How do we get our students to become readers and writers; literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world?
It’s simple. Ask yourself, “How do I prefer to read, write, create and learn?” I can guarantee that each and every one of us would have a different idea of what that looks like and would choose something different. We don’t all learn the same, so why do we expect our students to. The relationships we build and the space that we provide to our students each year is crucial to allowing them to become readers, writers and creators, and we have to cater to the different needs that allow them to become what we hope they can be. How do we create open spaces where students can, and want, to learn and grow?
The answer = Relationships!!!
This happens for at least the first FOUR days of school in my classroom. Yes, four. I don’t even say the word syllabus until day three. I want to start the year getting to know my students and how they function; who they are, what they love and what they hate. I spend these days doing team building activities and switching the teams up each day intentionally. It teaches them to work well with different personalities and it allows me to see who they can work best with. It’s also a nice perk to know who should avoid whom in those more difficult classes. This all plays into how I approach them to start those one on one conversations. These team building moments can carry on throughout the year, not just be left for the first week. I often break up high pressure times of year with a team building activity to help keep the momentum going and refresh their minds and our classroom atmosphere.
A big part of our relationship and team building happens when have a conversation about our classroom social contract. Every year, it never fails, each class initiates the signing of that contract with no prompting from me. It’s a beautiful thing to know that they WANT to act and sign the contract that THEY helped create. The more involvement and choice students have in what they do in our classrooms, the more investment they have in what they are working to create. Giving them the opportunity to have a say in what our classroom expectations are allows them to have that investment.
Team building is so important to me and my classroom environment because if we don’t feel like a team, if the students don’t feel welcome and safe, they will never hear one word of anything I need to teach them the rest of the year. A positive relationship is the best foundation for the rest of the year to be built upon.
Yes, we confer to learn what books they like and guide them in their writing, but we also need to use it to build our relationship. Conferring during the first week (sometimes two) of school is simply “get to know you” conferring. I ask about reading and writing but I also want to know about the person behind the face and name that I will spend all year with. I write with them and they learn about me, then I confer with them about what they’ve written about their own lives.
Allowing our students to get to know us is just as important as us getting to know them. We need to let them see us in the struggle of writing; that’s why modeling what we ask them to do is so important. We need to let them know if we might be having a bad day and let them know it’s their turn to show the teacher some grace, like we show them each day. It’s a swaying tightrope that requires an immense amount of balance through a necessary obstacle if we want our students to become great readers and writers.
When students see their teacher taking the time to notice specifics about their personal life, not just the way they read or write, it creates a trust and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in their writing. A simple, “I am so happy you shared!” or, “I am sorry to see that you felt this way and hope you never do again” can really allow them to feel like a wanted soul in your classroom, especially when you have 32+ students in one class period and they feel like just a number.
Affirmation and Validation
These kids need to hear the words from us, spoken aloud, that tell them, “I care about you.” We can assume they know but hearing it out loud is necessary to their belief in that feeling. Sometimes a simple, “Hey! I care about you guys! Have a great rest of the day!” is something that will make a kids day turn around. Some of these precious souls that come through my door each day don’t see an adult figure, or one that is a positive role model, outside of this school. I need to be that for them. If I’m not, then who?
Validation is what they need to feel like they matter, that they are worthy, in order to move into a creative space and explore themselves as readers and writers. Yes, there are probably a million things we could critique about their writing, BUT we need to remember to build them up or they will never have the motivation to create at all. Validating and affirming that they are on the right track through conferring, notes, and blessings is a good way to do this. Starting with the positive and ending with encouragement. Giving them a positive end note can help them become motivated to dive back into a piece and create that authentic masterpiece. If we don’t work to make our students feel welcome, they will never hear what we want to teach them.
Alternative seating – Five years ago I began my adventure of flexible seating. I have not had one moment of regret ever since. I am so glad I chose to push back against the fear of change, the “norm” in classrooms, and power through to what I have created now.
As you enter my room, you will see a space that ditches that harsh fluorescent lighting and replaces it with soft, warm lighting from lamps and stranded garden lights. You will notice that there are very few desks and many bean bags to sink into. There are two couches that will call to you and beg to be used. There are two bistro tables at standing height for those of us who need to stand in moments of writing to get our energy out. There are saucer chairs to hug you through those difficult pieces of reading and writing. My coffee tables are the perfect height for the “floor sitters,” like me, and accompanying floor pillows. There is also a beautiful, whimsical bench that my husband crafted (he also made the bistro tables with his talents – I might keep him around for a while). The atmosphere is welcoming and inviting, nurturing creativity.
When I first decided to bring in these seating alternatives, it was because I asked myself how I prefer to learn and WHY that space looks the way it does for me. The why is so, so important and gave me direction for which to take my classroom. Why do we need to create a comfortable space for students to create and learn in? The answer was simple. As an adult, I prefer to learn or read or write or create in a space filled with pillows or bean bags. One day I might want to sit on the couch, or, for days when I am really concentrating and creating (like while writing this blog) I prefer to sit on the floor with a coffee table as a desk, where I can spread out. So, as an adult, if I prefer this, I knew for sure my students would appreciate the option of getting to sit in the way they prefer, too. Feeling comfortable in a space provides us with the opportunity to open up all of our senses and focus on the creating of a piece or escaping into a novel. Giving them the opportunity to choose their space in my room is crucial to their development as readers and writers.
Flexible seating does not mean traditional desks are trashed and burned. Students use all the flexible seating, including the traditional desks. Some even move up to a traditional desk in moments of deep thinking or creating. Most of this seating you see in our classroom was free, donated or built. I only purchased the three saucer chairs and large futon from an online garage sale app. This is 5 years of accumulating different seating, so if you are inspired to start using flexible seating, know that it will take some time and always look for those deals! Even spending what you can spare on a simple cushion for the floor will be worth it.
I often get asked many questions when I talk about flexible seating. I think the biggest one is, “How do you get them to behave so well?!” Our flexible seating expectations are a topic we discuss while creating our classroom contract. It is important to voice your expectations at the beginning, just like any other classroom expectation. One of my expectations is that if students are debating on who gets to sit in a certain spot, they will decide calmly and compromise on who gets to sit in the seat that day, then switch the next day. Another important expectation that I make very clear is that it is their responsibility to maintain their focus while in the flexible seating. If they talk to their friends, sleep or just don’t complete the task at hand, they need to practice responsibility and make the decision to place themselves in a successful space. Some kids may need a reminder of this responsibility, but I rarely have to intervene when it comes to this. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much responsibility our students will take on when we give them the opportunity to have more responsibility through choice.
My students are free to choose how and where they sit, to learn and create in the way that fits them best. That choice gives them so much ownership of their own learning! And, isn’t that what we need to provide; more responsibility and ownership when it comes to their learning? Giving them a choice is how we provide them with that opportunity; in what they read, what they write and HOW they learn. When we establish the relationships with our students that allow them to feel comfortable in the vulnerability that is attached to what they share and write, when we give them the opportunity to take their learning into their own hands by giving them choice, they become literate, engaged, empathetic contributors to our world. They become readers and writers. Our students have stories to tell, and we need to guide them and give them the skills to tell them through the relationships and space we create for them.
Sarah Roy is currently singing songs from The Greatest Showman nonstop and wondering what took her so long to finally take her nose out of a book and watch those 105 minutes of greatness. She is enjoying spending time in her students work and seeing the potential that they have to create greatness in her class this year. Sarah is also seeking out her next read but enjoying reading all the informational books about salamanders with her eldest son, Crosby.