One of my favorite educational articles, Welcome to Room 202b by Donna Ford (2005), underscores and guides my efforts to create a welcoming and responsive classroom designed to meet the needs of the classroom community and each individual learner. Ms. Ford compares the preparations taken in readying our home for a guest to the careful planning and considerations that go into creating the learning community. As teachers, we must carefully plan our physical space to ensure safety, ease of movement, and an area that is conducive to learning. Throughout the school year, particularly the first six weeks, and again in the months following our return from winter break, we must involve our students in community building activities intended to foster a positive atmosphere by ensuring that every student feels welcome, builds trust, and clearly conveys our belief in each student’s ability to learn and succeed. The menu of curricular offerings and teaching styles used in this process takes into consideration the learning styles of each student, the past experiences each brings, and how these fit together in a cohesive whole.
Classroom management, in this context, becomes a shared responsibility. As a community, we discuss the needs and wishes of every learner, and jointly develop and hold one another accountable for adhering to a list of classroom rules. Teachers committed to creating and maintaining a welcoming environment are explicit in their expectations; explain, model, and revisit the strategies and practices used, and provide time and opportunity to practice these. For example, we might intentionally practice the signals used to gain students’ attention, or take a tour of the student art hung throughout the school while practicing Walking the Halls in a Line behavior. Essential to creating a supportive learning culture, we must utilize positive behavior support strategies, acknowledging and celebrating actions, decisions, and character traits we celebrate in students and staff. Throughout the year, we practice with our students positive ways to support one another in our actions, in dealing with conflict, and sharing our excitement in learning.
In my own classroom, I start each day with Morning Meeting, as I believe in the importance of giving children the opportunity to transition to school, allowing them to enter a space where they can be present. I believe that providing time throughout the day for quiet reflection actively fosters our students’ awareness and recognition of emotions and their ability to self regulate. In addition to supporting the development of self, we support our students’ understanding of self in relation to others by modeling and encouraging positive relationships. It is imperative that as educators, we remain present and connected for our students, and take time to recognize and acknowledge the small things, letting them know we care.
Students need cognitive breaks and mental down time such as recess, as well as opportunities for creative relaxation. Prolonged cognitive focus that goes beyond the developmental capabilities of students, results in poor academic performance and unwanted behaviors. Children need time during which they freely interact with peers, pursuing self-directed activities and learning from their interpersonal relationships. Opportunities for outside play, games as instructional activities, and lessons that incorporate kinesthetic learning actually serve to provide a cognitive break, increase student engagement in the lesson, and decrease the incidence of disruptive behavior.
My commitment to establishing a healthy and welcoming learning community finds it roots in a mental picture that embodies my belief that education can and must acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate the differences we share as learners. I look at my own children, at the students with whom I work, at myself as a learner, and I see each of us as a tree within the forest. Many different kinds of trees grow in the woods, and each possesses differing needs for optimal growth. Some grow tall, seeking the light of praise, while others stretch out their roots seeking a firm foundation. A few grow farther apart, more isolated and reflective in nature. Most trees grow in thick copses, closely surrounded by friends, family, and supportive aspects of the forest that nurture their growth. Young trees rely on scaffolding until they grow enough to reach for the wind and sky independently, though a few shoot tall and strong early on. Many branches reach out, up, down and around, seemingly defying gravity, yet creating natural works of art that serve to astound. Our goal as educators is to develop our personal role as Master Gardeners, carefully attending to the needs of each budding thinker, and ensuring the garden as a whole offers the group an optimal and safe place to grow.