth grade humanities teacher at Lawrence Intermediate School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Published August 2019.
How neuroscience can help us connect with adolescents
Reading about the teenage brain is one thing, crawling inside the mind of an adolescent is quite another. As a veteran of adolescence and a current scholar of teenage education, I can now look back at my own experiences with a different understanding. For the next few minutes, I will take a journey back 20 years to my own adolescence and examine how a memorable, hair-raising vehicular adventure can be explained through the neuroscience of adolescence and what it tells us about how to be better educators of adolescents.
It was a cold, sunny afternoon in February 1999, and I had just turned 14. It was after drama practice at school, and I was chatting with my fellow thespian, Tina. She was more than two years older than me and had an incredible singing voice, so she was often cast as a lead in our school musicals. I admired her because I couldn't carry a tune and had been cast in a minor role in every play I had ever been in. Therefore, when she told me that she wanted to show me something awesome, I was ecstatic. I was even more excited when she told me she was going to take me there in her very own car.
We left the school, and she drove us a couple of blocks to a nearby church that sat atop a hill. She drove to the top of the hill and then suddenly veered left, taking us straight down the steep, icy side of the hill. We slid down the hill, both of us screaming in delight as our speed picked up. As we reached the bottom of the hill, she cranked the wheel sharply to the left again and hit the brakes, sending us spinning to a stop in the lot at the bottom of the hill. We looked at each other with wide eyes and wider smiles and promptly started the drive back to the top of the hill to do it again.
This story illustrates a number of interesting phenomena related to the mind of an adolescent. The first phenomenon is the social focus of adolescents on the approval of peers. Looking back on this event, my desire for the approval of my peers manifested itself in several ways. For one, I was desperate to have a lead role in a play, not because I believed I was particularly talented, but because I believed it would make my peers think I was cool for the same reason that I thought Tina was so cool.
To gain Tina's approval, I was ready to do just about anything, even risk my own life in a car with an inexperienced driver who was intentionally reckless. Even though taking such intense risks in the name of peer approval is not something I would do as an adult, it is perfectly normal social behavior for an adolescent.
As Sheryl Feinstein explains in Secrets of the Teenage Brain, gravitating away from family and toward peers is a normal part of developing independence and an important component of the ability to successfully navigate adult life and perhaps even to perpetuate the species. My desire for social approval may have been exceedingly intense at this age, because as an adolescent female, my estrogen levels were soaring, causing my hippocampus to grow much faster than a boy's. As Feinstein explains, this increase in the size of the hippocampus gives girls a boost in social abilities, but it may also ingrain a deep need for social approval, such as I experienced.
The second phenomenon this story illustrates is that of adolescent risk-taking. This is manifested by the fact that I engaged in the extremely reckless behavior of riding down a steep, icy hill in a car and intentionally spinning out at the bottom. More than that, having done it once, I was eager to repeat the action because I enjoyed it so much.
While taking such a risk for a simple thrill seems illogical to me now, the fact that it seemed like a great idea when I was in my adolescence is not at all unusual. My eagerness to take such a risk can be explained by a number of factors unique to the teenage brain. The first factor is the relatively slow development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain compared to other areas of the brain.
As Feinstein tells us in Secrets of the Teenage Brain, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for making decisions and controlling emotions. Therefore, it's not surprising that my ability to weigh the consequences of my actions did not seem to be fully developed at the time.
Feinstein also explains that because the prefrontal cortex is not yet developed, teens rely more heavily on the amygdala when processing information. The amygdala, in contrast to the prefrontal cortex, is the area of the brain primarily responsible for emotion. Therefore, it's also not a surprise that my decision to take a second drive down the steep, icy hillside was primarily driven by a sense of euphoria, not a regard for the consequences to my safety. Because of this unique combination of developmental factors, young adolescents are often impulsive and can feel indestructible. I can't think of a better description of myself that afternoon.
As an educator, it is important that instead of simply being mystified by adolescent behavior, or worse, demonizing it, we learn to recognize that what adolescents are going through is completely normal. The truth is that they are not miniature adults, and we can't treat them as such. While I am not suggesting that we condone dangerous behaviors like driving down icy hills, I do think we need to understand and take advantage of how the teenage brain works.
First, this means recognizing that, to an adolescent, the approval of adults is much less important than the approval of peers. To capitalize on this, we can utilize group work and peer evaluation in the learning process, as teens are much more likely to listen to their peers' feedback because they are wired to seek their approval.
Second, this means feeding the need that the teenage brain has for excitement by introducing novelty into lesson planning. Feinstein suggests starting the lesson with something exciting and changing the format as we go through the lesson so students don't get bored.
Third, this means utilizing the teenage propensity for emotional thinking by connecting what they are learning to their emotions so they remember it better and want to experience it again.
Even though I doubt we can match the thrill of careening down icy slopes in my idol's car, I do know that if we tap into some of those same areas of the brain, students will be much more likely to be interested in school and remember what they are learning. And while my adolescence was some time ago, I believe that reflecting on my own experiences as a teenager in light of what I now know about adolescent neuroscience can only make me a better and more caring educator for students at this unique stage of development.
Feinstein, S. (2009). Secrets of the teenage brain: Research-based strategies for reaching and teaching today's adolescents. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
Molly Jordan is a former veterinarian and current biology teacher at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Published August 2019.
Being proactive by communicating expectations of classroom behavior
No need for a bull horn, the students could hear me shouting just fine. My voice was so hoarse after my first year, it sounded like I was constantly coming down with whooping cough. Expectations? Oh, my students were fully aware of the expectations ... after they displayed the disruptive behavior. How would they know what I expected? I never took the time to discuss classroom expectations, more specifically, behavior expectations. I let them know after the fact, and it was usually in a frustrated, anxious tone. I was displaying the classic signs of being reactive instead of proactive.
I knew if I wanted to have a positive impact on my students, I had to have a calm, safe, and inclusive learning environment. The summer after my first year, I developed a plan; a plan that invited students to develop their classroom and make it their own by implementing their ideas and creating a culture of community within our classroom. Everything would start and end with student voice and choice. We began with acknowledging that respect would be at the core of our community. Through a discussion about respect, we noticed everyone had their own idea of what respect looked and sounded like. This is where we started developing expectations. We called them Positive Behavior Expectations. They were designed to define respect. We identified specific behaviors, created 3-5 easy-to-follow steps or indicators, and each behavior was supported with a rationale. Also, we tried to refrain from using the word "respect" in the steps or indicators. For example, the students thought it was important to have a safe classroom. They identified Entering the Classroom as a behavior that defines respect. Here is an example of a Positive Behavior Expectation the students created in our class:
Entering the Classroom
Keep hands and feet to self
Walk to your desk and sit down
- Begin your welcome work
Rationale: Keeps students safe and we can begin class.
We started with five Positive Behavior Expectations. As the semester progressed, we added behavior expectations as the need arose. For example, we worked on having better conversations such as one-to-one conversations, small group work expectations, and group project expectations. Other expectations to consider included staying on task, beginning an assignment, listening, following directions, accepting "No" for an answer, and accepting feedback.
Time and Practice
Once we identified the beginning five Positive Behavior Expectations, the next critical step was to dedicate time for students to practice the Positive Behavior Expectations. If the students did not complete the steps with exceptional accuracy, they had to practice until the behavior was perfect. This relays the message that you—and fellow students—are serious about respect as a core characteristic of the classroom community. As students gain a general understanding of the Positive Behavior Expectations, consider reserving 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each class for students to identify the steps and rationale of a particular expectation. Engage students in role playing, writing, and creating posters to show an understanding of each expectation.
Would you project the quadratic formula on a screen and expect students to solve problems using the formula? No, you would introduce the quadratic formula, have students practice with one another, and finally have students work independently. You would engage them in gradual release. Teaching behavior is no different than teaching content. You introduce the behavior expectations, engage students in the process, and eventually they will be able to show the skill with little to no prompting. Treat teaching behavior as you would teach content.
Key Points for Success
You may revisit the expectations throughout the semester by adding new expectations and revisiting original expectations. The students need to be at the center of the process of developing the Positive Behavior Expectations. The rationale is critical in addressing the why of each behavior. The teacher needs to take the time to practice and follow through with holding students accountable for their behavior. You may want to consider having students show how to follow the expectation and how not to follow the expectation. Students have a lot of fun showing their acting skills!
Respecting Individuals while Celebrating Learning
By establishing behavior expectations you have created the foundation for the students to expand their learning environment. Relationships, respect, and trust are simultaneous in co-creating a community within a classroom. The next steps after establishing expectations is to develop students as leaders, create a safe environment for students to have authentic conversations, and engage in collaborative efforts in and outside of the classroom. My vision was to think and teach beyond the four walls. To not only develop community within our classroom, but to have a greater appreciation for school community and the community in which students reside.
So how do we create community in the classroom? I wanted to ensure my students had a voice that was heard and valued and that they were held accountable for their learning and behavior. If I wanted to stay true to hearing my students' voices, why not ask them directly? I did just that, and we decided to delegate leadership roles among the students. As the students explored different ideas, we eventually established a community council, which involved having students address the team building aspect. I wrote about this for the AMLE Newsletter in the October 2017 issue, A Community Council Makes Everyone a Champion (www.amle.org/am/lentfer1).
What is the benefit of team and community? It may seem counterintuitive, but we were much more efficient with our time. Since the students were vested in developing a culture of community, we were able to expand their learning and engage in meaningful projects. Students were more focused and willing to take risks. The community council enabled students to be more supportive, caring, and empathetic when students struggled. We invited parents to join our class to talk about their careers and what community means to them. Through the community council we found it was important to take pride in our classroom, school, and neighborhood. We set academic and behavior goals each week, and if we achieved our goals we would engage in a team building activity on Fridays. Team building would often include going around the school and neighborhood to pick up trash, taking turns tutoring other students with math or reading, and even sending cards of appreciation to staff, faculty, administrators, and community members. The idea is to develop students as leaders; leaders of their academics and social emotional skills, leaders who are willing to serve others, and leaders who give of themselves for the betterment of their neighbor and themselves.
This is community. Students are at the center, encouraging one another to higher levels, discovering learning through challenging projects, and creating and expressing their ideas in a variety of approaches. Students need an environment that will allow them to celebrate their mistakes, encourage peers to take a risk, and be vulnerable, knowing that they will be supported no matter the outcome. It all starts with the teacher and a willingness to let go of control and trust the students to lead their learning.
Community and Team Building Go Hand-in-Hand
Some will argue we don't have time to engage in team building; we have too many tests. I say you don't have time to not engage in team building activities. The activities do not have to take an entire class period. You have control over the amount of time you will designate toward team building. But consider what it looks like if you do not take the time for team activities.
Perhaps the team building activity could incorporate picking up trash outside the school and surrounding area. Emphasize the importance of pride in your community and how that may impact the students and their community.
Consider the skills they are learning while they are engaged in the activities. They learn how to set up the rules and enforce and follow the rules, and they develop leadership skills such as negotiating, compromising, handling competition, problem-solving, and caring about teammates. These are 21st century skills necessary for success.
We designate time—usually on Fridays—to engage in team building activities. The students are at the center of deciding the activity they are going to engage in. The only rule I have is everyone is involved. The students pick the activity, and they self-regulate to ensure the rules are enforced. This allows the teacher to truly be the guide on the side. Set the expectations prior to the team activity and allow the students to take ownership.
Do you ever go home and talk to your family about your day of teaching? Do you ever talk about how wonderful it was when you added fractions, or how the elements of the American Revolution influenced the foundation of our country? I may have talked briefly about how the students understood the material and what a wonderful feeling that was, but I did not gush about how wonderful it is to get "x" by itself. I talked about the students and the relationships. I discussed how we would dive into conversations about content and school news and maybe engage in a debate on when does a branch become a stick and is a twig lesser than or equal to a stick or when do you refer to a branch vs. a stick. We have fun with conversations and we have fun with content, and this fun can only be obtained once you have established positive relationships in your classroom. You build trust when you show your authentic self. They respect teachers who are honest and who admit their mistakes (just that one mistake). Be courageous in your endeavor to have fun in the classroom.
Everyone enjoys a balanced learning environment where you don't take yourself too seriously yet are able to focus attention on the content. Students love to test your limits and observe your response to their behavior. If a student is frustrated, you give them a minute to gather their thoughts and don't poke the bear. Do you like to engage in a conversation when you are angry? Probably not. So, show the same respect and give them some space. If a student continually refuses to follow an instruction, understand you cannot control their behavior. Consider responding with, "I understand, you made your choice, but here's something for you to think about, I believe in you" and simply walk away and let the student think about the fact that you actually care. Focus your attention on the positive aspects of every student. Write a list of positive aspects throughout the year. Have it available and let the student know what positive aspects you see in them. Throughout this process, watch the relationships flourish. Watch their behavior turn to a more positive condition. Find the beauty in every interaction and in doing so, watch how the classroom comes alive with collaboration and kindness.
A Case in Point
If a student poses a challenge, meet them where they are regarding their behavior. The content analogy is at play; if a student does not know how to add negative numbers, you would not expect them to be able to add negative fractions. Set the student up for success. Go for the small wins. For example, if they are having trouble focusing their attention during instruction, meet the student where they are and have them focus for one minute and gradually increase the time each day/week. If you ask for one minute of focus, and the student achieves the one minute, give them praise. Be careful not to get frustrated with the student if they did not focus for more than one minute. You agreed to one minute; praise and increase the goal for the next day.
Consider creating a list of positive aspects. Make a list for all students. Be as detailed as possible. Keep the list available for your review and add to it throughout the year. When you find yourself frustrated with a student, this list is key to turning your relationship into a positive interaction. When you praise a student use specific praise, often it will come from this list.
We focus so much on the negative that momentum builds in the wrong direction. Try focusing on the positives and watch how your classroom embraces a calm, peaceful, learning community. Teach your students to come to you with solutions, not problems. This is a wonderful way to show students to truly be at the center of solving their problems and focusing on the solutions. It is fundamental in creating a positive classroom community.
Calm, Peaceful, Productive Classroom
Developing a calm, peaceful classroom takes time. But if you take the time to communicate expectations, have students practice the expectations, and hold students accountable to the expectations, you will be able to expand the learning environment with high impact practices. When students understand and respect the positive behavior expectations, it allows them to take on more leadership roles, engagement increases, and collaboration explodes. It allows student voices to truly be heard when you implement their ideas. You and your students will have such fun co-creating in a safe and inclusive community. No doubt, you will find yourself going home with great energy and look forward to coming to work every day because you will know the community you took the time to build with your students will be a calm, peaceful, and productive learning environment.
Victoria Lentfer is an education instructor and middle school program director for the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is an educational consultant and founder of the CALM Classroom Management Program and authored
Keep Calm and Teach: Empowering K-12 Students with Positive Classroom Management Routines (2018, AMLE and Corwin).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Building healthy relationships in the middle school classroom
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) emphasizes the importance of creating a successful school for young adolescents that is inviting, supportive, safe, and joyful in order to support students' emotional well-being. As a middle level teacher educator, it has become apparent that teaching future educators the power of leading the restorative practice of community circles in the middle school classroom is just one powerful way to build healthy relationships in a classroom community. Further, as a Professional Development School (PDS) liaison who actively observes community circles in practice and who leads community circles with my own middle school teacher candidates, I can attest to the power of the community circle.
In this article, I offer just one encounter with a community circle to show its positive effect on relationships in the classroom. I have constructed a scenario that demonstrates the structure and power of community circles and that is set in a fictitious classroom. In closing, I provide two more community circle questions and the healthy community and relationship building skills that can potentially result for any practitioner who is willing to implement community circles in their own classroom.
It is a Monday morning in October. A group of chatty, eighth grade students walk into Mrs. Silverman's classroom. Several students are already in the room. Jon and Bryan are two of those students. They do not get along. They are like oil and water. If you ask their peers, they'll confirm it. A friction follows the boys throughout their day and they are in several of the same classes together.
Like many of their peers, Jon and Bryan were best friends once upon a time when they entered sixth grade just two years ago, but have since grown apart. Jon has found friends with others who love music as much as he does, and he can be found practicing with his band every chance he gets. Bryan has exceled on the soccer field. He is everyone's first pick in gym and he is the team captain of several intermural sports.
As the bell rings, the students promptly place their backpacks by their desks and move their chairs into a large circle, large enough to seat 21 students. It is a quick movement. What may appear as chaos at first glance is, in reality, a well-orchestrated set of motions that have been rehearsed time and time again. Jon and Bryan pull chairs on opposite sides of the circle and take a seat.
Students are very aware of Mrs. Silverman's classroom expectations and routines. Monday morning circles are one of those. "Good Morning everyone," says Mrs. Silverman. "Good Morning Mrs. Silverman," chirps a chorus of students. Mrs. Silverman continues, "Today I'd like to open our community circle by asking: What is something we are excited about concerning our upcoming eighth grade team talent show on Friday night?" Mrs. Silverman passes the talking piece, a hot pink and blue squishy ball, to her right. The circle begins.
Enter Restorative Practices
What Bryan and Jon, as well as the other students in Mrs. Silverman's class, do not realize is that the community circle question Mrs. Silverman posed to the class this Monday morning has been crafted with intention. Mrs. Silverman knows that Jon and Bryan do not get along and she knows that recently there has been a particular tension between the two. But she also knows that her eighth grade team of teachers and students have been working hard on their upcoming talent show for the school. She knows the students are excited for this event, and despite their different talents, Mrs. Silverman has a feeling that both Jon and Bryan are excited to highlight theirs this Friday night at the talent show.
Why does this matter? Because as the community circle unfolds, each student shares why they are excited for the talent show. Jon happens to receive the talking piece first because he is seated to the right of Mrs. Silverman. When he does, Jon says he's excited about showing off his talent for performing the most consecutive knee juggles of a soccer ball on stage. As she listens to Jon, Mrs. Silverman looks across the circle at Bryan. She observes him give a quick glance across the circle at Jon and smile. A small moment, but an important one. Because after Jon contributes, the talking piece is passed to his right and to the next student's right until it reaches Bryan who also shares his excitement, but for playing a drum solo with his band. Again, Mrs. Silverman looks out, but this time at Jon who she notices has also looked across the circle and has nodded in acknowledgment of his old friend.
So what's the big deal? It's just one question. But is it? There is power in the restorative practice of community circles that Mrs. Silverman has led with her class this Monday morning. She understands that Jon and Bryan are struggling in their relationship, and that perhaps others are experiencing social struggles. After all, they are young adolescents. By creating a question that results in the exchange of common feelings, individuals who think they no longer have anything in common might just realize that they aren't such polar opposites after all. Will this result in Jon and Bryan becoming best friends again? Probably not. However, the tension that exists between the two might be relieved as a result of one community circle.
The students in Mrs. Silverman's classes enter her room with a sense of calm and safety. They know that they will start their day in a space that invites them to express their feelings, and that their voices will be received with respect from the entire classroom community. Mrs. Silverman has built a healthy and safe community by implementing the restorative practice of community circles.
A Closer Look
At a conference I attended on the topic of Restorative Practices (RP), the facilitator mentioned that teachers don't have classroom management problems. They have community relationship problems. What occurred in Mrs. Silverman's classrooms is the restorative practice of community circles. According to Ted Wachtel, the International Institute for Restorative Practices founder and president (2013), "the use of restorative practices helps to: reduce crime, violence and bullying; improve human behavior; strengthen civil society; provide effective leadership; restore relationships; and repair harm" (p. 1). There are many specific ways to address the proactive, community building piece of restorative practices. Community Circles is one of them.
Community circles build communities of trust and respect. The power of community circles is that they offer students the opportunity to express themselves. As a result, students are able to identify with their peers. Community circles highlight common successes and struggles that students are experiencing. Empathy often results. Wachtel (2013) suggests that "circles give people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in an atmosphere of safety, decorum and equality" (p. 8).
There are also important implications for teachers. Community circles provide teachers a window into the social, emotional, and academic needs of their students that they otherwise may not learn. Teachers can use this data to build lessons that respond to the needs of the community expressed in the circle. By creating time each week or even daily to come together in community circles, many important social-emotional building skills are learned and healthy, respectful classroom communities result.
Consider the healthy community that Mrs. Silverman has built by implementing community circles. In figure 1, find two additional community circle questions teachers of young adolescents can implement in their classrooms and the lessons teachers and students might learn as a result.
Community Circle Questions
Wachtel, T. (2013). Defining restorative. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices. Retrieved from http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/Defining-Restorative.pdf
Jamie Silverman is currently a lecturer in the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education at Towson University, Towson, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Creating middle schools where every child can speak a digital language
Jade is a quiet 12-year-old girl who has been in my English classes here in Hong Kong for the past two school years. Because of her in-class demeanor, it took me by surprise when Jade off-handedly mentioned that she has over 4,000 followers on her YouTube channel. It turns out, Jade has been teaching many more kids than I have this past year through her online videos.
Jade has a privileged position in our society. Unlike many of her peers, who can only follow the channels of others, Jade has figured out how to mix words, images, sounds, and ideas to effectively communicate her message in her DIY productions.
We have so far arranged our society so that only a privileged few can successfully communicate in the language that is integral to the operation of our cell phones, tablets, smart TVs, and video game consoles. We ensure this continues to be the case by focusing on math facts and syntax when we teach digital programming classes in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, an approach that only appeals to a fraction of our student population. The result is self-evident: the present divide that exists between those who can instruct our devices what to do and those who can only be instructed by them.
Jade has crossed that divide and is fluent in speaking digitally. She is participating in creating a new kind of literacy.
Those who are fully digitally literate are able to read beyond the surface of electronic texts in order to understand how they function. To be digitally literate means that you can craft the words that express your ideas and then connect those words to other texts through a variety of media. The presentation of words has new meaning, as does the way in which the user interacts with the text. Words are increasingly experienced within an ongoing and interconnected digital conversation.
In an unjust society, only a small subset of the population will be able to speak in such digital conversations. In a just society, we will all be able to do so.
Schools have a central role to play in determining which type of society we will have. Providing opportunities across the curriculum for students to read and write digitally and to speak the language of technology is a defining issue of our time.
Inspired by Jade's example, my Year 8 English teaching team asked our students this year to create YouTube videos on any topic of their choosing. Essentially, we asked our students to create a visual essay. After about two weeks of continuous work time, in which students were absorbed in their tasks, I was amazed by the results. Many of the students in our international middle school are English as an additional language learners, and they often struggle with completing traditional essays. Yet out of nearly 50 students in my two English classes, nobody "forgot" to finish this assignment. Students who have been reluctant to participate in conversations were drawn into working with others by discovery of their shared interests and a desire to make technology do the things they saw it doing for others.
Our kids gained more because they had the power to create what they wanted in a situation where collaboration and conversation naturally led to a better product. For middle schools today, these 3Cs—choice, collaboration, and conversation—seem to be a particularly strong basis for allowing students to begin to speak digitally.
Another cornerstone in creating schools that encourage students to cross the digital divide is to acknowledge that programming languages are exactly that, languages, and should be taught as such.
I first contended this in a 2003 essay entitled "Teaching Computer Programming as a Language" (published in techdirections), based on my experiences teaching both entry-level programming and English courses. I wrote then that, "In the end, it is language that we are teaching, and that should guide the activities used in our programming courses" (Panell, 2003, p. 26).
Since then, much evidence in favor of my argument has accumulated. There was a study presented at the 2014 International Conference on Software Engineering in which researchers imaged the brains of students learning to program and found that as they wrote in code, the portions of the brain "related to different facets of language processing" were activated (Seigmund, et al, 2014). Another team of researchers, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, tested the use of second language acquisition techniques (SLA) in the teaching of entry level computer programming classes and concluded that, "The results from this project show great promise for the utilization of SLA in introductory programming course content delivery" (Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Frederick, 2017). I was gratified to see that the team of professors who carried out this latter study cited my original 2003 essay as a rationale for their work when they presented their final results last year (Frederick, Pierce, Griggs, Sun, & Ding, 2017).
The understanding that even complex variations of digital language, such as programming, are still language has great significance for how we teach this topic in our schools. For starters, it means that coding should be taught to a wider group of our students using the best techniques for teaching language more generally, and the earlier this teaching begins the better. This also should include a lot more conversation, collaboration, and building on interests that students already have when they come into class.
A case-in-point is a student named Riche, who enrolled in my elective entry-level web and app design course this year. He became fascinated when I showed the class how to use PhoneGap to put the apps they were creating onto the cell phones of their friends and families to test. Riche likes "memes," so he started making silly pictures with captions to send out as apps. Although his programs didn't really do anything, he was enjoying himself; I decided to see what would come of it. Next, he figured out how to make little apps that were practical jokes—they made a message pop up on the screen that said "ALERT: All of your cell phone files are now being deleted!" Since the program wasn't really doing anything harmful, I let him have his laugh. By the end of the course, Riche had found the code for a Tetris game online and was modifying it to reflect his own unique style for solving puzzles. By letting him build on his own interests, at his own pace, Riche discovered his digital voice.
The goal of patience in an inclusive approach is always to allow more students the time to develop the ability to be part of the digital discussion. A student-centered focus means that we provide opportunities for kids to choose to speak in the digital conversation, however they come to it, and whatever they hope to take away from it.
Middle school teachers should be at the forefront in providing our students with a collaborative environment where the language of technology is integrated into everything they do—as it will be for the remainder of their lives outside of school. Young people in schools should be able to speak digitally within all of the core topics of the curriculum. Children should be given the chance not just to use provided digital texts but to create texts of their own.
An easy entry point to creating texts in this digital conversation is an activity like the one I described earlier, where students create YouTube videos. This allows students to incorporate a wide variety of technologies and digital languages at a pace of their own choosing, and in a way that allows most teachers to be comfortable. Similarly, students could also create animated story boards to gain more knowledge of how to integrate words and digital media.
As they gain skills, students should be challenged to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations. They could create programs that simulate hunter and prey behavior for the science class. In literature, students could analyze both the story and programming of existing game apps with the intention of including these elements in their own creations.
In these ways, technological literacy becomes incorporated across the curriculum, turning school into a digital playground where kids are free to explore. Students could build their own calculating apps, write programs that model the growth of a population of microorganisms, and explore alternate twists to famous events by coding them into a game.
In a fully inclusive and just society every child will be given the opportunity to be part of the digital conversation. Students like Riche and Jade have already crossed over the digital divide, and now are able to speak. We can create that same opportunity for every child in our middle schools today.
Frederick, C., Pierce, M. B., Griggs, A. C., Sun, L., & Ding, L. (2017). Get rid of your student's fear and intimidation of learning a programming language. Retrieved from http://commons.erau.edu/publication/573
Panell, C.D. (2003). Teaching computer programming as a language. techdirections, 62(8).
Pierce, M., Griggs, A., Sun, L., & Frederick, C. (2017). Evaluating student perceptions and learning outcomes: Differences between SLA-aBLe and non-SLAaBLe introductory programming courses. International Journal of Management and Applied Science, 3(9), 92–95.
Siegmund, J., Kastner, C., Apel, S., Parnin, C., Bethmann, A., Leich, T., Saake, G., & Brechmann, A. (2014). Understanding understanding [sic] source code with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Proceedings of the 36th International Conference on Software Engineering - ICSE 2014, doi:10.1145/2568225.2568252
Christopher Dallas Panell teaches web and app design courses at Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong in addition to serving as the English Subject Lead for their flexible middle school model.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Facilitating rich discourse to engage students and develop confidence
Through education, teachers influence change in their students' mindsets, which in turn can help students become successful individuals (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). We believe that the best teachers guide, motivate, and inspire their students. Teaching mathematics effectively is crucial to developing students who can solve problems and persevere. In AMLE's position paper (2010), This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, there is an emphasis on both Active Learning, in which students are engaged and are situated at the center of purposeful learning, and Challenging Curriculum, which promotes curriculum that incorporates students' ideas and questions. Here we consider how these characteristics can be employed in the mathematics classroom.
A Glimpse into a Mathematics Classroom
Students in the sixth grade mathematics classroom participated in a geometry unit in which the pedagogical focus was how we presented the lessons and promoted motivation through the use of growth mindset to help students feel confident and achieve success. Before starting with the lesson, we allowed time for students to express how they felt about the unit they were about to begin. Some students expressed feelings of being overwhelmed. Others, shared feelings of discomfort about geometry in general with statements such as "I feel ugh about it. Geometry isn't really my thing. It's a little confusing for me." This activity allowed us the opportunity to acknowledge students' feelings and assure them the goal was to create a positive mathematics learning experience.
Each lesson began with bell work in which students were to work independently for approximately two minutes before sharing their strategies with their shoulder partner. The task was to find the area of a shaded figure by applying knowledge about triangles and rectangles. Students needed to identify the information given to help them attempt the task and determine what was needed to be successful. They needed to develop a strategy to find the area of the rectangle and a triangle and then understand that the task was asking them to subtract both areas to find the shaded part. After working on the task and sharing with their partners, a whole-class discussion was conducted starting with the recording of all strategies used by the students. When the strategies were shared, students were asked to look around the classroom to observe how many of their classmates thought and attempted the problem in the same manner. This practice was used to ease student anxiety or doubts about the way they attempt mathematics problems. Then, students were asked to explain and try at least one of the strategies written on the board. Once a student demonstrated it, another student was encouraged to critique their peers' work. A different student was called to elaborate on what was shared and explain their rationale. Up to three students were called to critique their reasoning of others every time they worked on a problem.
This practice helped students make sense of their reasoning as well as that of others while deepening understanding of the skills presented. The following is an excerpt from the class using the mathematical practices of critiquing another students' reasoning:
Teacher: Let's see, Elijah can you explain what she did?
Elijah: Uhm…she did something wrong…she needed to divide the area of the triangle by two.
Elijah: She needed to divide the triangle in half.
Teacher: Do we all agree on that?
Teacher: So, you are telling me that you should divide the triangle by two? Is that it?
Teacher: Why is it that we need to divide by two?
Alanis: Because the triangle is half of a square.
Teacher: Because the triangle is half of a square. Kyra, what do you think of that? Agree or disagree?
Teacher: Why do you agree?
Kyra: Because if you take that triangle and you put it in one of the sides, it means you can have another one of it.
As the lesson progressed, students asked questions and shared their understanding of different strategies with their peers. By using effective questioning practices, students deepened their knowledge and articulated their own conclusions. Students who showed anxiety when trying to answer questions had the opportunity to gather their thoughts, listen to others before answering, and respond when they felt ready. This problem fostered a stress-free environment in which students felt at liberty not only to express their thoughts but also to accept their failures.
Before moving on with the lesson, the teacher assured the class how confident and proud she felt about their performance. She also used humor to express the need to challenge them more. This practice seemed to help students feel more confident and ready to do the mathematics at hand.
Teacher: All of you already know? WOW, then I should not even be teaching this lesson!
Before the challenge was given, students had the opportunity to reflect on their learning and the way they felt about the lesson. At all times, students demonstrated being engaged and responded enthusiastically to what the teacher proposed to them. An excerpt from the lesson is below.
Halie: I was kind of overwhelmed but now not that much, because I didn't know where really we were going to go to, but now that I know what I need to do it's kind of easy.
Emily B.: What reduced my overwhelmedness was how it was just like finding the area, but then just like adding another number to multiply to find the volume of the entire shape. It made things more simple to understand and see how to process it…it was just simpler.
Teacher: So, this is helping you? This strategy of seeing the floor first and then stacking it up is helping you?
Emily B.: Mhmm
Teacher: Ok, Kyra.
Kyra: I am not overwhelmed anymore because if you really just think about it…because with me and my brain it goes; ok, I see this problem…this problem looks hard, but then when you actually explain it, we see…and then you ask questions, show models…it's not that hard.
Teacher: Does that mean I can give you a challenge?
While students were describing how they felt about the lesson, they started sharing which strategies helped them the most. One strategy they liked the most when conceptually understanding how to find the volume of a rectangular prism was "the stacking strategy," because that is how they named it. This strategy was based on knowing that the volume of a shape can be given by finding the area of the base of the shape (a rectangle) and then "stacking" the same number of blocks or the same area given one on top of the other until the height had been reached. One of the students was able to connect this strategy of finding volume to a real world situation in which the first floor of a two-story house would represent the area of the base and the top floor would give the height. Another student, using this same idea, connected the same example to how the surface area of the house could be identified by how much paint or wallpaper the house would need.
During the challenge, students were encouraged to attempt to solve all problems given. Those who were able to get to the solution quickly were encouraged to use other strategies to support their findings. One significant thing noticed was how students persevered and showed strong effort when trying to solve the problem given. The prompt most students use is the use of positive language and the word "yet." The idea behind it is the belief that a student can change how they feel and the way they work on a problem by affirming that, even if they do not grasp the concept or strategy at that particular moment, they still believe they can understand it with a little bit more effort and perseverance. This strategy is called "The Power of Yet."
Through our experience, it is clear that incorporating more mathematical discourse and fostering a growth mindset belief in the middle school mathematics classroom can help students develop more confidence and achieve higher levels of mathematical understanding, which aligns with the Active Learning and Challenging Curriculum characteristics of This We Believe. Classroom discourse motivates students and promotes engagement in the classroom, and it encourages students to believe in their abilities, persevere into solving the problems given, and change the perceptions they might have of how they do mathematics.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: when students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
Lynnette Sanchez-Gonzalez is a 5-9 mathematics High Impact Teacher and curriculum leader at South Seminole Academy, Seminole County, Florida.
Megan Nickels, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of STEM education in the College of Community Innovation and Education and College of Medicine at the University of Central Florida.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.
Improve learning and show students you value them by rethinking the physical space of the classroom
I hail from room 604, where the sign on the door reads "resource room." However, I actually teach sixth grade English language arts class at full capacity in this room, which was designed for small group support classes. Sometimes I feel like I am teaching an aerobics class in a shoebox, and some days it smells that way, too. What bothers me most is the frustration that has come from having to teach in a way that conflicts with my philosophy of education. I do not see myself as queen of a domain, but rather as a "guide on the side" encouraging student learning.
To create a student-centered classroom, I altered the physical setting: the geography of the classroom. Taking inspiration from Nancy Atwell's In the Middle, I re-organized my space for a writer or reader workshop. Room 604 has two "perks" I took advantage of: a long counter across the back of the room with good cabinetry built above and a substantial sized storage closet behind the whiteboard.
Creating Space for Student Use
The first task was to reorder the horizontal spaces in the room. There was a large table used for laying out papers and a good sized teacher desk on which my materials were scattered. Effectively used? No. I made these spaces available to students by clearing "my" teacher desk and eliminating many boxes filled with "someday" items that I believed I would use, but never did. Eliminating them was a no-brainer.
I could not change the size and shape of the room, or the number of student desks required, but I could "create" space by eliminating the teacher desk and two unused file cabinets and clearing a table. I now use a two-foot space of the counter for my workspace with laptop and incoming daily papers. The bulk of my curriculum materials, office paperwork, department resources, parent contact, and lesson planning are now organized in labeled binders in the overhead cabinets. The remainder of the cleared counter has become the student supply center where students have access to certain supplies they can use, borrow, or take without needing to ask permission. They begin to self-help, which I love, for it helps develop their sense of responsibility and maintains my sanity. The rest of the space along the counter has become workspace for students to work in small groups or individually.
I rotated the teacher desk and put it against the other table creating what looks like a fairly long dining room table where three or four editing partners can meet to collaborate on a writing project. Students love moving to this area. Rather than spread materials needed horizontally, I used wall space to hold folders with materials needed by students as they edit written work.
Creating a Library
The last area I repurposed was the closet, which has become a mini library. I discussed this conversion with my administrator beforehand. He supported the plan with these two rules to be in place: the light stays on and the door is always open. This 100 square foot area now houses a surprisingly large collection of age appropriate books, a table, and a standing height desk. A few students can work comfortably in the library reading, writing, or doing independent projects. The built-in shelves hold more than 300 books, ones I had accumulated over the years. The library is student-run as well. Volunteer "librarians" sort books and place them on the correct shelf, follow up with books loaned out, and maintain the logs. The librarians rotate regularly so more students can share this responsibility.
Making these changes also helped me link the geography of a classroom with body language. When I used the teacher desk, it was a geographic and physical barrier between my students and myself. I prefer that my posture expresses to them that they matter most. In 50 minutes moving among them, they sense that they are my top priority. This was worth the sacrifice of a desk and some creature comfort. By sharing with the students what I was doing and why as changes were being made, their buy-in was certain and appreciated. I believe that far too many teachers severely underestimate the young adolescent capacity to understand a greater purpose. They are already curious and asking "why," so why not show them how the clock ticks rather than just the face of the clock.
Re-imagining my classroom has led to these important results:
Students are valued and thrive in a student-centered classroom
My identity as a teacher has evolved from being a taskmaster to being a guide
Seldom used horizontal surfaces became valuable, functional spaces
Student independence and collaboration have both been nurtured
- The "geography" of my classroom now expresses my fundamental belief about the importance of students as individuals
This re-imagination of the classroom has greatly benefitted the total learning environment, with students' learning increasing.
How might you alter the geography of your classroom? While you may not have a closet, are there spaces that are underutilized? Can the space of the teacher desk be deemed for student use?
Consider taking steps to improve the learning environment of your classroom. The students will appreciate it, and certainly they are worth it.
Maggie Perkins is a sixth grade teacher at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2019.