Setting Up a Classroom Community for Learning

This was my first attempt at a post for the Cooperative Catalyst Blog. I didn’t feel like this was answering the question, so I began over and eventually ended up with this:  Empowering Self-Directed Learners

Wow, when I began trying to write on the Cooperative Catalyst blog about the question, “How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?” I realized I can’t answer both parts of that without a REALLY long post, so I thought I was  going for the first part.

First, I’m an elementary teacher, so that’ll be my lens.  Secondly, I have a Masters in Early Childhood,so that’ll be (mostly) my philosophical bent and thirdly, I believe in constructivism, so that’ll be my experiential base. For more information about my teaching kindergarten, I wrote this post this past weekend.

It’s the efficacious self-directed, social learner that is hard for most of us, I think.  You see, we should be teaching thinking and how to learn efficaciously and how to get along-instead we spend our time teaching factoids for a state test. So let me describe a day in my kindergarten class and you tell me if I was supporting students to be all that they could be.

Each morning, as the kids walked in, they put their stuf away and then went to the TV to read the Morning Message. This was an expectation of everyone, whether you could read or not, so everyone gathered there in small groups as busses emptied–and the kids who COULD read helped those who couldn’t. The Morning Message then delineated what the next steps were, in addition to sharing news about the day ahead.

Once the bell rang, we began together on the rug, to go over the message and the calendar,  look for patterns, discuss upcoming events, review the day (so there were no surprises and kids knew what to expect) and then shared our daily news–or in the case of Monday, our Weekend News.) Then we moved into what we called Choice Time. The kids got to choose which area of the room they went to, but also during this time, there were some expectations. Everyone, at some point during this time, had tot do some writing. Could be a grocery list in the housekeeping area, a picture and description of what they built with blocks, a description of the game they played, a sentence or two of that they did in the sand/water table, a story of their art, or whatever, but we had talked about how adults write throughout the day and they had to begin thinking about how to use writing to help them both organize their life and make sense of it.

Choice time lasted about 45-50 minutes, then the rest of the day consisted of another 45-50 minutes of math–again we began on the rug, going over a concept, then they got to choose which centers they worked at to work on the skill. What I found was that kids naturally differentiate during this time–if they need to work on number combinations for 5 and 6, they don’t go to the number station that is working on adding 8 and 9.  They KNOW what they are shaky at and they work to get better at it.

Another structured time was reading and writing workshop, modeled after the National Writing Project and many of my mentors in the NE-Donald Graves and Thomas Newkirk and Jane Hanson from NH, Lucy Calkins from NY. Again we began on the rug, then moved in to “Book Look” where everyone engaged with books–in partners, alone, whatever–their choice. During this time, My teaching assistant and I walked around listening to kids read and sharing strategies, reviewing the ones we’d taught, noting which ones they  used, etc. It was individualized instruction at its best, I think.  We actually had half the class writing and half reading during this time–and she monitored one while I did the other, and we switched throughout the week, so both of us took notes on what kids were doing during this time.

Storytime was often my favorite–I not only shared books they could then go practice individually during choice time or Book Look the next day, but also books that went with our unit–whatever we were studying that week or month. Or maybe music was my favorite–I interspersed that throughout the day, each time we were on the rug, we’d often move away with a song, or do a couple while were there–Hap Palmer and Ella Jenkins were brilliant in what they provided for young children with their work. The Greg and Steve came along and we had even more great songs to sing as we worked.

Did you notice when we switched activities, we always began on the rug? That was part of the building community…to go over expectations as well as answer questions, accept ideas, listen to things needing to be shared from the previous work, etc. The rituals we had throughout the day settled the kids so they could begin to assert their independence and so they could initiate work themselves, as they knew what was coming. Each time we had a clean up song–and they sang along, sometimes at the top of their lungs.

Kids put on the clean up song.  They turned the lights out to ask others to pipe down if it got loud. They dealt with their own issues between one another, because the first month of school, if they “tattled” on someone bothering them, I would ask them, “Is Johnny bothering me?” and when they answered no, I would then say, “Then why are you telling me?  You and Johnny need to talk,”  We discussed those strategies to use.  First, ask them to stop–and if they don’t, then walk away, and if they follow, THEN get a teacher to help.  We practiced “I messages”-I feel ____ when you _____ because it ____ (specific feedback here–keeps me from doing my work, makes my head hurt, makes me feel like you don’t like me, hurts my feelings, etc.)

My attitude is that I am there to teach–and that means I set the kids up to deal with the behaviors, not me. In the hall, we talked about being quiet so we didn’t bother other learners. Everything was always about how our actions didn’t just impact us, but others as well. We talked about how we didn’t go the school in a vaccum, but were part of a group–and that meant we had to consider the group as we acted. Kids will need to be independent–so why FOSTER their dependency by jumping in to do things for them?  WHy intervene in a squabble instead of teaching them how to “unsquabble” themselves? Why hand out pencils or paper when they can get it themselves?  (Of course that means setting up structures that support that independence, like having paper and pencils and glue and scissors, etc. in a place kids can gte them and organize them back easily.) Why collect papers or notes form home when you can hand a kid a small class list and have them collect for you–checking off kid’s names as they do, so they hand you a stack of neatly organized papers and the list, so you know exactly WHO you still need to collect from? Why choose classroom helpers, when you can set up a rotation system kids can change for themselves on Friday to be ready for Monday morning? Why take time counting tray lunches, packed, etc. when you can set up a graph kids change each day that then become part  of math for the first month or so?

My idea of a well-run classroom is that kids own it, they are in charge of it and they direct parts and pieces of it. They have choice in how they learn things (and many times in what they learn), but they also learn the state mandated curriculum. I just never found that to have to be the majority of my day.

(We also had daily PE, weekly music with a music teacher, art with an art teacher, 2 library times, recess and rest time each day, lunch, and unit time.)

So, questions?  Comments?

8 thoughts on “Setting Up a Classroom Community for Learning

  1. I’ve been really enjoying reading your blog these past two weeks. You have a lot of great things to say and advice to give to someone like me who is studying to become a teacher. I have a lot to learn. Thank you for sharing, it gives me a perspective on what to expect and how to approach directing a classroom. It all seems overwhelming because a teacher has to be so many things. I also want to say that I think teaching a child to be as independent as they should be given their age is one of the best things an adult can provide for a child. If their capable of doing it themselves, then let them. Learning to do for yourself at a young age is crucial to being able to do for yourself as an adult.

  2. Jessica, I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and comments as well, and am sorry to have not responded sooner.
    What grade or subject are you going to teach? I originally thought I’d be a high school English teacher, but
    changed to elementary and am glad I did.

  3. Greetings,

    My name is A.W. Faris. I am a Secondary Education/ English major at The University of South Alabama. I am taking a class called Educational Media (EDM 310) and was directed to your blog as part of a class-wide project. I really enjoyed reading this post. I feel like too many teachers today simply go through the motions of teaching kids “factoids” that are really just part of state requirements. I think that kids get a lot more out of an education that teaches them to be free, independent critical thinkers. I understand, however, that this can be a difficult line to walk at times for educators. It sounds like you are doing a really good job of this in your class. I like the fact that you create a support system that allows your students to at least attempt to solve their own issues amongst themselves. Thanks for posting!

    You can find my blog at: and our class blog is

  4. Hello. My name is Summer Anderson and I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 Class at the University of South Alabama. I am an Elementary Education major. I did notice that the rug was where to go when activities were over and when they would begin again. I believe that is a very useful tool to know being a future teacher. I like the fact that the children are learning independence while learning other things as well. I LOVE the fact that you said, “Everything was always about how our actions didn’t just impact us, but others as well.” That is very true. That is something children will remember when they get older. I, personally, like you idea of the classroom where the children own it. I like it because it allows you to be a more effective teacher in the classroom. By allowing them to gain the independence and “unsquabble the squabbles themselves.” I truly enjoyed reading your blog! It was very informative! Hope you have a great day!

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