I sat outside my son’s first grade classroom helping students practice handwriting skills one day when a lightning bolt hit me.
Kids were in and out of the room, going to reading group, using the restroom as needed. When I finished with a student, they’d quietly walk in, tap the next person on the shoulder, and out they’d walk. As a high school teacher, I was enthralled by the bustle.
When I went into the classroom to touch base with the teacher, I continued to look around in amazement. Kids were everywhere. More importantly, they were working with purpose and focus. Some kids were lying on bean bag chairs reading. Others around a kidney table with the teacher. Another cluster of kids were sitting at their desks, working on bookmaking, tongues hanging out in determination. It felt like magic.
I know it’s not magic, though. The teacher had made deliberate choices to nurture this environment. To be honest, though, it took me a moment to be open to this aha moment. At first, it felt like chaos. But when I took a step back, I realized that this wasn’t chaos I was seeing. It was productivity. It dawned on me that my high school classroom rarely had this kind of energy. I wondered, if these seven-year-olds could be taught how to work like this, could I create opportunities for older kids to do the same?
Some of my takeaways from spending time in elementary classrooms:
Rocking chairs. Flip charts. Book bins. Cozy Rugs. Desks in clusters (rather than rows which Tom Murray recently referred to as “the cemetery effect”).
Elementary classrooms feel different. There’s an energy, a flow. The room often hums. When I’m in my colleague’s elementary classrooms, I’m struck by how different they look from my classroom setup. It’s not just the posters on the wall, or the rugs on the floor. It’s that the room feels like it belongs to students. Books students care about are on the shelves. The rooms are a welcoming space, which leads to students engaging with the content differently. They’re not just receptacles; rather, they see themselves as much a part of the space as the teacher. And everything in the space has a purpose.
I’ve been loving the ways that teachers are incorporating flexible seating and I think that even if you haven’t won a grant or launched a Donors Choose campaign, there’s a way to get creative about the space. I know I sometimes worry that kids will talk too much, or goof off. I remind myself, though, that when students are engaged in workshop practice, then I’m coaching them into independence. And if I can easily move around the room, I can cut off much of that behavior.
To read more about how we might set up our rooms, check out Kristine Mraz and Christine Herz’s book Kids First From Day One.
I notice that in elementary school, teachers spend a lot of time explicitly teaching routines for how to utilize the spaces. They build on what’s happened in year’s past, reminding students that they come ready with a whole skill set. They focus on those rituals as much as they focus on the content, especially in the beginning.
Sometimes, we teachers of older kids fall into a deficit thinking trap. I sometimes hear teachers say, “My students can’t do that [insert collaborative/independent work here].” I wonder, though. When they were seven and eight they were doing that work. How might we channel some of that muscle memory from their early learning years?
What would happen if we teach our older students explicit routines for work time. Teaching them explicitly what the room should look like and sound like when they are independently working. And of course, we know that older kids are different. Reinforcing the routines reground them.
We know that conferring is one of the most powerful tools in our teacher tool box. Carl Anderson reminds me to ask kids, “how’s it going?” Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle show me how powerful conferencing is in their work. An effective conference can be the most impactful thing we do all day.
I also know that this is really really hard to do. Not only because of time constraints, but also because when I’m conferring, other students feel like it’s free time. Suddenly there’s whispering and laughing. While I’m chatting at my desk with a student during a conference, I often find myself saying, “Hey, everyone get back to work,” disrupting both my conference and the students who might have actually been working.
What if instead I channeled the elementary teachers I know? I notice when I’m in their classrooms that their conferencing happens right where kids are sitting. They crouch next to students, leaning in, having whispered conversations.
This kind of conferring cuts down on transition time. Students aren’t walking across the room. Instead, they’re able to turn right back to their work and apply what they’ve talked about. And the teacher doesn’t have to wait on kids to gather materials and walk to the desk. Those minutes are precious, and I notice that when the teacher is where the work happens, more conferences can take place.
Small Group Instruction
Conferring isn’t the only way to have those smaller settings with students. Sometimes I forget that it’s not an either/or — we either work whole group instruction or 1:1 conferring. After having the same conversation three times in 1:1 conferences, I realized I needed to be more efficient with my time.
When I’m in an elementary classroom, I’m reminded of the power of small group instruction. I thought back to the way I saw my son’s teacher gather five students around her desk to teach them all the same skill. While the rest of the class was working independently, she was able to re-teach or extend the learning. I noticed too that she was able to target their needs in specific ways.
Whether it’s at a kidney table, or clustered around my teacher desk, I wonder if I could have students come to me in smaller groups.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that secondary students are different from elementary kids. They’re louder, bigger, and sometimes have checked out of school by the time they get to us. I try to remember, though, that they’re still kids. And when what I have been doing isn’t working with them, then I wonder if maybe it’s time to try something different. I think back to the students they once were, and I wonder if channeling some of those structures from their elementary days might make our days feel a little more magical.
Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati area. She’s currently reading Greeting From Witness Protection by Jake Burt, based on the recommendation of her 11-year-old daughter. She’s also trying to figure out how it’s mid-October when it feels like school just started.