One thing that is always on my mind as an educator is how I can make my classroom the best environment for my students. There are many facets to it: social and emotional needs are met; students are able to access the content in a way that is supportive to their learning style; students feel safe enough to take the necessary risks to reach the next level of their learning.
Today's post is all about how I try to create a classroom environment where risks are welcomed and accepted in 5 easy steps. All you have to be is a little conscious of your language and the messages you are sending to your students on a daily basis.
First- let them know what you are looking for! See a student who raises their hand to share an idea or an answer? Let them know [and the rest of the class] you appreciate their effort. Hear someone disagree respectfully with a classmate during a small group discussion? Again, let them know that is something that happens during the learning process. If you use reinforcing language consciously and precisely, it can have amazing results. You'll see more students who want to try in hopes of getting that positive feedback from you. Don't be stingy! Share it out... and share it out often!
You might be thinking, "Duh. We're teachers. That's what we do." But do we really do this often and in a meaningful way to EVERY student EVERY day? More importantly, can our students tell we are sincere? I found the most successful way to do this is when it's personal- it's not broadcasted for the whole class to hear.
Just like the reinforcing language, I try to be specific when it comes to the skill we are working on. If I build them up and they know I'm rooting for them, they will give me their all. It's worth the time. Every time.
Not trying to be mean here, but it's necessary. This great article explains all the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone and I'll be incorporating it into a lesson during the first few weeks back about the importance of it. I also speak to it in this older blog post about why I think every teacher should play hockey. I think we forget as adults all the feelings that come with trying something new, difficult, or out of our comfort zone, yet it is necessary for growth.
When my students are starting to feel a little to comfortable in our room, I like to switch things up. However, first students need to feel safe with their classroom community and believe that everyone in that room is there to help each other succeed. If that isn't in place, they will be reluctant with changes that will push them out of their comfort zone. So we spend a lot of time first with building our classroom community as one that is supportive towards all. But I do a few things that force students to try and participate when for some, they'd rather be a bit more passive.
Grouping and Partners
One thing I do is change my groups... often. Like daily or nearly every other day. Specifically in math. We do a lot of math talk and discussions and it is essential that all students take stock in our learning through talking and sharing ideas. If we keep the same groups often, students slowly begin to assume roles... the kid who always talks first, the kid who doesn't share and just does things on their own, the kid who is desperately looking for help from their group, but is too shy to say something, the kid who wants to say something, but isn't assertive enough to do so... you get the idea. By mixing up the groups, students can't get comfortable in those roles. And because we have this culture where we believe everyone can learn and everyone can teach us something, we spend more time on working on those necessary communication skills around sharing the talking space.
I've found that this is also very beneficial for my ELs. Often times, they want to share their thoughts and ideas, but aren't given the opportunity. Do I expect them to share first? No, not always. But do I expect them to share? You bet. The more they practice both the social and academic language, the more confident they will be become and the stronger they will understand our content.
Come up with a few key phrases and cheers and repeat them often when a student stretches and reaches a goal. We do a lot of simple cheers to reinforce each other. Diary of a Teachaholic has a free set of classroom cheers in her store. It's fun when you do them as a class and the recipient is trying so hard to keep a straight face, but it's IMPOSSIBLE! They love it.
But we also have phrases and cheers for our mistakes (which goes with #5 on this list). I love hearing my students encourage one another after a mistake with the words we've been practicing all year. They are now posted right under our SmartBoard so that when we are working on the carpet they are there to remind us.
This is something I've tried new this year and it has done wonders in terms of risk taking in our classroom. Students are literally changing their outlook on the learning process through this work. I wish I would have done it earlier in my career (well- let's face it, I'm still very new, but still!)
What I love most about it is that it helps ALL students. I have some students who do not like a challenge, or say things are too hard. I have others who say things are too easy and rush through giving mediocre work. Having this growth mindset has helped both walks of life stop and think about their effort and their work and think. And I can't help and smile when I hear them repeat these phrases during our learning time to each other.
With these simply things that we established early on in the year, students welcome challenges in their learning with open arms (for the most part) and are building important life skills.
Now- they are ready to tackle all that content and any challenge I give them! Right?