When school starts, I always feel a sense of longing. I taught high school and middle school for more than 25 years, and I always spent two to three long days working on my classroom before school started. This was my total room environment – a labor of love. Everything had to be finished before the first student arrived, because the room set the tone for what would happen that year.
Recent arguments and disagreements concerning K-12 education seem to rest upon teaching methods, testing and philosophies such as No Child Left Behind, and now Common Core. However, more and more focus is being placed upon the social and emotional needs of students.
Is it possible for children (or teens, or adults) to learn if they do not feel comfortable in the classroom? What if they are worried about their safety, or their home life, or their relationships with the teachers? Will they learn the lessons if these other aspects aren’t taken care of? Should not learning be fun? It seems that parents should now be focused on more than grade-point averages. What can be done to “decorate” learning – and not just the walls?
Recently, I was invited to provide a workshop at the Boys & Girls Clubs Central Valley Conference, for leaders and staff from three counties. I talked about Project Learn, a club strategy based on research demonstrating that students do much better in school when they spend their non-school hours engaged in fun and academically beneficial activities. Having worked for the Boys & Girls Club as the education coordinator, I recommended ways to make academic enrichment inviting to the students. I have always been interested in building community and classroom climate, so I turned to some of my favorite sources, including the Master Teacher Initiative at Colorado State, and researchers from the Office of Educational Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education.
What surprises me is that, out of 16 issues that impact student learning, the top nine do not involve curriculum at all. First on the list is classroom management, defined as learner accountability, smooth transitions and teacher “with-it-ness”. It increases student engagement, decreases disruptive behavior and makes good use of time.
Next on the list are student/teacher social interactions, because they foster a sense of membership and safety in the class. Another issue is quality instruction, defined as the ability of the students to ask their own questions, instead of relying on those provided in books. Teachingchannel.com has several video examples of teachers guiding students in the art of questioning. Families might find it fun to work on this at home or in the car.
Next in line is accessing students’ prior knowledge. Research tells us that students want to feel like they are contributing something to their classes by having a conversation with their teachers. Students may also share details about home environment. A diligent teacher may sense that something is wrong, and can suggest help for a student. Without the give and take of discussion, a teacher might not otherwise know.
Motivation is one of those creative areas, where a teacher may use imagination to make the ordinary fun. At my workshop a few weeks ago, we created a new character – the Classy Culprit. The Culprit was involved in the Club Caper, and he was in need of Cronies. So, we defined what the students would need to accomplish, academically, in order to become the Classy Culprit, or one of his/her Cronies, and we kept track with a chart on the wall as they accomplished this. We are both motivating the kids and establishing healthy peer groups at the same time.
School culture and classroom climate are also on the list, and they add to motivation. A well-decorated room can do much to establish a sense of belonging, especially if there is a place where birthdays and candid pictures of class members are on the walls. This applies to all ages, K-college. No one is “too grown up” for fun and recognition.
Learning can, and should, be fun. Many teachers regularly do these things, but parents need to keep a pulse on their own children. Do your children feel safe and comfortable in class? Do they look forward to going to school each day? And, teachers, are your students coming to class joyfully? What will the climate be like in your class this year?
Nancy Fraleigh of Fresno is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Fresno State. She is a career educator, having taught K-14 for more than 25 years. She teaches courses at Merced College and Fresno City College. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.