Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Seven Qualities of the Skills-Based Classroom Environment

Professional Development Seminar
Scenario 1
When you walk through the door at the God-forsaken time of 7:30 a.m., they hand you a fat packet (it's the entire PowerPoint presentation on Skills-Based Curriculum they are about to show you, printed six slides to a page) and point you in the direction of the free breakfast. You're in a conference room with long tables, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder with your colleagues like sardines in a can, and everyone is facing the stage, where sits a projector, a laptop, and a projection screen that screams "GOOD MORNING TEACHERS!" at you. The room sounds like a beehive, filled with the murmur of teaching anecdotes, bitter administration complaints, and coffee breath. You can feel that frantic morning energy that so many teachers have with a net of "we're-not-morning-people" teachers keeping it all in check. After thirty minutes of chit chat and breakfast and getting your space all set up (mega-packet at hand, pretty ink pens lined up, six different highlighters, a pad of Post-It notes within easy reach... wait, just me?), a voice booms in over the sound system and your speaker begins the presentation. And she talks... and she talks... and she talks... and she reads to you from her PowerPoint (in my own little hell, the PowerPoint is lime green with red text, the potato-quality pictures don't have borders, and there are pixelated gifs flickering like lightning bugs from every direction)... and she shows you a picture of a textbook and expects you to be able to read that from your seat in the very back of the room... and you sit and are expected to absorb and memorize this stuff for the next six hours... and you glance at your watch and Jesus-dammit-it-has-only-been-fifteen-minutes-we-have-to-do-this-for-HOW-LONG-and-when-is-lunch?? And before you know it, it's 8:30 a.m. and you're sitting with a lead belly full of free doughnuts, your fingers are twitching from all of that coffee and surplus energy, and you and your teacher buddy on your right keep jabbing each other in the ribs to keep the other awake while you and your teacher buddy on your left swap doodles poking fun at the presenter's hair.
Learning happening here? Very little.


Professional Development Seminar
Scenario 2
Unfortunately, it's still 7:30 a.m. and they are still offering sugar and caffeine to fuel your morning. But in this scenario, when you walk through the door, you are handed a much smaller packet. This packet has very little text on it; instead, there are lots of big, open spaces for you to write things down. It's still a conference room, but the seating arrangement varies wildly in the room. There are long conference tables available for seating as well as smaller, more intimate round tables, standing tables, and even some single chairs with a foldable table for writing space. Everyone is free to choose the seating arrangement that best suits them. There appear to be resources scattered about the room: posters, books, binders, etc. There is still a stage with a projector, laptop, and screen, but in addition to greeting you, the screen charges you with a task: "Use the first page in your packet to develop a working definition of 'skills-based curriculum.' You may collaborate with others in your team, talk to folks from other schools, or you may explore the resources in the room on your own. Compare and contrast skills-based curriculum to knowledge-based curriculum using the Vinn Diagram on the handout before writing your working definition. You have thirty minutes to complete this task." So now the room is still a beehive and there's still all of this energy, but it is being put to use. The extroverts are flitting around from group to group, discussing their varying understandings of skills-based and knowledge-based curriculum. The introverts are working in small groups or on their own, quietly exploring the resources available in the room to develop their definitions. Everyone does what works best for them and the majority appear to be on task. At 7:55, the presenter asks everyone to wrap up their work and return to their chosen seats. The presenter speaks briefly before assigning everyone another related task and everyone is back at work.
Learning happening here? A considerable amount.

Workin' it like a Rube Goldberg machine.
*     *     *

In the two scenarios above, there are several consistencies. Both seminars had the participants walking through the door at 7:30 a.m., with the actual "begin time" at 8:00 a.m. Both seminars were about skills-based curriculum. Both had a speaker, and a presentation. Both seminars had free doughnuts! (You guys know how a feel about doughnuts... yum...) One huge difference between these scenarios, though, is the environment. Your classroom environment is a game-changer! It can make or break your year. Like the two scenarios above, our students come to us at an early hour, fueled by caffeine and sugar, and we have to find a useful outlet for all of that energy. Or worse, we get them after the crash from all that junk and we have to figure out how to keep them awake and get them moving. Last week I shared with you some of my tips for developing a skills-based curriculum, but I think it's also important to talk about how to create a classroom environment that encourages this kind of engagement. If we want our students to actually do things in our classroom instead of just existing for forty-five or more minutes, we have to build a classroom environment that encourages productivity. There is a lot of research out there on the environment of the classroom. It's definitely one of those one-size-will-not-fit-all topics. The trick to creating a productive, safe, and positive classroom environment is trial-and-error. You have to figure out what's going to work best for you and your students and don't be afraid to change something that doesn't work! My own classroom is ever-evolving. After five years of teaching and one year of skills-based curriculum, here are seven qualities I'm beginning to find necessary for my own classroom environment.
  1. Purposeful Design
  2. Task-Oriented
  3. Resource Abundant
  4. Flexible Seating
  5. Student-Led and Teacher-Facilitated
  6. Collaborative AND Independent
  7. S.M.A.R.T Goals
Purposeful Design
A game plan is absolutely necessary when designing your physical classroom environment. Everything in the classroom needs to serve a purpose and it should serve that purpose well. In the second scenario above, the learning space was set up with great purpose, based on the other qualities. Every year when I tinker with my classroom layout, I try to organize the space with great purpose, based off of my reflections from the past year and my plans for the upcoming year.


A skills-based curriculum revolved around activity. What can a student do by the end of the lesson? What skill can they now perform? The classroom should encourage activity. I like the idea of students hitting the ground running as soon as they come in. Set high expectations at the beginning of the year. I tell my students, "You will do something in this classroom every single day! Never come in from an absence and ask me if we did anything while you were gone. Of course we did! Ask, 'What did we do yesterday?'" In the second scenario above, the presenter knows that there will be energy and makes use of that energy from the get-go. And for those that aren't energized at the start, this task-oriented seminar gets them moving.

Or, you know, just install a merry-go-round for all that endless energy.
Resource Abundant
This one can be really difficult to achieve, especially if you are in a school that struggles financially. We must try, though, to make our classroom resources plentiful. It's not necessary to have all resources available all the time, I don't think. Your Greek mythology resources don't need to be readily available when you are using World War II for context, for example, but attempt to have some additional resources on hand and available for student-use when appropriate. A university in my area has content kits that they put together for teachers to check out FOR FREE from the university library. Many public libraries, museums, and tourist attractions have something similar, especially for the elementary classrooms. Maybe somewhere near you has resources for loan?

Free resources, I AM COMING FOR YOU!
Flexible Seating
I have tried out all kinds of seating arrangements over the last five years and one thing stands out to me: seating should be flexible. You need to be prepared to have students working as a whole group, in two big groups, in smaller groups of four or six, in pairs, and solo! This is one reason that the desk pods just did not work for me last year. While I always had my smaller groups together, it was often difficult to form any other groups and nigh impossible to get students to work solo. Thus far, the set up that works best for me is to divide my room into two "sides" consisting of columns and rows that face a center aisle. It's easy for whole group instruction, perfect when I need to divide the class into two big groups, easily adaptable for small groups and pair-and-share, and works fairly well for solo endeavors.

While hilarious, this you do not want in your classroom. Make your seating flexible (and sturdy).

Student-Led, Teacher-Facilitated
My first or second year of teaching, I remember a speaker saying that teachers shouldn't be exhausted at the end of the school day because teachers shouldn't be doing all of the work. The students should be the tired ones. I really didn't understand this at all at the time. I figured if I wasn't exhausted by the end of the day I wasn't doing my job right. Nowadays, I understand what that means. I don't know about you guys, but the days I'm the most tired by last bell are the days that I did a whole lot of talking. Lecture days take the starch right out of me... but I feel pretty good on the days that my students are working on skills and I'm moving throughout the room helping, answering questions, etc. That isn't to say I'm not tired at the end of the day, but I'm not flat exhausted. If you're experiencing extreme exhaustion by the end of the school day, perhaps you should take a look at how you're spending your classroom time. You could even try tracking your class time! The students should be doing the work the majority of the time; we should be there to assist, support, guide, and motivate.

If this exhausted kitty and the finger poking him in the ear sums up your 3:00, you might be doing something wrong.
Collaborative AND Independent Work
I think it's absolutely necessary to figure out what kind of people our students are. One of my favorite first week activities is having my students fill out interest inventories, take quizzes to identify learning type, and mind map themselves. I spend a little time in those early days analyzing the results. Actually, this year I plan to use some kind of a system to help me readily see which kids are visual learners, which ones hate reading, which ones are extroverts, etc. Some classrooms are really heavy in collaborative work and others are very heavy in independent work. I am striving to create a classroom where this is balanced and a classroom where my students have a choice in the matter. Students thrive in certain conditions; I'm all about making those conditions possible (well, as possible as I can manage).

With a good team leader, the possibilities are endless.
S.M.A.R.T Goals

Ultimately, when we choose a skill to teach to our students, we have to make sure they are S.M.A.R.T goals. I think I'm going to print a poster of this to hang in my classroom. We talk about goal-setting and I encourage my students to make smart goals. I should always remind myself to make smart goals for my students.

What are the qualities you look for in a high-functioning classroom environment?