Monday, October 30, 2017

Transforming a Traditional Classroom into a Warm, Welcoming Environment for Learning

About a year ago, my elementary child was in a classroom that had a flexible seating arrangement.  You walked into their room and it was obvious: these teachers had put substantial effort into making this classroom warm and welcoming.  The students loved it.  They were allowed to select seats that worked for them.  This kind of practice is becoming a bit more normalized in the elementary and especially Montessori-style classrooms, but it has yet to infiltrate as much at the high school level.  However, I wanted to change that.  High school students are even more self-aware than elementary kiddos and should have the ability work in a space that is most conducive to their learning.  I have, for years, rearranged my seating with traditional desks, every unit in order to accommodate the lessons we were working on, but I felt ready to really try something out of the box.  Something that would tell my students they were valued, trusted and respected.  Another HUGE inspiration for this switch are the physical benefits of giving students at least one period of rest from sitting in a hard, uncomfortable, traditional desk.  As a fitness instructor who works often to reverse the negative impact of desk-jobs on client's shoulders and backs, I felt compelled to help my students avoid a similar fate, by offering seating that was less damaging to their bodies.  I'm not gonna lie: I was a little nervous.  Would the freedom to select seats cause my classroom management to deteriorate?  Would the students be safe and not destructive on some of the more alternative seating options?  Would they all just choose traditional desks, despite all of the hard work and forethought (not to mention money) I'd put into designing for them a classroom that was out of the box? 

I'm in month two now of using a flexible seating arrangement in a traditional high school classroom and all of my questions have been put to rest: Flexible seating with very specified limits has caused my classroom management to improve, and not deteriorate.  Assigning a home base for direct instruction, following a workshop model, and only after direct instruction allowing students to select their own seats has proven greatly beneficial.  The students seem more engaged during direct instruction AND work time.  The students have needed occasional reminders to use the "seats" appropriately, but overall safety and respect for the optional seating has not been an issue.  The students LOVE, absolutely LOVE the ability to select their own seating and to be comfortable while working.

Here are some basic, logistical elements I have in place so that this works:

1.  I have rules about the special seating arrangement and these are prominently displayed and reviewed at the beginning of the school year.
The Rules

2.  I do assign seat for direct instruction.  Here is a generic seating chart for my classroom:
Seating Chart for Flexible Seating
3.  I leave an explanation of the model for guest teachers with the seating charts.
Explanation for Guest Teachers
It did take me about a year to collect and purchase the supplies necessary for this flexible seating transformation.  Here are some of the supplies that I collected/transformed:

I made a standing table from a traditional classroom science table and asking the janitor to raise the legs as high as possible.  I then purchased ($5.99 on Amazon) bed risers the give the table just a little extra height.
The Standing Table
I made a kneeling/sitting table by asking the janitor to lower/remove the legs from a traditional, science style table and lower it as much as possible.  I bought large floor pillows ($4.99 at Ikea) and pillow covers - in school colors ($1.99 at Ikea) for students to sit or kneel on at this table.
The Kneeling/Sitting Table
A few years ago, I used Donorschoose.org and had four bean bags donated to my classroom for a reading nook.  In the past, this nook was the only alternative seating in the classroom and the bean bags were in high demand.  Now, the reading nook is just one of many alternative seating options in the classroom.  I brought in a rug that my kids at home were no longer using and made a sign (from the wood of a fence remodel) with the settings of many of the books we read in class and the bean bag corner was complete.
The Beanbag Corner
I left one table at a normal height and collected chairs that weren't being used in other peoples' classrooms to construct a more traditional table seating option.
Traditional Table Seating
I brought in two yoga mats from home that I wasn't using for students to pull out and lay on the floor if they were feeling like stretching out to get their work done.
Yoga Mat "Seating"
I collected a table that wasn't in use from another science classroom and had the janitor raise it just slightly.  I purchased exercise balls at ($9.99 a pop online) and used a bench that my parents donated to me to create ball seating as one of the options.
Exercise Ball Seating Table
The next part of the classroom that I designed was inspired by a rising trend in school discipline, where students who are struggling to control themselves are taught self-control techniques rather than being immediately punished for smaller infractions.  I created what some of my students are affectionately calling "the princess corner": a corner with floor cushions and back pillows, a "grass" rug and adult coloring books.  (This, and the ball table, are the most popular seating options).
The "Princess" Corner

The "Princess" Corner
I brought in a bungee chair (on sale at Target for $20) and a chair from Goodwill ($5) and these allowed me to offer two other options for seats.
The Bungee and High-Back Chairs
The next alternative seating that I offered was more about a classroom management and student celebration tool than anything else.  I purchased the table, spotlight and special chairs for this seating option at Ikea and used it to create a special table for the "Student in the Spotlight" (which rotates each week) and a friend of their choosing.
Student in the Spotlight Area
I took ideas from a lot of different people as I created this classroom management tool.  I noticed in elementary school that teachers assign classroom chores to students.  This gives the students true ownership in the classroom and gives the teacher a respite from all the "housework" of the classroom: win-win.  I wanted to bring something similar into the secondary classroom.  I also wanted to use this as an opportunity to do a more secondary-version of a Student-of-the-Week: celebrating one student and allowing them to feel special/valued for the week.  (As an added bonus, they get some perks and speaking practice.)  The redesigning of my classroom was about more than just seating options, I wanted to really cultivate a space that felt relaxing and a community.  This new procedure has helped me to accomplish this.  Here are some of the elements of the Student-in-the-Spotlight classroom norm.
Reader Profiles
On day 1 of school, I have each student complete a Reader Profile.  I collect and keep these and then select one at random from each class period on Monday and this is the "Student in the Spotlight" for the week.  The students also use these on Monday to introduce themselves to the class.  They are then permitted to select a friend to bring with them and sit at the "Spotlight Table"

I made this special sign for the table, dividing up the classroom responsibilities by period, so that the students were taking more ownership for the classroom and responsibility for keeping it logistically operating. The sign also outlines the requirements for the week: including introducing themselves (via the Reader Profile) on Monday, creating a birthday card for any peers celebrating their birthday through the week, sharing the Words for the Wise (see below) on Tuesday, completing classroom "chores" throughout the week, and sharing Five Minutes of Friday Fun on Friday).  I did want the experience to be primarily fun for students, so I also outlined some of the perks of being the "Student in the Spotlight" - including access to the special supplies and snacks on the table.
Student in the Spotlight Perks & Responsibilities

Responsibilities Explained
 On Tuesdays, the "Students in the Spotlight" are asked to share the "Words for the Wise" - I rotate these each week and select different motivational/inspirational quotes from a variety of sources.  The students read the quote, explain what it means to them, share how this has/can apply to their lives, and make suggestions for how it might apply to the lives of their peers.  The students are also encouraged to journal about the quote in a journal left on the table (kind of like a "Student in the Spotlight" table guest book).
Words for the Wise Bulletin

"Student in the Spotlight" Journal
In an effort to make this seem a bit fun and like an honor as well, I bought fun/funky supplies and made a snack drawer that the students have access to for the week.
"Student in the Spotlight" Snacks & Supplies
 In addition to seating options, I did other minor adjustments to really give the classroom a unique, homey feel.  I added curtains to the windows using command hooks and I made a "cocoa and tea" service area.
Cocoa & Tea Service Station
Drapes on the Classroom Windows
My classroom is a place that I love to be now and I know the kids think it's something special too.  Some other small touches that I made in order to make this work: I added plants through the room in order to make it feel more alive.  I have inspirational quotes and fun English games, etc. spread out throughout the room.
Live Plants & English Inspiration
I purchased lap desks for students to use with their laptops when seated at the less-traditional seats.  These are interspersed throughout the classroom for students to use as they need.
Lap Desks
I also made the classroom supplies, which teachers have traditionally kept under lock and key, open and available to students.
Supply Cabinet
Even the front board in my classroom is themed with the school colors (green & yellow) and filled with inspirational quotes, as well as more traditional content.  I did purchase a can of green spray paint and used this liberally on anything (picture frames, etc.) that could help to make the concept clear: school spirit!!!
Front Board
This transformation has taken over a year and it hasn't been free, but it truly has changed the classroom climate and made the room physically a place that students and I enjoy being.  I imagine that the design will evolve and that I will hone this practice more as my career progresses, but this is a model that I find effective and will continue to implement for the mental and physical benefits of my students in the future.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fictional Narrative Unit

This unit was designed specifically to build on the freshmen personal narrative unit and to prepare students for the state-mandated SBA test.  On the SBA, students are required to write into the narratives of others.  During this narrative unit, students will outline all elements of a narrative and then work in groups of three to write into the narratives of their peers.

The first day, students take notes on basic narrative terms.  For each term, they are reminded of what they learned in their 9th grade year and then asked to build on that understanding.
 
On the next day, students are asked to engage in a series of brief writes as a brainstorming activity.  The idea is that one of these brief writes might be developed into a final creative narrative or elements of the brief writes might serve as inspiration for a final narrative.  Essentially students select between 2 prompts and complete timed free-writes on them.  The only rule: the students have to write for the entire time.  Here are some sample prompts:

After this, students are asked to outline the basic plot, theme, characters, setting, etc. for their narrative.  If they are stumped, they are able to draw from the Writer's Block Sticks in order to help them to develop their ideas.

The next day, students are asked to mindfully integrate theme throughout the plot of their narrative.  They outline this on a thematic mapping outline.

They are then given supports in order to help them to develop the setting.  They review brief notes and work on considering setting as a way to develop both characters and mood.  Finally, they work to develop settings appropriate to the narratives they are writing.

They are then guided through the development of point-of-view and characters.  They are given notes on characters and then asked to complete in-depth character questionnaires for the characters in their narratives in order to make them well-rounded and get to know them better.


The next day students work in order to integrate figurative and vivid language in order to develop all aspects of the narrative.


This video provides an excellent description of the art of creative writing and the importance of vivid language in narrative writing:
Students will also complete notes and an exercise specifically designed to help them cultivate powerful dialogue into their narratives.  The structure is similar: notes on what dialogue is and why it's important, followed by work that students can transfer directly into their own narrative work.

Finally, students write their narratives.  Just like on the SBA, they write into the narratives of others.  They will follow all provided outlines and other formative work.  They write the exposition and initiating event and edit the next day.  Then, they add onto the narrative of a peer.  They write the Rising Action and Climax.  The next day is spent editing.  Finally, they write the Falling Action and Resolution for a third narrative.  A day is spent editing.  On each day of editing, writers receive feedback through two means: direct, HELPFUL comments on their narratives and a Reader Review Worksheet.  Writers are then asked to take all comments into consideration and make revisions based off the feedback received.


A final day is spent making any revisions and making certain that the narratives pass the yes-test and will do well on the rubric.