This episode focuses in on classroom environment and creating that positive classroom environment for our students where they feel safe, they feel valued, and they feel cared about.
Before we dive into the transcript of this episode, I just want to preface this by saying I learned so much from Holly in our conversation recording together. Looking through the lens of a Kindergarten teacher was incredibly refreshing and just what I needed to take a step back and really look at doing everything with intention in my classroom.
I truly hope this episode provides you with that same experience. Enjoy!
Caitlin: Tell us about your teaching philosophy?
Holly: I have been teaching for eight years in kindergarten and my philosophy really stems from my own education as a pre-service teacher. I have a degree in child and family studies with a concentration in early childhood education and most of the decisions that I still make today are rooted in what I learned back then because I’m coming from a place of child development. And so I’m having to think about that when I think about how I’m going to do things in my classroom. So, my philosophy can basically be summed up in a few different beliefs that I have.I believe that children deserve an environment that is stress-free, calm, and that supports their engagement…and not just physical environment, but social emotional as well. I believe that as an early childhood educator, it is my job to make sure that I’m giving my students as many differentiated activities as I can because they are coming to me, even at such a young age , with so many different exposures and non-exposures to things. And I think most of all, I deeply believe that students should leave me with a joy of learning. That’s my biggest role as a teacher, to instill that love of learning in my students, because I am that foundation . I could be their very first teacher, whether or not they went to preschool or not, but I’m their first introduction to school, and I want them to leave, loving school.
Caitlin:Did you follow this approach from your first year teaching?
Holly: I don’t know many people who can say this, but I feel like my first year teaching was wonderful! It was one of my favorite years of teaching, and I think it’s because I have followed this same approach all my years of teaching. It’s due to me being rooted in child development because I knew going into that first year that the biggest thing that mattered was the environment that I created, not necessarily the physical environment, because my classroom looked totally different than the way that my classroom looks now. So, not that, but just the social-emotional environment! I knew that I needed to create relationships, I needed to have very strong classroom management strategies, and thankfully because I was exposed to things like Responsive classroom and the Reggio Emilia Approach, I used those philosophies that first year. I still use those today, so I think if you have something that you know works, why mess with it? What worked that first year, still works for me now in year eight.
Caitlin: While this philosophy carries over into all subject matters that you teach, can you focus in particular on reading and writing, since our audience is made up of ELA teachers?
Holly: One of my biggest responsibilities is setting that foundation, and as my students come into kindergarten, we talk about their identities as a reader and their identities as a writer. I’ve had students actually argue with me early in the year, when I say, “Everybody in this classroom is a reader.” They’ll say, “I can’t read. I’m not a reader.” I have to, even at five years old, break that down and prove to them: “Can you read your name? Can you read the McDonalds sign? Can you read your cereal box? Then you’re a reader.” It starts with that, and so, making sure that my students develop their reading and writing identities is huge! One of the ways that I do that that I think your listeners can probably relate to, is making sure, at any opportunity I can, to provide student choice. So, I follow the workshop model. In reader’s workshop, my students have book bins, and I make sure that I do put leveled readers in there that I select for them. They do not know their levels, but the majority of the books in their book bins, are their choice. There are story books, nonfiction books, whatever they want to choose from in the classroom library, which is just sorted by theme. It’s not sorted by levels. They get to choose, and so, when it’s reader’s workshop time, and they get their book bins out, they’re excited because they picked out most of the books in there. It’s the same thing for writer’s workshop. I do have, obviously, the standards I need to teach and the content I need to cover, but when it comes to actually sitting down and doing a narrative piece or an opinion piece, they have total freedom in what they want to write about. And in kindergarten, that starts as drawing pictures and telling stories through pictures. And now, they’re using lots of words to extend their stories, but they love it and they’ve grown so much because they get to choose, and writer’s workshop isn’t a chore for them because they got to choose exactly what their story is about.
Caitlin:Implementing that student choice is such an important piece…I do that with my eighth graders as well, and I’ve found that it works so well. This might not be a popular opinion, what I’m about to say, but w got rid of Accelerated Reader in our eighth grade classroom because so many of our students were restricted by their reading level, and they weren’t getting to read books that they were enjoying. So, it was really taking away from that enjoyment of reading, and I did a lot of research on it, and I argued to get rid of it for the eighth graders. And, when I told them that this year, they were thrilled, where they almost jumped out of their seats, so excited, because now they could read whatever books they wanted to read. Instilling that at such a young age, but then for us, as middle school ELA teachers, to continue to give them that student choice is so, so important. It’s something that we always need to keep at the top of our mind.
Holly: I know you have a lot more standards to cover than we as kindergarten teachers do, but, remembering that yes, you do need to teach those standards, it’s like that’s your destination that you want to arrive at. But, give your students different pathways to get there. Don’t just chug toward that destination, and think, “standards, standards.” Think about how students need to be enjoying that journey along with you. Student choice is huge for that!
Caitlin: What does the research say?
Holly: I chose the name “Research and Play” for all my social media outlets because I really am passionate about making sure that the decisions you make in your classroom are research-based, and I’m passionate about play. Starting from a young age, children develop their identity as a learner, and so I used research on classroom design, physical design, to make sure that they enter into a space that feels like it was made just for them. It has all the tools that they need. This helps them feel that their classroom is a space where they can be successful. I know that a lot of times we want to start organizing spaces to fit our needs as teachers, and I’ve really, this year specifically, come to hault, and said, “This space is not for you. There are 24 other people in here, and this space is definitely for them. I took away my kidney table, lowered it, and now, it’s a blocks-building table. My desk is out. Other things that I’ve just always had because “that’s a teacher thing to have,” I’ve taken out because this is not my space. This is theirs. When they walk in, I want them to feel like this is their space. I used a lot of different research for that, primarily, the Reggio Emilia Approach. As far as classroom management, I used research on best practices in behavior to make sure my students feel supported and cared for. I want them to feel like school is a place where they belong. I use things like responsive classroom, where it really utilizes student voice and student opinion. I’m eliciting their opinion on rules, on our routines, on our procedures, on our consequences. When they come in, they feel like they’ve made a bunch of decisions and they understand if they break a rule or do something that they shouldn’t, they help me figure out what to do about that. It’s not like I’m implementing something on to them. They were fully involved in that process. I also think about as they come to school, I want them to feel good about being there, and so, once they feel good about being at school, they feel like they belong, they feel cared about, then I think about the research behind the content. The social-emotional part is huge. You can’t do anything else without it. After they feel good about school, then I use research based on how to deliver the content, so that they can actually start developing those identities as mathematicians and readers and writers. I use a lot of research behind differentiation, blended learning, which I’ve been using for a couple years, and has been incredible, to make sure that even though they are so young, their ability levels are so varied, that whenever they come in, they know they’re not going to get just a blanket lesson. They know that their activities are exactly what they need. It gets them excited for centers and for writing because they’re doing things that they need to work on.
Caitlin: These are all principles that we should be applying in middle school too. I think that’s such a great thing for you to bring up to us…to remind us…we need to be focused on how our classroom environment, the physical environment, is about our students. It’s not just about us. I have 31 other students with me. It’s not just my classroom. To have that mindset shift is so important and incorporating blended learning and differentiation…those are all things that we need to be doing in the middle school classroom. And the social-emotional part of it is huge in middle school because kids are going through so many different changes, and life is just challenging in middle school. I don’t know if you remember being in middle school, but it was just not an ideal time in life. They need to feel cared about by us too, even though they’re thirteen, fourteen years old. They still want to be loved. They still want to be cared about. They still want to walk into a classroom where they feel like they matter.
Holly: I will never forget my eighth grade Social Studies teacher because she cared about me, and that’s hard when you’re rotating through all those teachers in middle school to find one that you feel like really cares. I feel like everything that I do, in particular the trainings and PDs that I’ve gone to, to learn more about this, are K-12. There are teachers in the room from all grade levels, so it’s applicable no matter what grade you teach.
Caitlin: It’s interesting that you say that about your history teacher. It’s something that I remind myself of: They’re probably not going to remember anything that I taught them. They’re not going to remember about Romeo and Juliet. They’re not going to remember Dally from The Outsiders. They’re going to remember how I made them feel at the end of the day. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why we’re teachers, to yes, make the world a better place, but because we care about kids.
You’re a kinder teacher, how can these same principles apply to a middle school classroom? Give us examples, an actionable step, of what you did that we can take back to our own classrooms?
Holly: You probably already do this, but, one thing that I used to do, but I don’t do anymore is for writing, for example. When I would teach writing, I would think about the standard that I wanted to teach, and then I would create an exemplar, and my students would get a template that basically had most of the words filled in with the dotted lines and then they got to write one word to finish the writing. That’s it. They filled in one thought. That was their own original thought and then they drew a picture. I realized that was just not working, and my students were not becoming writers. They didn’t see themselves as writers. They weren’t loving writing. I’ve totally shifted my mindset as a writing teacher. I understand that my kids need to know how to produce a narrative writing piece, so what I have done, that has worked really, really well, is I will study that content area, and I will pick out personal stories from my own life that can relate to that, and so, I do storytelling at writing time. My mini-lesson will be me telling a story. I might say, “Guess what? I went and saw my friend, Caitlin, and this is what we did, and this is the restaurant we went to. And she has two dogs, and I played with them. Then I came back home.” It’s a true story, but they get so invested because you’re telling them something personal. No matter how old the kids are, they love hearing about your personal life. As I’m telling the story, I start writing my little blurb and I draw my picture in front of them. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it’s just something to show them. Then I say, “I’d love to hear about something you’re doing in your life or a cool thing that you did.” Then they’re energetic and excited,a nd they go to their tables and write. I feel like in starting that personal piece, it totally changed how writer’s workshop felt. It didn’t feel like a chore, and it didn’t feel stale like it did before. The kids start raising their hand during writing time, saying, “Come read my story. Look what I did with my family last weekend.” That really helped.
Caitlin: We could do that as well when we’re teaching narratives in middle school. I never thought about that. I’ve always briefly told them, but to give them an exemplar of narrative writing…I always give them a teacher example when I teach them about literary analysis, but I never thought to carry that over into other writing disciplines.
If a listener wanted to begin implementing Reggio Emilia principles in their own classroom, where do you think is a good place to start?
Holly: I spent years learning about this in college, and I’ve still been trying to learn more and more about it as I’ve taught. Start by defining the three major aspects of Reggio Emilia. The Reggio Emilia Approach stems from educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy. There are three main aspects of this approach in educating children. There is a specific role of the teacher, the role of students/learners, and the role of the environment. One of the best places to start, is to define those three roles for yourself. As a Reggio teacher, first, you look at the student. What would you say is the student’s role in your classroom? As a Reggio educator, you would see that student as an active participant, a sense-maker, a constructor of knowledge, an explorer of their environment. You would see the student as leading the teachers down the path, and that path may look different for every single student. But, you’re giving them that space and that ability to lead you where they need to go. You go with them down that path. You take that journey with them. It’s the role of the student to set that path, depending on what they need. They are actively working alongside you. Take that role or that image of the student, and the image of the child is important. What do you see children as? Do you see them as sponges or as cups that you have to fill? You have to truly see the students in your class as totally capable of doing the work and making those big decisions. You’re not the only decision-maker in your classroom. After you develop the role of the student, think about the role of the teacher. As a Reggio educator, you would see yourself as a guide, or facilitator, a listener, someone who knows the destination you have to arrive at based on the standards, but you know that you’ll take whatever path is necessary to get your kids there. You’re going to try different approaches, you’re going to differentiate, you’re going to follow their emotional needs, and take a step back if you need to. You’re not going to rush that process. If you see yourself as that facilitator, then you are working right alongside your kids, no matter what they’re doing. They could be having playtime in kindergarten, and some people might just see it as play, and they go have their coffee and do their attendance, but I love sitting down with them and listening to what they’re doing because there are so many things that children can do, that they might not get to show you in a paper and pencil activity. They can show you so much more. You’re that facilitator and taking notes: “How can I support this child during reading time because they love playing with the blocks.” After you’ve developed the role of the student and the role of the teacher, then think about the role of the environment. What do you see your classroom as? Is it actually a participant in the kids’ learning? According to the Reggio Approach, the environment is the “third teacher.” You’re environment should be set up in a way that not only supports your students and gives them the tools they need, but provokes them or engages them or stimulates them. You want the things in your classroom to be things that your students could look at, and it actually makes them think. It makes them excited. If you have a writing area, and it has all these different materials and tools, your students are drawn to that area because they love sitting over there and getting out some paper. Or you have your reading area with pillows and plenty of choice books. It draws them there. One thing that Reggio classrooms have a lot, are provocations. Sometimes you’ll just bring something in from the real world, put it on a table, and ask what students notice and wonder. You don’t have an agenda. You don’t know where that’s going to go, but it’s really cool to see what kids do with that. That would be my advice. Develop the definitions of those three roles, and if it’s hard to think of that, then you have some work to do.
Caitlin: It’s okay. We’re not perfect. We’re always learning, we’re always growing, we’re always evolving and changing. We’re always bettering our teaching philosophies and practices for the betterment of our kids, and for ourselves too. At the end of the day, no one is the best teacher in the world.
Links mentioned in this episode:
- Holly’s favorite teaching books
- Classroom Environment: What Matters Most blog post
- A Reggio-Inspired Classroom Environment blog post
To download this episode, just click here!
Want to listen to even more episodes?
- Episode #1: 3 Simple Ways to Create Student Buy In
- Episode #3: Constructive Criticism: How to Change Your Mindset and Be Open to Feedback
- Episode #6: Keeping Students Engaged through the End of the Year