Investigation 1: Classroom Culture

10/15/2009

What do teachers have to think about and do at the beginning of the year to create a classroom culture that supports teaching and learning?
From my observation, I have seen that the teacher starts thinking about the learning environment she wants to create well before the students ever enter the classroom. From the first moment I visited the classroom, before the students had even arrived, the mentor teachers were very aware of the physical space. Is it big enough? Can we get more bulletin boards on the walls? Make sure this boy and that boy don't sit next to one another. Knowing now that mid-year physical changes can be difficult for both students and teachers, I can see why so much emphasis was put on creating a physical learning environment to best fit the needs of the class.
When it comes to physical space, the most pertinent of these issues seems to be what table/desk setup will best allow for learning? What type of learning do theyI want to get out of the physical setup? For my mentors, it was important that the students be able to face one another because they believe that students should engage one another in discussion and actively listen in order to further their own thinking. The discussions that have resulted have been very impressive: when the lesson structure allowed for it, students looked at one another and responded directly to their comments or questions. In Jewish studies, two boys had a back and forth dialogue about their differing beliefs on teshuva. This conversation style, which has happened many times, I believe is aided by the physical arrangement of the seats.
Another staple of the physical space of any classroom, and specifically of the fifth grade room, is the central meeting area, usually brought together by a rug to sit on. It brings the community together by allowing students to congregate for informal discussions, intimate readings and social activities. The rug is a central part of the classroom, and an area for a different kind of learning.
Other considerations come into play in the beginning of the year, such as how to use wall space. For my mentors, this meant acquiring the most number of bulletin boards as possible and leaving them blank to be quickly filled with student work.

How are some of the values important to your teacher enacted in the classroom?
Jamie is a believer in connections. "Connections to everything--not just Jewish themes," she says, "but way beyond. Making connections is the most important thing because that's how people naturally think." This ties into the underlying question about what kind of people do we want to cultivate. "These are the citizens I want to run the world," she avers. "Fifth graders can be very transparent about making these connections, seeing them as connections, and seeing their importance," she explains. For example, there are so many connections to Jewish values (or values that Jews hold important) that sometimes I find it indistinguishable from the general, “non-Jewish” curriculum. In the mentor interview, Jamie said she wants students to continually make connections. She believes that these students, especially this age, are especially interested in making these connections between Jewish themes, across general curriculum subjects, from Jewish to general subjects. There is a connections board in the class where students can write these ideas down and connect between subjects. I have noticed these connections being made: One boy, after learning about what an obituary is and reading the word “mourning,” pointed out the connection to the mourner's kaddish, where you say a prayer for someone who has died in the past year. By pointing out these connections at first, Jamie is thus encouraging the students to look for them on their own throughout the year.
On the other hand, I feel that Eliana's main goal is to foster an interest in Torah and Torah study. She wants them to come away with a love for Torah and a thirst to learn more. “With a substantive curriculum, it can really be meaningful to them.” She wants there to be a special connection: something they look forward to doing and something they might come back to later in life.


How did the beginning weeks of school lay a foundation for what continues to happen in the classroom?
The rules, routines and procedures set forth in the first weeks of school have set a very strong tone. Rules, routine and procedures are not formally and systematically introduced to the fifth grade class until the second week. Mrs. Woods first wants the students to get to know the classroom setup, get a feel for the classroom environment, and work out any kinks. While many routines and procedures were well-known to students within the first few days of school, the rules were created as a class after the students already knew some of the routines and rules. I have noticed that many of the rules created as a class have led to both more order and more learning. Indeed, there is often a strong pedagogical agenda in certain rules, routines, and procedures, and an added benefit of keeping the class orderly.
For example, during writing periods, Jamie often doesn't always allow for questions, or even for students to raise their hands. It is designated as a time to work independently. Usually this comes to mean that everybody gets to work and she will answer questions individually and quietly. She gives the impression that she is taking their independent work very seriously, and they should too. Allowing students to ask endless questions can be distracting and pointless in certain situations—especially in independent writing. A lot of times the students want to get approval for their ideas, or ask the teacher to read over their work, which doesn't promote the initiative that Jamie wants the students to take. In using this tactic, “no questions, time to work,” she is encouraging the students to rely in their own brains to write. On the other hand, she knows that many of their questions they will answer themselves in the course of the assignment.
Many of the other rules work to create a tone of respect in the classroom (even though they are often breached). The major rule that comes to mind is “no calling out.” It is reiterated many times a day, yet some students just can't seem to control themselves. Even though this rule does establish that calling out is often disrespectful, it doesn't eliminate calling out. Again, there has been a pedagogical and ethical lesson in this rule: they should listen to other students' thoughts because they might learn something new or gain new insight into their own ideas and there is an attitude of collaboration and respect in the class. When reinforced and when “no calling out” is effective, the students display respect for one another's ideas and respect to the process of the learning community and its commitment to progress.

What are some areas that still need attention in your class?
Overwhelmingly, differentiated learning is a point of concern. This is such a difficult issue. There are students who show strengths in certain areas, and are weak in others. This issue is most pronounced in math. During whole-class instruction, there are several students who don't understand, but don't ask questions. These students, five that I know of, need very slow and thorough instruction. I feel that this in an area that needs attention, and would be very difficult to address as the sole teacher responsible for the range of math learners. When the subject and schedule call for whole-class learning, how do you successfully include all types and levels of learners?
In writing, there are similar issues. Several students seem almost paralyzed when it comes to the task of writing, especially when there isn't a clear structure of what to write about.

What new questions or concerns do you have about establishing a culture of learning in your classroom?
How do you bring in the learners who stand on the outside of the learning community? There are students who are far ahead of the other learners in some areas, and some students are well behind the class norm in other areas. How do you bring these learners in without deteriorating the effectiveness of the lesson overall? Is there a certain point where you just have to accept that a child is not going to understand the lesson and hope that outside help with a learning specialist can make up for this gap? Do we simply accept that they will need extra attention?
More specifically, how do you teach a math class to widely vast levels of math learners? There are three reading groups and two math groups. Is this normal in the elementary school setting? What about when there's only one teacher, and no other resources available?