I am currently working with a group of educators in central Ohio and the Literacy Connection. Our focus this year is Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller. This post is in response to chapter 3, Environment, Environment, and Environment.
I was struck by the chapter's opening quote "I believe that classroom environments are the most effective when they are literate and purposeful, organized and accessible, and, most of all, authentic."
This is a philosophy I adopted early in my career; it just seems natural to follow the kids and to work with them to create an environment that reflects the thinking in the classroom. I have found time and time again when I ask my kids what's working, what's not, they know! Not only do they know but also they have ideas, good ideas, and most often better than mine. When the kids have a voice in creating the environment they feel a sense of pride and ownership. This empowers them to feel safe and respected. Debbie recommends starting by cleaning out the things you don't need. This can be a challenge for teachers! My brother-in-law once told me "Clean with a cold heart, our spaces are not big enough for all our memories. Some memories have to live in our hearts!" This is good advice and helps me keep my spaces cleared for what I do need.
Debbie clearly explains the importance for our classroom environments reflecting our belief statements.
"Katy was unable to put into place what she believes is best for kids because the environment will not allow it. The environment has hijacked everything she holds dear."
I believe Debbie is telling us to take charge of our spaces, keep only what you need, follow what you believe is best for kids. If you are feeling unorganized and overwhelmed then your kids most likely feel this too.
"If things are going awry for the teachers, things are probably not going well for the kids either."
I decided to take a step back and take a look at my classroom and my tentative belief statements. Is my classroom environment aligned with my beliefs?
Teachers have a powerful influence on how children feel about learning, their peers and school.
After everyone is settled in we begin our day sitting together in a circle, greeting our friends with kind words, a pat on the back and eye contact. This time is sacred in our room, everyone is present, everyone is greeted and everyone is listening! This is a time for us to show our respect for others, their thoughts, feelings, and learning. Following our greeting, kids share new learning from last night and new ideas or concerns. We listen, we discuss, and we celebrate.
Children perform best when they have a sense of ownership.
During our morning meeting and throughout the day the kids share their thinking and ideas for our classroom and our learning. When there are concerns or problems we work collaboratively to solve them. Recently students had a concern about the group table being too close to the computers, as friends worked at computers during groups time. This made it very difficult for the kids to focus. It was suggested that we move the group table to another location. I made this change that weekend. When the kids came in Monday I expected them to be excited and all abuzz about the change. I was surprised to hear only a few kids comment and most just settle in as if nothing had changed. I soon realized the kids trusted that I would follow their suggestion and expected to see the change. This tells me they know their opinions are valued and heard, which makes me feel good!
Classrooms are most effective when they reflect the thinking of the children, are organized, positive and responsive to the student’s needs.
Our classroom walls are filled with charts that share our journey in learning. I can't even imagine teaching without creating a chart! I record the thinking of the kids in their language, making it easier for the kids to refer to and use as a resource. All charts are organic, some charts are written with a shared pen, some with my pen but all charts are written with shared thoughts, nothing is premade!
A framework, which incorporates a gradual release of responsibility, is the most effective teaching model.
All parts of our day are organized in a workshop framework. This framework naturally incorporates a gradual release of responsibility. We begin our workshop with a focus lesson. During this focus lesson we gather together on the carpet and share a read aloud connected to our lesson. Following the read aloud I demonstrate the strategy or skill or we work together to practice our new learning. Kids are then released into the workshop where they practice the new learning with the support of a peer or independently. To accommodate a workshop we need ample space for large group work, areas for partner work and small group work, and quite areas for independent work.
Learning is more powerful when it is authentic and extends outside of the classroom.
We value technology in our classroom; we are using Shelfari, VoiceThread and KidBlog to share our learning. The computers are on and open all day to encourage use. In addition we have bookmarked all the favorite sites, (and just in case the web addresses are recorded on sentence strips and hanging above our word wall).
Our 4 computers are located on top of the bookshelf in the back of the room. This arrangement allows the kids to stand comfortably in front of the computers to work and frees our classroom from the big bulky tables. As you enter our room you see the computer inviting you in!
This is where we are today but we are never finished, everyday opens new opportunities. Debbie finishes this chapter with this quote~
"Classroom environments are organic-they grow as we do. The best of them reflect the hearts and souls of those who inhabit them. They're never really finished. They're never really "done." How could they be, when everyday students and teachers learn something new."