Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.

 

Triggers and Habits in Teaching Part One

Dreaded Seating Arrangements

Almost every teacher I talk to says, “I have a really difficult class this year.”  The difficulties identified are most often tied to “behaviour” issues.  In my experience effective classroom “management” can be connected to dynamic programming and developing solid relationships with students. Many of us go to things like Class Dojo or incentive programs to “manage” behaviour and some have their merits.  However, they might “manage” behaviour, but does it help student to learn to self-regulate?  I understand that there are students who have behaviour safety plans that can provide challenges and I do not mean to downplay the effect that even one student’s behaviour can have on an entire class.  However, there are ways in which we can have small tweaks in our triggers and habits in teaching that will have a positive outcome on developing a community of learners.

So what is a trigger?  A trigger in psychological terms can  used to describe sensations, images or experiences that re-visit a traumatic memory.  It can also mean to make something happen very quickly; a reaction.  It is also referred to as an event that kicks off the automatic urge to complete a habit.*  Habits are seen as something that people do often or regularly.  Habits can even be unconscious behaviours and sometimes difficult to stop.  What do triggers and habits have to do with teaching?

Over the years I think I have become more self aware in the classroom about my own triggers and habits.  It is easy to continue to do a routine in a classroom simply because it is something that we have always done. Even when we have sound pedagological reasoning, it can be difficult to change or cease a habit. For example, for many years I put names on the desks of students before they entered the classroom on the first day of school.  I don’t really know why I began this habit.  Besides a wedding, some kind of gala or a reservation at a restaurant, I get to choose where I sit every day.  It is a fairly important life skill.  I’m not going to find my name on a seat on the city bus.  Once I recognized that this routine was purely out of habit and was “triggered” by the first day of school, I decided to change it up.  On the first day of school with a grade 4-5 class, the students came into the room and sat wherever they wanted. I admit that this made the perfectionist in me who loves order, routine and habit rather uncomfortable.  I had some students sit in groups, some in pairs and some on their own.  Then we had a class meeting about how they had felt when they entered the room and had to make their seating choice.  There was talk of anxiousness, sweaty palms, heart rate increase, fear of missing out and for some it was no big deal.  I decided to create a google form to survey the students about where to sit in the classroom, how often we would change it up and who would decide.  The results of the survey were fascinating.  Some students wanted me to choose where they sat and wanted to have that same spot every day for 194 days.  Some never wanted to “sit” in a group but wanted to be a part of it during group work time.  We came up with a plan that each Monday the students would choose where to sit for the week and the students who wanted a regular spot would be able to keep it and the other students would respect their choices without question.  We also had some extra choices for seating that students could go to if their choices for that week weren’t working out.  The students gained incredible insight into self-regulation.  I heard things like, “I sat with Gracie all week and we’re such good friends, I didn’t get my work done so I’m not going to sit with her next week.”  or  “I don’t hang out with Olivia but I know she is a serious student so I’d like to sit with her in a group.”

It isn’t easy to be self aware while we are trying to keep our head above water, collect permission forms, listen to announcements, adjust our day plan for the assembly that was announced, deal with a parent that wants to chat in the hallway AND teach curriculum.  I GET that…however, being aware of triggers and habits and making small tweaks to our teaching behaviour can make a big difference in our classroom community.

*106:Triggers-The Key to Building and Breaking Habits, Chris Sparks, 2018

 

Home Away From Home

I used to teach in a small school in downtown Ottawa that was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. There were many activities planned for the celebration, and one of them was a tour of the school explaining how and why it was designed the way it was a century ago. I will never forget hearing about how glorious the original kindergarten room was, with its high ceilings, vast bay window and enormous mantelpiece over the fireplace. Apparently, there was even a big chandelier hanging in the middle of the room, “To make it feel like home.” Today, the chandelier is gone but the bay window is still there, the ceilings have dropped and the mantel was covered over long ago with drywall and plaster – guess that could feel a bit like some homes nowadays, too.

The idea that a classroom should feel cosy rather than sterile has come back to me as I teach kindergarten in a 50 year old school. We are lucky to be on a corner, with lots of windows, but the classroom is undeniably square, with painted concrete block walls, a dropped, acoustic-tiled ceiling, and fluorescent lights. When I say square, I mean that everything is at right angles – windows, walls, bulletin boards, etc. Nary a wavy line to be found. That was the way you would have found our classroom until last month, when my ECE colleague and I talked about changing things up to be a little more of a Reggio-Emilia inspired classroom with more natural,organic materials (cosy) and fewer brightly coloured, plastic ones (sterile). With a few changes to the way we set things up and to the materials we use, we feel that the energy of the room is now more calming and welcoming.

There aren’t a lot of changes we can make, but here are few that we tried. For starters, the concrete block walls in the classroom are painted a dull yellow in high gloss paint. The bulletin boards are also painted in a brighter high gloss, and the cupboard doors are a kaleidoscope of blue, purple, green, and yellow – waaaaay too many colours! To tame them down and calm the eyes, we covered the bulletin boards with large rolls of brown paper. To frame the bulletin board, we stapled scrunched up green tissue paper. The effect? With the irregular framing of green tissue paper combined with the brown, earthy colour of the bulletin board, the corner of the classroom has been calmed. The door to the classroom is directly opposite and it makes walking into the classroom much more appealing than the bright, mismatched colours that were there before, and the yellow walls are hardly noticeable any more.

Another thing we did was bring the outside into our room. We have a huge tree branch that I had intercepted from the custodian as he was hauling it towards the dumpster in the fall after a storm had snapped it off a tree in the yard. Hanging it horizontally from the ceiling was not possible due to health and safety regulations, so I stuck the bottom of the branch inside a rigid poster tube, and then attached the tube with plenty of duct tape to the side of a filing cabinet beside my desk. It is now one of the first things you see when you walk in the room. The students decorate it whenever they get in the mood and so it is constantly changing. Dead or alive, trees in the classroom are great. Period.

Another little “make it feel like home” touch we added was a set of white cotton curtains hung to frame the giant white board/projector screen that dominates one wall. Now the curtains cut off the corners of the big rectangular screen and make it look more like a movie theatre screen. Feels a little special. We’ve also talked about bringing in some table lamps to place at some of our centres but we lack enough room along the walls where electrical outlets are located, so we rely instead on the lovely sunshine that streams in from the considerable window space. The natural light is perfect for the plants we’ve got growing on the window ledge. Some live and some die due to a lack of water, or over-watering (depending on whose responsibility it is that week) but there is no doubt that they add another continuously changing organic presence to the room and soften its manufactured aspects. We’ve got kitchen herbs which inevitably get picked and eaten (chives, basil, mint, lemon balm), as well as a chrysanthemum we rescued at the end of autumn from our planter in the school yard, and a sweet potato vine which is growing quite happily in a clear glass vase where we can watch the roots reach down towards the water.

The final touch we add only on the coldest days when it is just not possible to have outdoor learning is projecting the fireplace channel on the whiteboard when the students arrive in the morning. It is a big fire and the gentle crackling sound offers a distraction from the fact that our routine has been changed and we are spending the morning indoors. Most definitely makes the whole room feel cosy and homey. The classroom may not be anything like the home my students return to at the end of the day but we can still try to make it feel as hospitable as possible, a little like their home-away-from home.

Seven Reasons I Like to Gather My Students at the Carpet

I’m a little late getting this one posted. There was recently a death in my family, and my head just hasn’t been in the teaching game. I’ve been off work for almost a year, too, and man I can’t wait to get back. Staying home with a baby is cool, but I miss the madness of a busy Junior classroom! On that note, let’s just jump right in…

I rarely use my chalkboard. Sometimes a whole week will pass with the notes from Monday’s lesson still there, untouched but for spots where my students ran their fingers through the chalk on their way by. One section of my chalkboard is dedicated to reminders to be written in the agenda – but since I don’t assign homework (an issue for another post), even that is rarely used.

There is no “front” to my classroom, either. There isn’t one place where I stand while teaching, one spot where my students know to look for me if it’s lesson time. My desk and my computer are on opposite sides of the room. My students sit in groups/pods, not rows.

I am, I guess, what you would call a fairly non-traditional teacher.

When it comes time for whole class discussions, more often than not, I gather my students on the large carpet. (Okay, up until last year, my “carpet” was actually two giant rugs I bought from IKEA with my own money… but last year, RIGHT before I went on maternity leave, my principal let me know that I was getting my very own large rug provided by the board. Awesome! I’ve seen it. It’s great. I can’t wait to use it!)

Gathering students is awesome. It was something that was never really talked about during my teacher training, nor did I see a lot of my colleagues doing it. I started doing it in my Grade 5 class because I had set up a really lovely little reading corner and found that my students really enjoyed the space. We used it for read alouds at first, but since I saw the benefits of having them there, I expanded it to most lessons. Now, four years later, I pretty much only teach that way. Why is it so awesome? Let me tell you!

1) No desks, no random things to play with. We’ve all had students who just can’t keep their hands out of their desks or their chair on the floor during lessons. I got tired of telling my students to keep all four feet of the chair on the floor every few seconds. I got tired of trying to keep their hands out of their desks. When the class is gathered on the carpet, there are no desks to hold tempting trinkets and no chairs to lean back in.

2) Kids can move. I find it much easier to accommodate students who need to move around when we are gathered at the carpet. Kids who benefit from being able to walk around during lessons can sit on the edge of the carpet, giving them freedom to get up and move without disrupting their peers. When you want to give the whole class a body break, you don’t have to hear thirty chairs all screeching at the same time.

3) You can set up centres before class. Sometimes I set things up on my desk pods while my students aren’t in class. When they come in and see things on the desks – group work supplies, science experiments, etc. – they know to go straight to the carpet instead. From there, I can give all instructions and send students off to the desk pods without worrying about them touching things or having to set things up while they wait.

4) It’s easier to hear everyone. Students can hear me better, I can hear them better, and they can hear each other better when we’re all in a group on the carpet. It’s a smaller space, so even the quieter students can speak their minds without too much difficulty. I don’t have to project as much, which makes me seem “softer,” if that makes sense. Redirection doesn’t seem so harsh, reassurance seems even kinder.

5) Turn and talk is more varied. I find my students never sit in the same place every time, so when you ask your students to “turn and talk” during a lesson, suddenly they’re speaking with a wider variety of peers when they’re gathered on the carpet. In pods, they are always stuck talking to the same peers, and that gets a little stale.

6) Students need fewer reminders to pay attention. When you have students sitting in pods, the temptation to look across the desks to the person sitting in front of you is huge. You can make faces, pass notes, generally just not pay attention… and it’s pretty easy to get away with, too. Sitting on the carpet, everyone is facing one direction: the speaker. It becomes glaringly obvious when you turn to speak to the person next to you. When you aren’t paying attention, you get called on it immediately. Very quickly, students learn that during carpet time, they’re just better off paying attention from the get go.

7) It feels like a community. There’s something really nice about everyone sitting together as a group on the carpet. Instead of sitting in pods or rows, you’re sitting with all of your peers together. It feels different.

There are many, many more reasons why I like having my students gather on the carpet, but hopefully those gave you at least a few things to consider. If you never gather your students together (and you can do this even if you don’t have a carpet – the bare floor works, but you can always do it outside, too!) maybe think about trying it out for a read aloud one day. You might be surprised by how much your students enjoy it, even at the Junior level!

Experienced teacher tackles Kindergarten for the first time

With the generous help of colleagues, I made it through 2 whole days of Senior Kindergarten this week. It is all so new to me! As it was, I still felt as if I bumbled my way through a lot – still not sure how much to slow my speech down for the wee ones and or how quickly I need to be ready to switch gears when fidgeting and yawning starts during circle time.

As per a space ready for Inquiry-based Learning, my classroom has almost nothing in it – empty bulletin boards waiting for student work, shelves still holding materials for work areas which will slowly be opened during the next week, and no class calendar, alphabet or number line posters on the walls. Only one small bamboo plant in a bottle of water sits on the window ledge waiting for other plants to join it. I admit I feel a bit relieved that I don’t have to spend a bunch of money at the teacher’s store or resurrect dog-eared posters to put up on my walls, however, I wouldn’t quite know how to involve the students in the making of anchor charts without the experienced help of my colleagues and a Pinterest account. They lead me, I follow.

My learning curve is looping over itself as I discover so many wonderful ways we will be guiding the students in their learning – Mindfulness, Environmental Inquiry, Zones of Regulation, Writer’s Workshop for Kinders – to say nothing of the amazing experience of spending each day with 4 and 5 year olds…I am definitely not in Grade 3 anymore! These first two days were a trial run for me, and they went quite smoothly, all things considered. My first full week this week will be my next big challenge – and I anticipate there will be a whole lot of learning going on for everyone.

The First 20 Days of School – Connecting with Students is a Great Place to Start

Teaching is always new! With a new group of students, fresh reflections on practice and the opportunity to start from scratch, as it were, the start of the school year provides teachers and students alike the opportunity to create new beginnings every year. Knowing this, what might some important considerations be to make it a great start? Chapter One of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: Practical Ideas and Resources for Beginning Teachers highlights four important themes for success: connecting with students, passion for teaching, attributes-based approach and importance of school culture. I would like to focus this reflection on the importance of connecting with students within the first 20 days of school as a means to establish an authentic relationship with students that fosters trust and inspires a willingness to take risks within a safe learning environment.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This profound sentiment holds true for teachers and their relationship with students in that when students feel respected, safe and cared for, the experience of learning is enriched. The following are five practical ways for teachers to build authentic connections with their students at the start of the school year:

1. Be authentic. When teachers model what it means to be an authentic learner – mistakes and all, students are then encouraged to take risks without fear of reprisal. Let your model of authentic learning influence students to do the same. This form of transparency sets the tone for fostering meaningful connections between teachers and students.

2. Ask students about their needs and listen. Validate student voice by positioning them as the experts on themselves. Invite students to share their learning needs and the things that you could do as their teachers that would support their success and commit to doing them. Conducting multiple intelligence and attitudes and dispositions surveys are great ways to begin the dialogue for students to articulate how you can support their learning and their level of self-efficacy.

3. Explore student interests. As teachers we all need to cover the curriculum but viewing the curriculum as a launching pad as opposed to a landing pad can invite student’s interests to take centre stage in the teaching and learning process. Ask students about their interests and find creative ways to invite further inquiry into them while exploring the curriculum at the same time.

4. Learn the students. In addition to the information that can be found in student records (i.e. OSRs), commit to learning more about your students in meaningful ways. Pronouncing student names correctly is important way to let students know that they are valued. Challenge yourself to learn at least five non-school related facts about each of your students. This can help to build a positive relationship and validate their experiences outside of the domain of the classroom. Finally, being aware of students personalities (i.e. introverts, extroverts, etc.) will inform how to relate to them as well as setting the conditions of the classroom experience.

5. Invite to student voice by fostering a reciprocal relationship with your students. Nurturing a collaborative learning environment for students does not merely mean giving students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, but it also means positioning students as collaborators with you. Partner with your students to design the learning space and learning opportunities. This fosters student ownership in the teaching and learning experience and empowers students to be meaningful contributors to the class. When you invite their voice in classroom decisions, ensure that it is validated by action on your part. Leveraging positional power in the classroom creates space for a more meaningful connection between students and teacher.

As teachers we are in the business of supporting students success. Fostering meaningful connections with students goes along way in promoting both student achievement and well-being. When students know that their teachers authentically care about them, their willingness to learn will support their ability to do well. Starting the school year with students in mind will set you on a solid foundation for building upward. Make it a great start.

Bulletin Boards – Teaching Tool, Art Gallery, or Wallpaper?

Every classroom has bulletin boards, some have one, some have 10! It all depends on the space you have and how you plan to use it. It is easy to set something up with plans for it to change or evolve, only to find that 4 months later you haven’t touched it, taught to it, or even referenced it!!

In my experience, Bulletin Boards end up falling into 1 of 3 categories: Teaching Tool, Art Gallery, or Wallpaper. Some bulletin boards are a blend of two or even all three of these categories. It is important to make the most of the space you have on your walls, while being cognisant of the fact that many children find too much stuff on the walls to be distracting.

When planning your walls, make sure you check with health and safety regulation, as many school boards have a maximum percentage of walls space that can be covered to stay within the fire regulation. So before you hit pinterest for some great ideas, make sure you are even able to cover the space! In my classroom, I have 5 large boards that cover almost every space that isn’t blackboard, windows or doors. The space that the bulletin boards cover is actually above the maximum percentage I can have covered in paper!! So I can’t paper back my boards as it is a fire hazard.

Many teachers like to paint their boards so they look crisp and clean all year. Again, double check with health and safety, as it is often an issue as it adds weight to the board which might not have been considered when mounting it. Especially if you are the 10th person in the classroom to paint them because the previous colours didn’t suit anyone’s decor!

Once you have established what your health and safety guidelines are, you can start to think about what is going on the walls. Ask yourself a few questions before you put something up there.

1. How will this help the students? While a Word Wall CAN help students, if you slap it all up before school starts and casually refer to it from time to time, it is not a useful tool and it is just wallpaper. Make sure you teach to it. Make it with the class and do it organically!

2. Is this something we need up for more than just today? If you only need it for the immediate future, don’t make a whole board of it. If you want to show off student work, I find the hallway is the best place for this type of thing. It gets more “traffic” from other teachers/students/parents, and it isn’t a distraction to learning. If you do need it for more than just today, you may want to ask a few more questions before you decide where to put it!

3. Do I need to put it all up right away and on my own? As teachers, we hate to look or feel like we aren’t organized, prepared, and ready to go! I recall as a young teacher, putting up bulletin boards before the first day of school. Yes, sometimes I taught to them, but generally they were just wallpaper. Many of us are guilty of putting up the whole word wall kit the day we get it! It just looks so pretty when it is done! Put it up gradually, and with the class! This will make it a more meaningful teaching tool. As teachers, we like everything to look complete and not “in progress” – but having the word wall with just 3-4 words up in September is what your students need!

4. Am I done with this? If you aren’t using it anymore, and the kids aren’t, take a picture of it and take it down! The more “stuff” you have on your walls, the harder it is for students to find what they are looking for. If you don’t need it anymore, take it down!

5. Are the kids using this? Even when you read the research, do the work, cut, past, laminate, and put up a beautiful board, the kids may not respond to it and it may not be useful to them. If you put up a board for math showing single digit addition strategies to start off the year, if they have all mastered it by December, they probably aren’t using it anymore. We have a tendency to keep things up in lieu of blank space to avoid looking like we aren’t accomplishing anything as a class! If they aren’t using it, take it down, or teach to it more, modify it, model how to use it. If after teaching to it more, they still aren’t using it – TAKE IT DOWN!!

There are thousands of blog posts and pinterest boards dedicated to amazing bulletin board ideas. Before you put one up, make sure it is actually something you need, that will get used, and that you install it in such a way that the students know how to access it.

There are great blog posts about what to do with your bulletin boards when you are done. My personal favourite is to snap a picture and create a bulletin board binder. That way, if there is still one of two children in the class that still need that bulletin board, they can go to the binder and look at it all year long! It will also serve as a nice reminder of how they looked if you end up needing to recreate it another year!

Classroom Layout Ideas- Music Room

Every teacher has talents. I, too, have a variety of talents, but organizing space is NOT one of them. I recognize that I am a very fortunate planning time teacher because I have a space assigned exclusively for music and I usually spend a week or two thanking my lucky stars for the space. However, after my football touchdown dance is over, I have to attempt to decide on a classroom layout.

In the arts, we rely a lot on community to be able to create together as a class. I believe that in order for my students to create, they need access to materials and space. They also need supportive information and guiding rules in easily accessible locations to facilitate their collaborations.

room

Here are some things I consider when creating my classroom layout:

Materials and student accessibility: All recorders, xylophones and percussion instruments are in places where the students can easily access them. We go over the proper use of all the materials and if we are in the experimenting phase of the creative process, then they are able to access any of the materials that we have introduced. Sometimes this makes for a noisy, chaotic environment, but for me, allowing students the platform on which to create is important.

materials

Rules for recorders and group work: Having some information posted in the room gives accountability to the students. They understand the expectations and I can easily refer to them with a student who is struggling to help the class with their creations.

rules

Designs and creative inspirations: I learned something this year when I put up the remnants of my Ikea curtains over the brown bulletin boards that existed at the front of the room for the first two months of school. Almost every single one of my 300 students commented on the new coverings when they entered the room. There were lively discussions about the interpretation of the design and repeated comments about how much the students liked them. It reminded me that creation is a very sensory experience. I usually spend a lot of time on the aural and oral senses in music but this experience reminded me that utilizing all of the senses heightens the ability to tap into the potential that every child has to create.

ikea

My professional library: Since many of my cupboards, shelves and tables are full of instruments or other materials for student use, I have very little space for my professional resources. However, my librarian came to the rescue this year when she was throwing out some furniture from the library. I scooped up these shelving units and they have come in very handy.

Meeting diverse learning needs: I have a student this year who is unable to physically play the recorder with the rest of class but can easily play the piano. The piano is easily accessible to her, as is the computer for some of the other students that I teach. There are very few materials that are for my use only and the layout of my classroom reflects that.

Mike Beetham

Accountable Talk

Students love to talk and some students love to talk more than others. That isn’t a bad thing! Talking is and should be an essential component of every classroom. The key is to help students understand the different types of talk that will take place at school. I teach my students the term ‘on task talk’. That means that if it is math we are working on, then it is math we are talking about or if it is science then scientific conversations are taking place in my room. This creates a win-win situation as humans are social beings and talking is a huge part of both the socialization and learning process. This is part of the routines and expectations that are established at the beginning of your year.

A second type of talk is question and answering or as I phrase it ‘inquiry talk’. This is different in that there is a key person who is explaining or justifying their solution or work to a group of peers. The students asking the questions need to be taught what thinking questions are, how to create them and what respectful dialogue looks and sound like. The person receiving the questions needs to understand that the questions are not meant to be negative but rather to evoke thoughts and express opinions.

The final type of talk in the classroom is social talk. This is just friend-to-friend conversations that take place. I will often interject these sessions as transitions in the room. For example we have just wrapped up our writing and I will tell my students to take a two-minute social break. During that time they can get up and move or talk with a friend or friends.

The key is to help students develop an understanding of what each type of talk is as well as when and how to use it. This is specific to each teacher and their style of teaching. Embrace the power of talk in your classroom

Considerations for Classroom Layouts

One of the most important aspects of your teaching style, in my opinion, stems from the layout you choose from your classroom. The way you set up your class says a lot about you as a teacher and what you expect from your students. There is no “right” way to set up your class – just as there is no “right” way to teach a certain subject or lesson – but you should find something that really works for you.

Here are some aspects of my classroom layout that I feel are important and beneficial to my students:

1. Groups, not rows: I rarely, if ever, set my students’ desks up in rows. I teach a second language program, where oral communication is key, so giving my students time to talk to one another is paramount to their success. I usually set my students up in groups of 4-6 to allow them to face one another rather than a stark blackboard. I can easily facilitate talk time during lessons or put students in groups and be sure they have a place to work where discussion is simple and encouraged.

2. Gathering spaces, like a carpet: The reason why I’m able to keep my students in groups instead of rows is because I don’t generally teach at a blackboard. I keep a large carpeted area in my classroom (yes, at the grade 4 or 5 level!) where I can gather students together and teach a lesson. It provides an opportunity to get up and move, allows me to call on students to participate in the lesson more easily, allows all students a clear vantage point, and prevents students from fiddling with anything in their desk when they ought to be listening. Sometimes I add benches or cushions to my carpeted area to add to the comfort level, but it depends greatly on the students in my class (and whether they are likely to argue over who gets the cushions). An added bonus of having a carpeted area in your classroom is that students will often choose this space to go and work during independent periods – and for whatever reason, I find that some of my students are more focused when lying on the carpet than sitting at their desk.

3. Math manipulatives and supplies out in the open: I keep a stacked drawer unit (clear plastic) full of different types of math manipulatives. I keep another one full of school supplies (scissors, pencils, erasers, rulers, lined paper). Students are encouraged to help themselves to either of these drawer units when they need them. Having school supplies available to students just makes sense to me – they don’t have to waste their time OR mine asking me for something when they can just as easily go get it themselves. I keep the school supplies at the back of the classroom so that it isn’t disruptive when a student needs to get something. When it comes to math manipulatives, having them visible and available to students encourages them to use them even when the lesson has not explicitly called for them. They get the impression that using manipulatives is just an everyday part of math for some students, which makes them more acceptable and less stigmatized than they might be otherwise. It takes some time for students to get used to using manipulatives without it being suggested to them, but for some students it will mean the difference between comfort and discomfort in mathematics.

4. Colour: I think it’s important that classrooms feel like fun places to be. While I don’t spend exorbitant amounts of time creating decorations and elaborate bulletin boards for my classroom, I do take the time to put up coloured backgrounds on my bulletin boards with coordinating borders around the edges. I invested in some simple decorations for various times of year that I could swap out as I go through units. My colleagues often comment on how bright and welcoming my classroom is, and it’s entirely because of my orange and blue bulletin boards that they feel this way. Our students are still young, even in grade 5 or 6, and they generally like being in classrooms with some decoration.

5. Round tables: I have two round tables in my classroom that I wouldn’t give up for all the world. I use these round tables for guided reading or helping students during independent work periods. My students use these tables during group work, independent periods, or indoor recesses. I have found that some of my students who are somewhat reticent to raise their hand and ask for help while working will feel more comfortable coming to work at a round table, knowing that I will be sitting there and available to help them if they get stuck. There is less of a stigma associated with them coming to sit at the round table to work than with me sitting or standing next to them at their desk. Having this space available also allows me to call students over who need a bit more redirection or help staying on task and ask them to work at the table instead of at their seat.

Those are just a few of the key elements of my classroom layout. In my (admittedly short) career, they have proven to be effective, beneficial, and easy to manage. Hopefully someone out there will find some of those suggestions helpful for their own classroom!

Apologies for not having any photos – I’m on maternity leave and had to leave so suddenly that I didn’t get a chance to take any photos before I went off work.