A positive classroom environment often plays a pivotal role in student learning. Fostering a classroom climate that promotes the learning community can reap benefits for all stakeholders involved. Feeling a sense of belonging to an organization can increase participation and build confidence. Primary and elementary grades often spend a good part of the first few days of school focused on creating a classroom community. Building that classroom community can take many forms. Joy Kirr’s Livebinder provides many classroom community building activities that I found helpful. A focus on team building, sharing and reflection can all aid in building a productive learning environment that will set a strong foundation for the school year.
This isn’t necessarily easy as there’s always curriculum to cover, but setting aside time to create a classroom climate is worthwhile. Once established and continually reinforced, it can be a driving force in which students take academic risks in the classroom. Whether its student council, clubs, art class, or whatever, that sense of belonging often enables students to participate at higher levels as they feel that their voice is truly valued. When I speak of risk, I think of the term in a positive way. The risks that I’m speaking of often help students move beyond taking a stagnant stance with their education. Student risk can take many forms in the classroom.
Taking a risk could mean that students:
Answer/ask questions more often
Are more open to feedback given by peers and teachers
Are able to collaborate with others
Show perseverance when approaching challenging tasks
Take more ownership of their learning
Able to explain their mathematical thinking in more detail
Take pride in their work more often
Reflect on their performance and set goals
Rise above their own personal expectations
Start to develop leadership skills
For some students a risk is to raise their hand in class. For others, students might engage in mathematical conversations with their peers or use feedback as a learning tool. Another student might want to take what was introduced in class and start an enrichment project. Personal risk is truly determined by the student. To make sure that students take academic risks they need to feel as though their community supports them. Modeling how to approach risk-taking in the classroom is important. Sharing personal stories and continually reinforcing that making mistakes is part of the learning process can help create opportunities for students to take risks on their own. Teachers can start by creating low-risk opportunities in the classroom (See Reed’s post for examples). These tasks can be powerful and foster a positive classroom climate in the process.
How do you create a classroom that encourages risk-taking?
When I first started student teaching I was instructed by my colleagues that a quiet classroom is the best way to maintain control. As a student teacher, wanting to graduate, I smiled and agreed with my colleagues. Maintaining the authority position in my upper elementary classroom was one of my first priorities. I believed at the time that my leadership (according to my cooperating teacher) was the only thing that contributed to learning in the classroom. I focused on classroom management and thought that the learning would take care of itself. That sounds horrible now, as I reflect on my student teaching experience. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this method was completely wrong. During my true first year of teaching I became more confident in my teaching ability and allowed students more flexibility in the learning process. Allowing students an opportunity to be part of the learning process enabled them to vocalize their opinions and increased their learning. Respect is earned and modeled through example, not necessarily through words. This seems true no matter where you work, but it’s completely evident in a classroom full of students.
During my first few years of teaching I incorporated a flow chart and set the expectations in my classroom at the beginning of the school year. I even had the students help create the rules. As my years of teaching experience increased, the volume of my classroom did as well. At times, I would be asked to close my classroom door because there was so much talking (I thought collaboration) going on in the classroom. I didn’t mind because my students were learning at high levels through collaboration. I remember a teacher (one of the colleagues in the first paragraph) asking me why my room was so noisy. At the time I just simply responded by saying that all “that noise” was contributing to learning.
Unfortunately, I don’t think my answer 10 years ago was clear. I’d like to to clarify my answer below.
Question: Why is your classroom so loud?
Collaboration: Students are often found in partners or small groups, discussing math problems or working in literature circles. Often, there are between 10 – 13 conversations occurring during these times.
Manipulatives: Students are putting together 3-D models, cutting out geometric shapes, using Tangrams, utilizing base 10 blocks, creating space figures with nets, measuring objects, etc.
Technology: Students are using iPads or computers in the learning process. The sound of technology can be turned completely off, but I feel that sound often reinforces learning.
Drama/Skits: Students are working in groups to create skits that reinforce reading and math objectives. There are many opportunities to incorporate skits in the curriculum.
Connections: Students are making connections to the text they are reading in a variety of formats. Making connections to the outside works is an important skill and this is something that seems to happen daily.
Music: Students are listening to music while they work on different activities. Students seem to enjoy the music in the background and I think it improves the overall classroom climate.
Games: Students are playing math games with each other. The noise of the dice and talking can be intense at times, but learning through games is definitely something to look into if you haven’t yet.
I think it’s also important to note that some students need their surroundings to be quiet to focus. Understanding how a student learns best should influence the learning environment. Unfortunately, the learning environment can’t always be changed, but we can do our best to modify the climate to best meet students’ needs.