The Other Growth Our Students Need

2013fielddaybAbout 10 years ago, I was introduced to the Responsive Classroom, a program that was highly supported in the school in which I worked. There are many principles of Responsive Classroom that not only make for good classroom management, but create an environment of communal trust within a classroom and a school as a whole.

The first principle of a Responsive Classroom has always been important for me, a foundation of my career as a teacher: The social and emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. 

Recently, Edutopia and other education news sources carried the tale of how student “grit” is a key to student success.  What is grit? Self-perception, the ability to overcome inner obstacles, persistence, resiliency, self-regulation of emotions – in short, as Carol Dweck has written, it is a Growth Mindset.

These ideas are essential to a child’s education. They are the social and emotional curriculum that form the foundation for academic growth. And they are often missing in classrooms jammed with test preparation and curricular standards.

Sandra Dunning, the Principal who introduced me to Responsive Classroom, believed in the importance of developing a community of learners. Each morning, a 30-minute block of time was carved into our schedules for the community-building of Morning Meetings, Greetings, collaborative activities that fostered this development in each student, teacher, and classroom. There was a calm, purposefulness to our classroom in those days, and when things went off the rails, as sometimes happens, our group was able to process together and resolve whatever issues had preceded it.

Sadly, under the guise of “raising the bar” and increasing “rigor”, by the last few years of my teaching career, the daily activities that had created and fed my students’ social and emotional growth were undermined and replaced by time-on-task schedules, test preparation and packed curricula. Most mornings, we could squeeze in a Morning Greeting between breakfast and leaving for Allied Arts classes; some days we could not.

Responsive Classroom Principle 4 reminds us that To be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. We are short-changing our students’ education when we can’t attend to emotional and social growth.



We Need To Make Time for This!

I’ve been privileged to teach in a school that embraced the tenets of Responsive Classroom. If you’ve never been exposed to this program, explore this link. There is a calm sense of purposefulness in Responsive Classroom schools; it begins right from the first days of school when students are explicitly taught expectations for their own behaviors and treatment of other members of the community of learners, but also for the materials and equipment that we use in our classroom. Kids learn to manage conflicts and to care about each other.

Unfortunately, much of what we used to do had to be let go. As it stands, the time demands in classrooms exceed the number of minutes in a school day. Something is always slipping out of reach. Unfortunately over the last few years, working through Responsive Classroom has nearly disappeared.

2013fieldday3legsThe end of a school year is a time when many children feel stressed and worried. They are concerned, naturally, about leaving the comfort of their familiar classroom and teacher and sometimes their school. This is especially true for children of poverty or trauma. Any teacher who has experienced the end of the year with students with socio-economic challenges has seen the Two-Weeks-To-Go meltdowns. It is the overwhelming unknowns that create behavior challenges just when we’d all like to sit back and glide toward a finish line.

I have had a challenging group of mainly girls this year. This last week they seem to be unable to stop themselves from being in each other’s business. The final tip-off that things were about to blow came this afternoon when one of my students voiced that she didn’t think anyone was her friend anymore and a nearby eavesdropper commented, “Well, I don’t like you!”. Wow! Even I was taken aback by this lack of a filter!

So, we stopped what we were working on (Literary Essays), as Writing Workshop was no longer the most important thing to be accomplished. We had to fix our community so that everyone felt they were being treated civilly. We had to resolve those conflicts.

Back when we “had the time” for Morning Meetings and community building, our days seemed to go better. Oh there were times when we needed to talk it out – my favorite conflict resolution activity has always been Ruth Sidney Charney’s Pretzel activity – but mainly our days started and ended with warmth, calm, and a feeling that together we could accomplish most anything. What has been lost in our high-pressure, inanely over-scheduled days where we hit the ground running and don’t stop until dismissal is the chance to work on interpersonal skills.

Today was simply the point when students, already feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure, let me know in no uncertain terms that they need something else. We used some of those principles that Ruth Sidney Charney advocates and cleared the air. My favorite part of today was at the end when one student asked if we could all try to “say something nice” about each other. I knew we were on our way to healing!

Even if there are only two weeks left in our school year, we are going to pass on those mandated must-dos and find a way to become a community again. Every child in that class deserves to feel safe and welcomed.

Begin at the beginning

How do you define your classroom space?

IMG_1255I like to call mine collaborative classroom design.  As a follower of Responsive Classroom, I know how important it is for students to feel ownership and have a voice in designing the space we share. When I walk into my classroom space for the first time after a summer break, I ask myself:

  • Is the classroom a reflection of me? Or will the students own the walls with their work on display and the tools or charts they need to use?
  • Is there visually too much? Has there been consideration given to create a visually calming space?
  • Are the supplies students use placed so they will be able to access them independently?
  • Is there a purposeful sense to the flow of traffic in the room?

Just four things to consider and yet, these four are so important! I want the IMG_1249students to feel that they have a shared responsibility for the room – for the upkeep, tidiness, and for the feel of the space. I want my students to know they can access needed supplies without asking me where something is all of the time! When it isn’t working I find my kids may not tell me with words, but with their actions that something is working or not working. Believe me, when it isn’t working, it is crystal clear!

This week, I will begin to reset my classroom after its summer cleaning and spruce-up. As I set up for a new year of learning, I will keep my four considerations in mind and prepare to collaborate with my 24(ish) new best friends.


What She Said….

I recently read this post from Germantown Avenue Parents’ blog. Those behavior management tools – like the mentioned stoplight? Do they really help kids get behaviors on track?

In my school, we are required to hang a pocket chart. Each child has an assigned number and flips cards through a series of colors – green to yellow to blue to purple to indicate the kind of day they are having.

Who are we kidding with the numbered pockets?  It takes kids about an hour to know who is who.

While I agree with giving students a visual reminder of their behavior accountability, I dislike having behaviors displayed publicly. Besides taking up valuable bulletin board space, it seems self-defeating.  And disrespectful.  Would you want YOUR bad day posted for all to see? Me either.

What’s a solution to this dilemma? I have a small, portable pocket chart that served the same purpose as the bulletin board display, but in a less public way. For my more challenging students, I maintain a periodic behavior chart which gets reviewed daily (or hourly sometimes). And for the status of the class – we can still hang out our class sign indicating our classroom community is having a ‘great day’, ‘not-so-great day’, or ‘wish we could do-over’ day.

We can still help students get behaviors back on track. We just don’t need to do it publicly.

In the dark of winter…

There is a pall hanging over us. We want answers to the unanswerable. We need to put our anger and sadness  somewhere, but there is no place.

Tomorrow is a Monday that will be unlike any other. Tomorrow I need to try to reassure my 8-year-olds. Many of them will have watched too many reports on television, or overheard snippets of adult conversation.  While some of my students live with traumas, nothing like this has ever happened before. I pray that nothing close to it ever happens again.

I have no idea what I can say, except to reassure them that, while sometimes the adults in their lives have been unreliable, I am here to keep them safe.  As a teacher, I imagine that is exactly what passed through the minds of the teachers and administrators of Sandy Hook as they made split second decisions to shelter their own students. Six times that instinct to protect children from harm resulted in the ultimate sacrifice.

We will need to be together.

How Do You Model Expectations?

Responsive Classroom provided some review PD for our school this past week. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like about the RC approach, and surely I picked up some great clarifications and refreshers. In fact much of the presentation affirmed what I know in my heart to be true about education and students and learning.

However, there are some practices in Responsive Classroom that my experienced-teacher-self question.  One thing is the process taken in modeling a routine for students.  I understand the gradual release models which I first learned from Regie Routman. Teacher models, teacher models with students, gradually releasing the process totally to students.

This year, as a result of my reading and training with the Daily Five’s 10 Steps to Independence, I’ve made sure to add on an “unmodel”, a chance for students to show what a routine,exercising students’ brain muscle memory as borne out by Michael Grinder’s work. An “unmodel” with an immediate opportunity to provide a correct example, is an essential step and even my more shy and reticent students love to provide the ultimate unmodeled behavior examples. I’ve discovered that this is a very powerful way to get kids to internalize  expectations for any procedure I’ve taught, Allowing my more behaviorally challenged kids an opportunity to be the “unmodel” and then reinforcing appropriate behaviors with the same student become a “model” has given us comic relief along with a dose of visual modeling.

I  also don’t buy in to the RC suggestion that the teacher wear a hat or some other article when he/she is unavailable to students. Doing so seems artificial to me. With the amount of conferencing and small strategy group instruction taking place during our Literacy time, I want to have taught the expectations and routines so well that students don’t feel the need to break their stamina, or mine, because they know what to do. I trust them to make good choices. That was a HUGE leap for me last Fall; but with very few exceptions, my students were self-managing their learning from about 6 weeks in until the end of the year.  No special costume needed.

As with any program or package, there are always parts that are agreeable and parts that are just not good fits. We all want the best for our students; and as long as we, the professionals, can be trusted to use our good judgement with the children in front of us, there is much that can be accomplished.

Assumptions that aren’t always bad

I subscribe to Responsive Classroom’s newsletters and blogs. They usually help to ground me, help me to see and understand my students better.  This week’s entry was about Questioning Assumptions. And as a teacher, I know there are too many times when I’ve jumped to a conclusion about a student’s behavior or motivation. And then been surprised by the wrongness of my assumptions.

But I’m here to say that making assumptions in an educational setting is not always a bad thing.

I assume my students are smart – brilliant mostly. And given the chance, I know they can achieve everything in life that any other student can achieve. I assume they want to do this. Of course, my third graders come with lots less baggage than middle- or high-schoolers and a fraction of the peer pressure to not look too nerdy. That makes this assumption a lot more easy to keep.

I assume that when I believe in my students, the expectation that they can and will succeed becomes a cornerstone for learning – one that both of us are responsible for.

Angela Maiers tells us that two words – you matter – make a world of difference. I believe that. Through my thoughts and actions toward my students I believe that they will also believe it and come to find their inner strength, their core.

And I assume that when students believe they matter, they can achieve whatever they want in spite of or because of things that happen outside of school.

I assume, that given a chance to become involved in their child’s learning life, a parent will do just that. Each September, I ask parents to tell me what their goals are for their child. Those goals are not that different from more affluent families. Just sometimes there are unique challenges that need a little work.

I agree that stereotypical assumptions block us from helping our students to be all that they are destined to become. But the next time someone tells you to re-examine your assumptions about students, don’t throw it all away. Keep on assuming those things that make expectations high.