A classroom is not just a room. It is an environment. Just as the conditions of natural environments determine which species thrive or fade, the classroom environment influences what learning occurs there. As Judy Johnson, Executive Director of the Cotsen Family Foundation, says in her commentary on this video, the environment can be a teaching tool. Like any environment, the classroom conditions can be alteredfor good or ill. Teachers usually control aspects of the physical environmenthow the desks are arranged, what goes up on the walls. What teachers do and what classrooms look like is affected by many other factors, among them: school, district, state and federal policies; the financial resources available; the neighborhood of the school; and the children themselves.
Thinking about classrooms as environments will sharpen reporters’ observations and help them frame questions. What do you notice about these classrooms?
- Children sit at groups of desks, fostering their interaction. Having children sit in rows isolates them and causes them to focus their attention exclusively on the teacher.
- Rooms are arranged into areasfor working on the floor, at computers, reading alone and as a group. Area rugs and rocking chairs are popular in elementary classrooms today and they’re not just furnishings. They’re meant to create a homey, comforting setting for listening to stories and to bring the teacher and the children closer together.
- The location of the teacher’s deskif the teacher has oneand how often the teacher sits at it will tell you something about the relationship of the teacher to the students.
The timing of your classroom visits matters. These videos were taken in May. These rooms would have looked quite different at the start of the school year. The walls of a classroom are like an advertisement for what goes on there. They’re also a record of students’ progress.
- Can you tell what the teacher thinks is important? Is only the “best” student work displayed or work by all of the children? Ask the teacher after class to help you interpret the artifacts of learning on the walls. What story does the teacher think they tell?
- Are the state academic standards displayed where children can see them? Written in language children can use as guideposts to their own learning?
- Did you see the frame in the video describing the “Personal Essay” assignment? Can you tell if the essays displayed meet these criteria?
- Do you notice the yellow sticky notes behind the teacher in the last segment? They display words the students have come across that are new to them, that they need help defining or learning to spell. What are they? What is the teacher’s strategy for helping students learn them?
The physical environment also is important in secondary schools. But older students take up more space and so there are fewer options for creating different work spaces. That doesn’t mean all the desks need to be in rows, particularly in classes where discussion and small group work is essential. It’s unlikely you’ll see student work on displayyear-round schedules, classrooms used by more than one teacher, multiple levels of the same classes all make putting work on the walls difficult or impossible. When you’re in a classroom, though, look for physical cues as to the focus of the lesson for that day and what students are expected to learn or accomplish.