Thursday, September 29, 2011

What I learned in 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School

After reading an Edutopia article about How Classroom Environments Can Ignite Learning and Cultivate Caring, I thought about the many teachers who are doing a fabulous job of this here in our own backyard.  The best thing is that we don’t have to travel across the country or bring in experts at great expense! So I dropped in at one of our local elementary schools on my way to work.

In 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School I learned:

Teachers are passionate and committed to their students.  I knew this already, of course, but when you are out of the classroom, you tend to forget as you are awash in “how to fix the education system” conversations.  Of course, in the meantime, extraordinary teachers are just getting on with the deep work of ensuring that each child is learning.

Even kindergarten students can organize their learning.  In Teri’s kindergarten class students sign in (if they can’t yet write their names, they trace it).  They already know what to do next, going to the centres board and putting a clothespin next to the centre they want to play in.  And they already know about the “four no more” rule and choose a different centre if it’s full.  This year Teri added a new feature to her classroom – curtains to hide the bins of toys and books.  They are less distracted, she says.  What an easy solution for creating a calm “ready to learn” environment.

Across the hall in the other kindergarten room, Wendy shows off the carpet - it is multicoloured circles.  When students come in, they settle themselves on the circle with their name card. When I came in, Wendy and her EA were looking at the name tags and discussing  where each child would sit for this morning's lesson.  In a few simple routines on the carpet, student learn number, shape, letters, how to notice what’s happening and how to get along with whoever is sitting beside them.  What’s more, students who have difficulty participating in groups feel safe and able to join in when the space boundaries are clear.

Collaboration happens in a many ways.  We read about PLCs and argue about how best to implement them system-wide.  In the meantime, teachers just work together.  Wendy and Teri co-teach yoga and on “Fabulous Friday” half of each class swaps to begin to get to know more of the children who will be part of their learning community for years to come.  What a simple idea to ensure that students feel safe, connected and part of the broader school community.

Students can organize the classroom routines. Upstairs in Jan’s grade 7 classroom, students were getting their homework done before class started.  There is no guess work about homework;  students can see what’s expected in a glance and help each other.  Tell her, one of the students piped up, about the "while you were away" folder.  If we are absent, she told me, we know just where to look for what we missed.  On another wall, the job board lets everyone know who’s in charge of what and students set up for gym, fine arts, recycling and other jobs that make the class run smoothly so deep learning is the focus.

Student caring and courtesy is alive and well.  If you read the news too often or attend too many meetings, you’ll often hear that “kids nowadays” are rude and self-centred.  Jan was telling me about the food drives, buddy work and other acts of generosity the grade 7s are committed to and organize on their own with only a little coaching.   As she talked, with her “teacher eye” (teachers always scan), she noted a boy gently rocking and standing at a short, but respectful distance from us.  You look like you have a question, she said.  Thank you for your patience and polite signalling.  Relieved to have her attention before the bell, he launched into a very-important-to-him series of questions.  I left them to slip across the hall to see Lesley.

Self-regulated Learning is happening.  Our new superintendent wrote in his latest blog post about “Self Regulated Learning & the New Human Development Theory.”  There are always, of course, new theories and new initiatives and new programs.  And, of course, there are people (like me) who run workshops and share resources and send out articles.  Meanwhile, in classrooms, teachers get on with the work and find ways to ensure that the children in their care are learning.  I got to Lesley’s grade one room just in time to watch the children filter in.  It was only the third week of school and they clearly knew exactly what to do.   They quickly organized their coats and supplies and settled into their seats.  One boy got up quietly and went to the back of the room and returned with a little container of play dough and began to shape it.  Several other children, I noticed, also got out the play dough.  They talked quietly while their teacher greeted and had soft conversations with the arriving students.  All conversations stopped as the announcements came on.  A fire drill was announced and after the announcements, Lesley asked them questions about what they remembered and did a quick role play (students enthusiastically called out the things the teachers and students would have to say and do) to help them review the process.  The whole time her voice was soft and calm and instructions were clear and gentle.   How long do we have left? a boy asked.  Lesley gestured to what she called her new favourite tool – the timer at the front.  He nodded, satisfied, and bent to his play dough again.  These timers (like the play dough) are often used to support students with behaviour difficulties, but of course, are effective for everyone, giving all students a clear sense of “how long” or “how short”.   I reluctantly left the classroom to attend a meeting, but really, I felt calm, alert and ready to learn!  And I’m sure the grade ones were, too.

It’s amazing how much you can learn by just spending 35 minutes in a school.  What struck me most was that in each case, when asked about their “best thing” for starting the year, what the teachers shared with me were the simple routines and tools that set up each student to be ready to learn (removing distractions, clear routines and organized space, strategies to help them be calm, alert and to feel safe) and best of all - to be in charge of that learning themselves.  Lucky students.

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