Thursday, November 19, 2009

Setting the Atmosphere....

One of the things teachers have to do is to establish a learning atmosphere in the classroom be it high school mathematics or first grade reading. Because we normally have a number of students in each classroom, the teacher automatically has to deal with setting the climate for learning. How to do that is what each teacher learns to do in the internship and during the first few years of teaching. How you say, "Good Morning, Group," or "Okay, let's get started on today's lessons," are just the beginning of classroom atmosphere.

This was brought to my attention in one school where I had a student teacher. The cooperating teacher was a little thing, perhaps five feet tall--very petite. AND very quiet in speaking. The first time I was introduced to her I had to lean over to hear her. She apologized for being so quiet but said it was her nature to be that way. I was fascinated.

Mrs. Case (not real names as usual) was a first grade teacher who had the quietest class I had ever been in. About thirty or so first graders, she started class with the her very soft voice, "Okay, boys and girls, let's stand for the pledge of allegiance." And the kids would stand besides their desks and recite the pledge.....hand over their heart. Typical start for most first grade classes except I almost missed. I had to crank my listening up several notches. The kids would start doing things and I would realize Mrs. Case had given some instructions and I had not heard it.

I remember asking the student teacher, one of our best from my university, how did she do in listening and she admitted that she had to at first pay close attention but that after the first week, she was doing okay. She as well as the rest of the first graders were well sensitized to Mrs. Case's voice. And you also had to keep her in your vision being that she wasn't really much taller then some of her charges. "Let's see, where is Mrs. Case now?" was my theme much of the time. If she sat at a student's desk she blended right in.

One day I was in the back of the room talking to my student teacher and going over some of her lesson plans. The lesson plans were good; she had had good training on lessons. But I had notice that at the end of the section on which she was going to teach, there were no tests to see how she had done with the children. I always liked to see some sort of a measurement device even in first grade. Perhaps something that the children could use check marks to verbal questions by the teacher. But my student teacher said that she had something like that in the lesson plans but Mrs. Case had told her, "no tests in this classroom." None? None!

Later on when Mrs. Case and I were able to get together and talk about my student teacher and how she was doing (fine), I enquired about this no test policy. Mrs Case had thought this all out and from her answer had already delivered it a number of times. She did not want her children tensing up unnecessarily in the classroom. There would be time enough for that in later grades. But in her classroom there would be NO tests...or hint of tests. Mrs. Case was quite strong on this point. If she was a good enough teacher then she ought to know how each of her charges were doing at any time in her classroom. And she did. At a later date she pulled a couple of files from her desk and showed them to me. She knew where each of her children were in reading, which child was having problems with syllables, which ones had the consonants under their command and which book and story each child was working on. Every afternoon after the kids had gone home, she would update her files.

Quite frankly I was very impressed with her work. If I had been younger and had a first grade child this would be one of the teachers I would have liked to start my child on the learning adventure. Mrs. Case's kids were eager to learn, worked hard and I believe were ahead of the curve. My student teacher took on the same behavior and had her own files on the children as she worked with them. Mrs. Case's classroom was a delight, very quiet and learning was the focus of her atmosphere.

As I write of Mrs. Case's techniques I am reminded of fifth grade teacher on the opposite side of the town--same school district however. I remember having a student teacher in that room but I can't remember much about that person. But what I do remember was another technique in creating a good learning environment. I remember sitting in the back of the room, more to get a feel of the class before my student teacher was to take over. Kids were working on projects and at the fifth grade level not everyone was working on the same learning task. But something wasn't quite right in my mind. The teacher, Mrs. Whitehall was walking around helping the kids, but there were no raised hands to get her attention. Now in the majority of the rooms I use to visit, when a student was having a problem they would raise their hand. If the teacher was helping someone else, they would just leave their hand in the air. Some kids, when tired would take the other hand to support it at the elbow. A few would hold their hand up but put their head down. Under these situations, learning mostly came to a stop. That was what I was use to seeing. But here in Mrs. Whitehall's class NO hands were showing. Interesting.

So I watched. Both Mrs. Whitehall and my student teacher spend much of that hour going from desk to desk helping those that needed some assistance. But I never saw a child who seemed to need assistants. After school was out I went back to the classroom and asked Jane what she was doing.

She smirked (it was always a delight to pull one over the ol' college professor) and showed me her system. She went to one of the desks and pulled out a paper folded box with different colors on the sides, red, yellow and green. Some sort of origami type small box folded out of kraft paper. During study times the boxes were to be on the desk in the corner and if everything was fine, green would be showing toward the ceiling. If they need some help, then yellow was suppose to be pointing upward. Big problems--big red pointing upward. But there was another catch to all of this. If they were totally stumped and had put the red pointing upward, the student couldn't just quit work, they had to do something positive such as reading their library book, working on spelling words, finishing other assignments, whatever. Jane mentioned that she was just tired of seeing children who were stuck and that she could not get to them right away. Hence, they had to keep working on something. And eventually, she would get there to help them.

What a technique! No hands waving in the air, no students just sitting there waiting for the teacher's help. No, you wouldn't see this if you were measuring for Merit pay....just test scores for that. But if I had a child I would have wanted them to be in Mrs. Whitehall's class learning how to make good use of their time.

No tests in one class and no hand waving in another class. Thanks, Mrs. Case and Mrs. Whitehall for being the excellent teachers you were. You have my admiration.

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