At the start of the fellowship, each of us sat down with a large piece of paper tasked with describing an effective learning environment. Without having spent much time as a teacher, I relied on my experiences as a student to guide my responses. Here was what I came up with (click on the photo to enlarge).
I realize now that I was effectively describing my 11th grade English class with Dr. Kokotailo. There, he valued student voice, championing individual perspectives and letting the students drive discussion. He crafted such clear camaraderie, even going as far as giving out individualized, non-academic class awards at the end of the year. With that, he allowed us to be excited within the space to be together. Through that bond, we came to the material together, sensing the teacher's love for the subject.
While this chart does not align with the 7th grade classroom for numerous reasons, namely lower attention spans, developing self-regulatory skills, and inexperience with discussion leading, I think I got one thing right An effective learning environment has everything to do with the children wanting to be in that space. In the checklist I have recently developed for an effective learning environment, I will expand on that idea. In order to get to successful teaching and learning, to make the most of instructional strategies, for students to be receptive to feedback, for curriculum to take hold, what must exist in the classroom?
Do I have a relationship with each child? - A teacher must know each student deeply, understanding them as a student, yes, but first as a person. Before the student can engage in class, he or she must be comfortable with you. Building that relationship requires work in the hallways, on the fields, in the moments before and after class, and everywhere else. I like to encourage these relationships to form authentically by first sharing much of myself. In showing them my multifaceted interests, and telling stories about my own experiences as a learner, they can find a way to connect. I try to attend their sports games, converse about non-academic matters frequently, and build a genuine relationship. When students feel comfortable with me, they will be more willing to trust me, more willing to be vulnerable, two other tenets of my classroom. Moreover sharing my self makes it seem more personal when I share how I am motivated as a student. As Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula (2008) argue, "when students gain access to the chief learner's way of motivating, engaging, and expressing himself, they can begin to see how their own thinking, emotions, and experiences shape their learning" (p. 34). Building a relationship and sharing myself can put up a mirror in which students can see themselves, and feel comfortable being that person with me. That relationship will lead to an increased willingness to share.
Do the students trust me? - The students must trust that I want each of them to succeed equally. Regardless of the relationship we have, a student must trust that I believe he or she can be successful. It can be crippling to receive B- after B-, feeling stuck in that one place in the teacher's mind. Ultimately, students must believe that the teachers do not hold a fixed mindset. "When teachers decide that certain students are not capable," Dweck warns, "they may not take steps to help them develop their potential" (2010, p. 28). I wager that students can sense when a teacher does not believe in their ability to grow. In order to build this trust, a teacher can utilize process-oriented language, provide encouragement in the face of setbacks, and show with an ever-present smile that the student's growth and well-being come first.
Earn students' trust by showing them you care about them
Is there a culture of vulnerability? - As a part of building that trust, a teacher must create a classroom culture where growth preempts comfort, where students are comfortable with the idea of failure as a "not yet." Just as the teacher must present a growth mindset, so must the students develop one. When students are comfortable with failure, and comfortable taking intellectual risks in front of classmates that could expose vulnerability, the class can function as one. Consider peer editing. Last year, some of my students refused to have certain classmates edit their papers for fear their writing show their inability. They expressed discomfort with showing their ability, and those same students shied away from participating fully in discussions, often saying "I don't know" when called on. Frequently these were kids coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, ones who came from public schools that were stereotyped. Dweck shows that for these students "who are laboring under a negative stereotype about their abilities," having a growth mindset is essential for their growth (2010, p. 26). Somewhat counterintuitively, I established this culture this year with consistent cold-calling, letting each student see that there would be no repercussions for wrong answers. Where at first, I still got "I don't know's," eventually that cold-calling bred a culture where students took chances in class. They were willing to share writing freely, unafraid of being vulnerable.
Do the students know where to go? - Although routine can get a bad name sometimes, with it suggesting a staleness and lack of ingenuity, students must know where to go when they enter the room. They must know where to look for homework, where to pick up assignments, how to begin to a class. With only forty minutes, a routine, especially at the beginning of class, allows each of those minutes to be well-spent. Yes, originality can be important, but if it comes at the cost of time, that can be ineffective. Routine also allows the classroom to become more self-sufficient. They can run if I miss a day, can function when classmates are sick. Carol Weinstein writes that "with clear rules and routine, there is less likelihood of confusion, misunderstanding, and inconsistency -- and more likelihood that students can engage in warm, relaxed interactions" (2006, p. 55). Especially with 7th graders, who can get distracted easily during transitions, creating clear expectations for students can limit crucial time lost, and can redirect energy towards positive interactions.
Is there a unique camaraderie? - This final question for my checklist is the one that I feel is most essential. It separates the best learning environments from the functional. Does the particular group of students enjoy being together? While a student might forget everything he or she has learned from my 7th grade class, I want them to remember the interactions they shared with other. The dynamics between students and teacher help make the place inviting. When students want to be there, and look forward to Mr. Faust's class, that lets them be excited about the material. It allows them to match my excitement ultimately, as I have found eagerness to learn together begets focus and engagement. In order to build that camaraderie effectively, I have found there needs to be something unique to your class that brings joy to the students. Be it jokes, shared anecdotes, or stories, a classroom must become a space that is different from the other classes. Make it a part of the day the students talk about in the car home. Certainly, for this camaraderie to be effective, a classroom needs the other four elements on the checklist. However, when the students come to love being together, the learning environment reaches a new level. One day in mid-February, my class started compiling a list of "favorite class moments" on the board. I was astonished at the minute details from our shared interactions that they retained. There was such joy as they recounted stories that I told and jokes that other students made. They remembered examples from grammar exercises I had long forgotten. I had never been prouder as I was to see the group spontaneously work together in full on remembering the time we had shared together. I want every group to be that excited to learn together.
Dweck, C. (2010). Mind-sets and equitable education. Principal Leadership, 26-29.
Toshalis, E. & Nakkula, M. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice. The Students at the Center Series, 1-42.
Weinstein, C. S. (2006). Middle and secondary classroom management: lessons from research and Practice. 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.