A Teacher’s Perspective on Effective Classrooms, Part 4

The best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand, and heart. I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Here, then, is how a nurturing classroom recognizes that we are all unique learners:

Heart (Social/Emotional)

  • Teachers take the time to teach children how to care for others. Everyone helps each other succeed.
  • Teachers try to understand the challenges that children may be facing in their home life.
  • Teachers recognize that parent input is critical to their child’s success.
  • Everybody gets the chance to be a leader.
  • Student work is highlighted all over the classroom.
  • Children feel that they are part of their classroom and part of the school community.
  • Students are encouraged to be active participants in making their community and the world a better place.
  • The students and the teacher are joyful.

And, finally, EVERYBODY LOOKS LIKE THEY WANT TO BE IN SCHOOL.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Effective Classrooms, Part 3

The best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand, and heart. I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Here, then, is how a nurturing classroom recognizes that we are all unique learners:

Hand (Physical/Creative)

  • Learning is active and hands-on. Students should be moving around the classroom independently and actively engaged in the tasks at hand.
  • Teachers recognize that every child is gifted and talented in some way, and find ways for the students to share their talent.
  • Art and music are present in the classroom or the school. Is there a classroom library? A school library?
  • There is time each day for teachers to read aloud to their students.
  • Time is made for classroom movement breaks in addition to regular recess.
  • Teachers show children how to use classroom tools and time wisely, and then they trust them to do just that.

A Corny Curious Story About Sweet Corn

I love reading. I read every day. I actually don’t feel good if a day goes by without at least a little reading.

I cook every day. Some people think I love cooking. But I don’t think I really love cooking. I think I love eating. I cook good food so that I can eat it. What I love about cooking is that I can choose ingredients I love to eat. So I read books about food and cooking.

Some years ago, I cut out and kept an article titled “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food” and I stuck it into one of my cookbooks. I have read it a number of times since. The article was written by Jo Robinson, the author of “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.”

I learned from Jo Robinson how “we’ve reduced the nutrients and increased the sugar and starch content of hundreds of fruits and vegetables.” Corn is the best example of this. Here is a story about corn that is both fascinating and shocking:

White kerneled corn “was born” in 1836, the creation of Noyes Darling whose goal was to create a sweet, all white variety without “the disadvantage of being yellow.” He succeeded.

But the story becomes strange and more than a little disturbing. Supersweet corn was born in a cloud of radiation. Beginning in the 1920’s, geneticists exposed corn seeds to radiation to learn more about the normal arrangement of plant genes. The corn seeds were exposed to X-rays, toxic compounds, cobalt radiation, and then, in the 1940’s, to blasts of atomic radiation. Then the seeds were stored in a seed bank for use in research. In 1959, John Laughnan, a geneticist who was studying some of the no-longer-radioactive seeds, decided to pop a few into his mouth. He couldn’t believe how sweet they were. Lab tests confirmed they were 10 times sweeter than ordinary sweet corn. The radiation had turned the corn into a sugar factory.

Mr. Laughnan realized people would love extra-sweet corn and he spent years developing commercial varieties of this corn. In 1961, he began selling his first hybrids. And within one generation, the new extra-sugary varieties were selling more than the older varieties. Today, most of the corn in our grocery stores is extra-sweet. The sweetest ones contain 40 percent sugar. The disadvantage of white corn is that it lacks nutrients. If you want more nutrients in your corn: choose corn with deep yellow kernels. It has 60 times more beta-carotene, which turns into Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A helps vision and the immune system. When baking, try blue, red or purple cornmeal.

While you are at it: Eat some scallions, aka green onions, which Jo Robinson calls “jewels of nutrition.” The green part is more nutritious than the white part, so use the whole plant. I’ve discovered I LOVE green onions cooked with mushrooms. I slice up an entire bunch of green onions and cook them with mushrooms in a generous amount of olive oil and a dollop of lightly salted butter. Sourdough toast or brown rice is a wonderful accompaniment.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Effective Classrooms, Part 2

The best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand, and heart. I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Here, then, is how a nurturing classroom recognizes that we are all unique learners:

Head (Cognitive)

  • A thriving classroom “meets students where they are,” which means not all students should be working on the same task or at the same pace. Some students will be working independently, while others will work with partners or in small groups supported by the teacher or a student leader.
  • Learning is collaborative, not competitive. Teachers make sure that students have time to think and voice their ideas without being interrupted. Classmates learn how to listen when other children are talking.
  • Teachers take packaged curriculum and revise lessons to make learning meaningful and accessible to every student. If a child is not developmentally ready to tackle an assignment, the teacher will pre-teach the lesson or send the lesson home for pre-teaching. Expectations will be modified.
  • Teachers diverge from prepared lessons to address student questions and follow paths of inquiry that are interesting to students. Teachers make room for students to pursue their passions.
  • If students don’t understand a lesson, teachers re-teach the lesson in a different way.
  • If there is homework, it should be necessary, reasonable (no more than 10 minutes added on for each grade level) and modified to make every student feel successful.
  • Required textbooks are supplemented with interesting, age appropriate, up-to-date resources from a variety of media.
  • Teachers are always looking for ways to integrate learning across the curriculum.
  • Teachers employ a variety of methods to assess whether a student understands new material.

Foundation and Framing

When in doubt, go to the library.

J. K. Rowling

The foundation for the downstairs garage/upstairs library has been poured and our message to ourselves and any future inhabitants has been permanently recorded via a nail as my writing instrument. Bill realized that once the walls go up, we will have to read our message upside down, because it’s in the front corner facing the street. Well, maybe that is okay. It will add an extra detail to the story, plus a bit of laughter.


In the meantime, our Little Neighborhood Library is as active as ever, with readers picking up and dropping off books each day. Sometimes, we even find a note like this one with a new book deposit.

When We Play, We Learn

“The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge…”

Dr. Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play

When I was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grade, I began each day by donning my straw hat and venturing out to the backyard where I would spend half an hour watering my vegetable garden. I would then set the kitchen timer for 45 minutes of piano and voice practice. By 10 AM, I was ready to launch into academic work. But the remainder of the day did not engender simply sitting at my desk; there were regular jaunts out into our backyard schoolhouse, and lessons were often punctuated by a bike ride or neighborhood walk. These interludes of activity—often outdoors—allowed me to approach writing, math, and Japanese with a clear head and heightened engagement. As it turns out, research backs this up.

“In order for children to learn, they must be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we must let them move!” So says Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. Children, Hanscom explains, are spending most of the day sitting: in class, in the car, and at home doing homework. As a result, she and her colleagues are seeing more and more children with a weak vestibular sense (the balance sense), which is developed through vigorous movement—think swinging upside down from jungle gyms and rolling down hills. “A mature vestibular sense,” Hanscom writes, “supports attention, emotional regulation, eye muscle control, spatial awareness, and organization of the brain to support learning!” As a result of too little movement, children are increasingly being diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to sensory and motor deficits.

The rise of test-based education in the United States has been paralleled by a marked decrease in the time devoted to unstructured play. Under immense pressure to achieve higher standardized test scores, schools have squeezed recess from the schedule in order to devote more time to academics and test prep. With play relegated to lowest priority, it has become common for children to spend only 20 minutes in outdoor play over the course of a seven-hour school day. However, numerous studies have found that unstructured outdoor playtime is crucial to children’s cognitive as well as physical development.

Currently, most American students spend nearly 100% of class time sitting. Finnish schools, on the other hand, are “on the move.” For years, Finnish students have taken 15-minute breaks for every 45 minutes of academic instruction, and they spend a total of 75 minutes in recess (compared to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.). From 2010 to 2015, 800 schools adopted “Finnish Schools on the Move,” a program designed to increase movement throughout the school day. Older students would put away their smartphones to engage their younger peers in physically active outdoor activities during breaks, while teachers were encouraged to allow students to complete classwork while standing or sitting on exercise balls instead of chairs.

My mom still remembers how fun it was to play on this playground in Japan

Play need not take the form of another structured activity like team sports or even P.E.; Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play explains that something as simple as catching fireflies can be enormously beneficial to a child’s intellectual development: “The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge: Why do fireflies only appear in the summer? Why do they light up? And how? Part of the purpose of play is to extend ourselves to the next level, and catching bugs provides a great platform for that.”

Sources: “The Consequences of Forcing Young Kids to Sit Too Long in Class,” The Washington Post, 2017. “Finnish Schools Are on the Move—and America’s Need to Catch Up,” The Atlantic, 2015. “How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play,” The Atlantic, 2014. “The Children Must Play,” The New Republic, 2011. “Find and Keep,” Spirit, 2012.

Library + Tea & Biscuits

A retired teacher in Italy converted this charming truck into a mobile library and drives it to rural villages so that children who don’t have easy access to libraries can check out books.

When I told Natalie I would love to convert a vehicle into a Mobile Bookshop/Tea Shop that could visit homebound older people—to check on them over a cup of tea, distribute books, and perhaps sell a small selection of food items—she reminded me that I could turn a teardrop trailer into a traveling tea shop. I am pondering the idea. In the meantime, I found these two examples.

South Africa
Massachusetts

“The Skylarks’ War” by Hilary McKay

“The historical stories we tell have a profound impact on the world.”

Dana Goldstein, New York Times journalist

Both my mom and I loved this book so much that we purchased five copies to give away over the holidays. I recently read an adult novel that covers the same period (World War I) and said The Skylarks’ War was so much more affecting. Our advice to adult readers: Don’t rule out reading books for children. The best can be just as perceptive, moving, and rich as the most renowned of adult novels.

The publisher’s description pretty well captures The Skylarks’ War (originally published in the U.S. as Love to Everyone): Clarry Penrose finds the good in everyone. Even in her father, who isn’t fond of children, and especially girls. He doesn’t worry about her education, because he knows she won’t need it. It’s the early twentieth century, and the only thing girls are expected to do is behave. But Clarry longs for a life of her own. She wants to dive off cliffs and go swimming with her brother Peter and cousin Rupert. And more than anything, she wants an education. She helps Peter with his homework all the time, so why can’t she manage it by herself? When war breaks out, Clarry is shocked to find that Rupert has enlisted. Then he is declared missing, and Clarry is devastated. Now she must take a momentous step into the wide world—for if she misses this chance, she may never make it. This is an inspirational, funny, and heartwarming story about a girl who dares to open doors that the world would rather keep closed.

We loved what this Goodreads reader wrote: “What an amazing and moving story. My wife read it first and couldn’t put it down. She kindly passed it on to me and I read it in a day. I am a history teacher and often have issues with books set in the World Wars as the writers tend to make obvious errors but this was beautifully written and I felt captured the mood of the war years. I was moved almost to tears in places. It reminded me of so many amazing books like: War Horse, The Railway Children and maybe Swallows and Amazons. With All Quiet on the Western Front in there too. For a children’s novel it was quite brutally honest about how hard and dark the Western Front could be. Dare I say a modern classic? I am going to recommend this for the school library and my students. What a lovely story.”

New York Times journalist Dana Goldstein recently observed that “the historical stories we tell have a profound impact on the world.” This is particularly true for young audiences. We are glad that The Skylarks’ War is one such historical story; its impact is desperately needed.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Effective Classrooms, Part 1

If we peek into the most effective classrooms, we will probably see not just students thriving, but also teachers thriving. We all know that with so many kids with different needs and so many demands to juggle, every day won’t be perfect for each and every child. In the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, writer and educator Erika Christakis states, “Our public education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society.” I agree with her.

So, here is the question I have asked myself:

What makes a classroom dynamic effective for each individual learner and the classroom as a whole?

Borrowing an ideology from our son’s elementary school that the best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand and heart, I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Over the next few days, I’ll write a little something about what each one means to me.