Guest Post by The Odyssey Initiative’s Michelle Healy
At every beginning of the school year when I was a teacher, my kids and I fit ourselves into a circle on the rug and benches of our classroom meeting space and tried our best to answer some form of the question, “What does a positive classroom community feel like?”
Elementary schoolers are experts at recognizing what makes a learning environment feel good. Variations of “It’s a place where people are friendly and nice,” or “a positive community respects each other,” would pop up each year, along with some less traditional answers like, “A classroom community with a lot of snacks is a positive one.”
This year, as I’ve been traveling to schools across the country and blogging with The Odyssey Initiative, answers to this question have come up over and over again in our interviews with educators and school leaders. Many educators have attributed their students’ learning successes to the establishment of a positive classroom and school community in which students are known as people and recognized by their peers and teachers for their individuality. At Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, NJ., Early Childhood Director Shanna Pargellis shared with us her ideas about a teacher’s most important role. “Each child comes with gifts into the learning space, and I think some of those children who seem so undervalued have some of the greatest gifts. Our job as educators is to seek that out, to find what those gifts are that each child brings, and to encourage growth in those gifts and shore up any weaknesses. But then, those gifts are not just for yourself, they’re meant for the community.”
When a child enters school, he or she is not a vacant machine waiting to be activated. A child already possesses knowledge, a sense of self, feelings, interests, and dreams when they enter the doors of an elementary school to start Kindergarten. Art Teacher Joan Fox at Project Learn in Philadelphia, PA, spoke to this when she stated, “Our youngest kids, when they come in at five years old, they are already who they’re going to be. They’re not formed yet, but they come with these incredible, special kind of bits that make each one of them so unique.” These distinctive bits that make a child distinctly human come with them to school each day, adding to what Yvonne Smith, a Kindergarten teacher at Central Park East One in New York, NY, so aptly described as the “stew” of learners. Just like different ingredients add specific layers of flavor to a stew, each student’s traits add to the uniqueness of a classroom community. A healthy learning environment is cultivated when educators are deliberate in planning how to create a classroom environment in which originality is honored and students feel safe to share their gifts with each other.
Many educators we’ve interviewed have mentioned how a community grows stronger when adults don’t impose interests and passions on children, but assume the role of advocate and facilitator for the students in their care. At Spring Mill Elementary School in Indianapolis, Principal Subha Balagopal told us about the importance of advocacy in relation to giving children the space to grow. “It’s important for all of us - educators, parents, community members - to advocate for kids. Give them that opportunity to grow into whatever they want to be. Give them exposure to ideas and things that open their mind and allow them to channel what they’re doing. This can only happen if we don’t pigeonhole kids into, you know, I see you and here’s what I think you’re going to do”.
Talented educators across the country have mentioned the importance of deeply knowing each child within their classroom. How do they make sure it happens? By taking the time to thoughtfully plan the setup of their community before the school year starts; by thoroughly listening to their students; by sharing their own interests; by creating learning opportunities that provide access points for each child in their care; by advocating for the best interests of each child; and by celebrating accomplishments.
After visiting many schools, it has become obvious upon entering a learning community whether children are deeply known. It lives in the feeling of joyful learning that is almost palpable upon opening the school doors. It is first noticed within each student’s eyes, voice, and ease of step. It is encapsulated not only in their smiles and laughter, but in the attentiveness that each student puts towards his or her own interests and learning goals. Through being known, a healthy school environment thrives.
Michelle Healy is a member of the Odyssey Initiative, a 12-month journey of the best schools and classrooms in all 50 states. With her partners, Healy is observing and documenting what is already working in American schools. After identifying the most successful instructional and structural teaching practices, her team will then put these practices into action at a new K-8 public school in Brooklyn, New York.
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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.