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.


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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Learning Should be Fun; Laughter Helps!

“Humor improves student performance by attracting and sustaining attention, reducing anxiety, enhancing participation, and increasing motivation.”

Brandon M. Savage et al., Advances in Physiology Education 2017 (41:3)

This is a photo of sixth-grade me. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table puzzling over my pre-algebra textbook, which had a penchant for asking ridiculous (but supposedly relevant) questions and failing to answer my question, “WHY?”

Laugh about math!

WHY is a negative times a negative a positive? WHY is multiplying by a fraction’s reciprocal the same as dividing? WHY does cross-multiplying work?

After half an hour of reading the same problem over and over, I had become teary. My dad sat down to give me a hand, took one look at the word problem, and exclaimed: “Is Fred crazy? What’s he thinking cutting a rope into halves and quarters and then sevenths? He’s just making life harder for himself!” By then, I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. Soon, we had figured out how to approach Fred’s problem. From then on, through homeschooling, our motto was “Laugh about math.”

It turns out this was a sound pedagogical approach (as my dad would know, given that he’s spent 30 years teaching college students). “Humor and laughter may not directly cause learning; however, humor creates an environment that promotes learning,” write the authors of a 2017 article for Advances in Physiology Education. “Evidence documents that appropriate humor, and humor that relates to course material, attracts and sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. Humor also reduces anxiety, enhances participation, and increases motivation.”

My experience certainly backs this up. Some of my most memorable learning experiences—including in high school and college—are those where the class dissolved in laughter. This does not mean teachers should be expected to perform stand-up comedy, nor that every class should be as lighthearted as a sitcom. I was a history major; there are plenty of times when, given the nature of the subject matter, it would have been wildly inappropriate for class to be conducted in a humorous vein. Perhaps the best way to think about it is thus: Periodic laughter is an expression of the most productive kind of learning environment, one where students are engaged, where they feel comfortable with each other and with the instructor, and where learning is a process to be relished.

How I Became the Happy Guinea Pig

“[Learning] is the only thing that never fails… the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

—T.H. White
Building the Applewood Schoolhouse, February 2010
The completed Schoolhouse

Ten years ago, I began middle school in my family’s backyard, in an 8- by 10-foot garden shed that would be my very own schoolhouse for the next two years. Family, friends, and strangers reacted to our decision to “skip” seventh and eighth grade with a long list of questions. Most expressed genuine curiosity: Would we follow a set curriculum? How would we structure our days? Could Natalie still spend time with children her age? Other queries betrayed skepticism: How would we know we were meeting curricular standards? Would Natalie be able to get into a good high school? What about college? The fact was, despite my excitement, I shared some of these same concerns. After a sixth-grade year that had emphasized rules, structure, and achievement, the thought of learning at my own pace in my own home with my parents for teachers and my beloved cat as my only classmate conflicted with my developing sense of what education was. Homeschooling sounded fun, yes, but would I learn enough? Little did I know that I would learn not only all the things I worried I wouldn’t—pre-algebra, essay-writing, science and history—but also lessons even more important that continue to resonate today. These lessons, which will be featured in future “Happy Guinea Pig” posts, include: the importance of unstructured play, time outdoors, getting enough sleep, and eating well, as well as the toxicity of stress and peer pressure. During my two years in Applewood Schoolhouse, I also came to a healthier definition of education premised not on homework, testing, and grades, but on curiosity, creativity, and a love of learning.

How can schools and families teach children to be healthier and happier learners? This is the question at the heart of “The Happy Guinea Pig,” because we firmly believe that a love of learning is an essential tool for living hopefully and courageously in a complicated world.

Next time on HGP: “Laugh about Math: Having Fun in the Classroom”

The Happy Guinea Pig

Once upon a time, a girl turned into a guinea pig. The girl’s name was Natalie, and she loved school—until 6th grade. In 6th grade, homework piled up, kids were mean, and grades were privileged over learning. Natalie was so miserable, she stopped doing her favorite things: playing outside, reading, drawing, and practicing the piano. Desperate to recover their daughter’s love of learning, Natalie’s parents decided to conduct an experiment. For 7th and 8th grade, the family moved school into their Los Angeles backyard. They planted a garden. They published a newspaper. They read aloud from a 600-page atlas, visited museums, and sewed quilts. This is how Natalie became the guinea pig—the happy guinea pig—at the heart of a schoolhouse experiment.

Flash Forward 10 years: Natalie (now a history alum of Pomona College) and her mother Pamela, are amazed at how those two years continue to influence the way they see and think about everything. “The Happy Guinea Pig” is a way to share the ways in which we can nurture a love of learning, which gives us the tools to nurture ourselves and the world. Once in a while, we will include notes from a recently retired elementary school teacher, who believes it would be much better for everyone if elements of the schoolhouse experiment could be incorporated into traditional classrooms.