Which seems like a more inviting place to learn?
At first glance, one might scoff at this comparison, quick to call out the inherent difference between elementary school and high school students. Young children need eye-catching decoration, vocabulary, signs, color and comfortable spaces in order to learn, some say. High school is just, well, high school. Desks, chairs, whiteboard (or nowadays, “Smartboards”) plus a teacher and students and the room is complete, right? Maybe a generic poster or two and we are really getting crazy. Why is it that in elementary school, teachers stress about rotating bulletin boards, posting student work, creating cozy “reading corners,” and displaying relevant artifacts about content? Yet in high school, creating an aesthetically inclusive and positive classroom atmosphere falls by the wayside? Why the disconnect?
As I continue to delve into various aspects of teaching, one specific statement seems to be on replay. “It happens in elementary school but by the time students get to high school, ________ no longer exists.” In the blank, one could insert, “parent involvement, praise, choice, emphasis on individual students,” and now, classroom atmosphere. This rhetoric is insidious in nature because it subtly leads people to believe that, “así es,” or,”it’s just the way it is.”
I would like to argue that classroom atmosphere is extremely significant in secondary education and has many implications connected to it.
So am I arguing that a teacher needs to wear an “interior decorator” hat on top of everything else? Or that students will learn because a room looks cozy, or feels comfortable and inviting? Not in the least. If only it were that easy. But alas, creating an inclusive and positive classroom environment involves much more than interior decorating skills…although they wouldn’t hurt!
Beyond the tangible elements of a positive classroom atmosphere lie myriad intangible factors, and each plays a significant role in student motivation, self-esteem and fostering an inclusive classroom culture. The Skillful Teacher, Middle and Secondary Classroom Management and two articles from Secondary Methods about culturally relevant teaching helped inform my thinking about how a teacher develops an inclusive classroom environment. Also, I went to the source: the students themselves and asked them what good teaching and a positive classroom look like. But before I continue, I need to address the lens through which I viewed North this week.
**Analyzing what an inclusive classroom looks like was particularly complex this week because of the “white elephant” affecting everyone at North. A student passed away this past weekend from an overdose. This is an incredibly sad reality that no teacher wants to think about much less face directly. Yet here it is and what are teachers doing about it? I’m not sure how the school addressed what happened on Monday, but if Mr. P hadn’t told me, I would have had no idea. All I have seen is a sense of uncomfortable sadness and frustration from students and staff. More than just an “off day,” students seem to be especially anxious and emotional. Están inquietos.
As I discuss the elements of an inclusive classroom environment, my thinking lingered on the tragic situation at North. I moved quickly from the tangible “look” of a room, to the significance of the intangible “feel” of a room. Both are important and both help students feel comfortable and safe, even in the most disorienting moments in life. Now, on to my observations and connections.**
What does a positive classroom look like?
As I alluded to earlier, TST has much to say about inclusive, positive classrooms. First, an inclusive classroom climate encourages community and mutual support. When a teacher incorporates community into a classroom an outsider would see the teacher greet students, listen intently and reaffirm ideas. He may foster a sense of group identity by saying “my best 5th hour block of the day,” in which students feel a part of a group. He also would promote cooperative learning and social skills through group work and discussion. Students would view their classroom as a place of academic, social and emotional support (TST, pg. 330-331).
At North, I see some aspects of community manifested. Mr. P makes an effort to greet students as they come in. At times, he mentions to the class as a whole that their behavior was good or great. He tries to acknowledge and praise class participation during group stories. On the other hand, I have not seen an effort to problem solve or an emphasis on cooperative learning. In fact, there have been many instances in which students argue, even fight, and he demands silence over an explanation of the problem.
Today in particular, many students acted out. Mr. P was visibly irritated but did not stop the lesson. He scolded students and yelled at almost every class. I found myself wondering if stopping the class to discuss behavior and emotions would do any good. Maybe the staff was told to stick to lessons in spite of what happened over the weekend? Either way, today was especially stressful and emotionally exhausting.
Next, Saphier explains how encouraging confidence and risk taking contributes to the classroom (TST, pg. 337). In a language classroom, risk taking is vital! Students must realize mistakes are natural and necessary to acquire a new language. Indeed, each of the following, “the threat of being laughed at, of feeling foolish, or of being wrong,” is extremely prevalent in Spanish class (pg. 339).
Particularly in Spanish 1, participation is painfully difficult for students because their affective filter skyrockets the moment teachers speak in Spanish. When I teach, I try to speak slowly, repeat myself often, draw pictures, use gestures and only introduce a few words at a time. In the end, the students that participate are those that know they are right. Weinstein encourages teachers to, “be sensitive to anxiety or difficulty your students may be experiencing with course material or requirements” (MSCM, pg. 54). Yet, is being sensitive enough to encourage participation? At a certain point, these students need to speak. How do I get the ones who are not 100% sure to speak up?
At North, I see Mr. P correct students in a cordial way but not necessarily promote risk-taking. It’s more like forced participation and results in barely audible whispers. Some students become defiant when asked to participate saying, “I don’t know Spanish, Mister!” Mr. P tries to encourage asking for help by stating it explicitly and staying after school each day. Still, many students are indifferent then complain about low grades. His offer is sincere, yet students still hesitate. What is missing?
Lastly, in order to create an inclusive classroom, a teacher must make students aware of their influence and control. Choice in a classroom is powerful. Again citing a difference between elementary and high school, Weinstein writes, “as students advance through the grades, becoming more capable of making decisions and more concerned about having autonomy, we offer fewer opportunities for choice and involvement in decision making” (MSCM, pg. 60). Why?
Student influence and control does not mean that teachers give students total power but rather, “successful teachers find ways for students to have some ownership and influence over the flow of events and the intellectual life of the classroom” (TST, pg. 343). In my room, there is a great potential for student ownership—students create the stories we use to teach content! They have influence but seem indifferent or unaware of such potential in Spanish class. Tapping into their creativity is a goal of mine and I hope to do this by getting to know students’ interests and life experiences.
Related to influence, I liked the sub-section in TST on, “Stop my teaching,” because it relates directly to my classes at North (pg. 343). Today Mr. P said, “raise your hand when you do not understand a word” and began reciting a story. Not one student raised her hand during the story. Maybe this relates to the risk-taking anxiety students feel but nonetheless, my students need to be more empowered to speak up. They need to practice and rely on signals “when the instruction is leaving them behind” (pg. 343). Not only are signals formative assessments for the teacher, but they also promote student ownership over what they learn.
Ask the audience:
In Middle and Secondary Classroom Management, Weinstein et al. suggest teachers, “Ask students how they feel about the classroom environment” (pg. 70). I decided to do just that because who better to ask than the students themselves? During the “Do Now,” I asked “the audience” to complete the following sentences:
1) A good teacher…
2) A positive classroom looks…
Below is a poster (Glogster-great teaching tool!) I made displaying a variety of student responses.
“Teaching the –isms”: Issues of equity
In Spanish for Heritage Speakers, Mr. P introduced a project about “Patrimonio Cultural,” in light of Hispanic Heritage Month. I was very excited to hear about the project but the reality resulted in students working independently on computers and fumbling around with directions, blogs, the UNESCO site and word documents. In theory, the students would have had a chance to discuss stereotypes, racism, sexism, the role of Spanish in their communities etc., but instead students became frustrated and confused. The project was far too rigorous and needed more context to make sense. Mr. P introduced relevant topics that inspire high-level thinking skills, yet students couldn’t connect.
Another example of equity lies in the discussion of immigration. The guidance counselor from Denver Scholarship Foundation told me that while most students are legal citizens, some are not. In this sense, immigration equality means an entitlement to or lack of certain rights. Earlier in the year, Mr. P explained a spring break trip to Spain and France. As a joke, he mentioned, “if you don’t have papers, don’t go to the meeting.” Later, in the SHS class, he said said jokingly, “si no tienes papeles, no puedes ir. Bueno, puedes ir pero no puedes venir.” (“If you don’t have papers you can’t go. Well, you can go but you can’t come back.”)
I found this attitude alarming but at the same time, my perspective is quite different. Mr. P himself does not have a green card and has missed class to go the immigration office. Maybe he is just trying to relate to the students and “be a real person,” as Weinstein discusses in Middle and Secondary Classroom Management (MSCM, pg. 58). I agree it is important to relate to the students and to show our “real” sides but how we do so is very significant.
Furthermore, immigration comes up often in class when students talk about their families or where they are from. It is also significant in terms of older students applying for financial aid in college. Immigration is a reality and it is not as though I discourage discussion or pretend to be blind to the issue; rather, I hesitate to use humor but that is because of who I am and my own experiences. Also, given the current events surrounding immigration in Alabama, the topic seemed especially uncomfortable to joke about. I would approach immigration in a more formal way with specific questions or goals for the conversation.
All of this relates to a thought-provoking reading from Secondary Methods about Culturally Responsive Teaching. It argues that all students bring assets to the classroom and it is up to the teacher to determine how to take advantage of them. Moreover, Lindsey et al. explain in Culturally Proficient Education that, “recognizing and acknowledging students’ and their communities’ assets fosters respect and trust that they can be the architects of their own futures” (pg. 22). As a teacher I need to be aware of relevant issues that my students face at school, home and in their communities. Awareness is the key. Just being aware and receptive to students helps teachers gauge class morale and gain trust. From there, the teacher has momentum to motivate and engage learners.
To me, this post feels disjointed and fragmented but I think it reflects how a teacher can feel in her classroom, especially when tragedy affects the school first-hand. We try so hard to do so many things right: create engaging, effective lesson plans, assess students in a way that informs teaching and learning, motivate students and create inclusive and positive classrooms. But at the end of the day, we are all just people in a room dealing with life’s confusing twists and turns.
I think it all comes down to care. If I care about my students, I will take time to get to know them, decorate my room with their work and make visuals to help them connect to content, offer choice, encourage risk taking, build community and confidence, open up discussion to often-avoided topics and teach them to own their learning. If I care, I will effectively teach my students what they need to know and refuse to let them slip by. Yes, it’s idealistic. Yes, it will take a ludicrous about of work and effort. But from where I stand now, why would I choose to teach if I didn’t care?
“Nadie nace enseñado.” No one is born taught.