The social environmenthow children relate to their teacher, one another and visitorsmatters. And like other aspects of the environment, these relationships can be created, affect learning, and evolve over time. Journalists should watch and listen to pick up the tone of the classroom and the culture of the school. Though seemingly ephemeral, the tone is one factor that explains school-to-school differences in student learning. Even if the teacher and students are on their best behavior because a journalist is present, you will be able to notice signs of how the classroom operates on other days, such as student engagement.
“Engagement” is something educators talk about a lot. Learning is not something teachers do “to” students. Students have to participate, and in the lower grades usually have to be taught how to do so. What signs of student engagement do you see in these videos? Are all the children engaged in the lessons? Where are they looking? What are they doing?
- Did you notice the boy sitting in a chair off to one side, kicking his leg, his eyes cast downward? Why is he there? Did you see the teacher glance over her shoulder in his direction? A moment earlier he was standing at her elbow. Look for the boy on the floor in the red-patterned shirt, writing. Notice how hard he concentrates!
- The two boysone in a collared white and purple shirt, the other in a red T-shirtare having an exceptional conversation for third-graders. They’re building on each other’s ideas, one writing down the words. Did you notice the one boy looking directly at the other as he tries out an idea about the “most important branch in the whole tree?” They’ve been taught how to do this. Listen for evidence of such lessons.
- The same is true of the two girls explaining an assignment to a boy who had missed class. This too is learned behavior. During the “math wall” lesson with the first-graders, the teacher asks the children to “Give Molly a big hand,” and they do.
You will hear educators talk about the importance of creating a “community of learners.” Evidence in these classrooms suggests that the community of students does take responsibility for the learning of others.
- Did you notice the fourth-grade teacher on the floor with the students? That says something about the relationship she is creating with them.
- In the math lesson, did you hear the teacher say, “Without calling out, ‘I know! I know!’” She is anticipating student behavior, but with such comments also teaching them how to navigate the classroom environment successfully, in a way that helps all of the students learn.
The social environment in high schools is laced with land mines that make teaching challenging, to say the least. Teen-agers are creating themselves, and the identity they wear in class may change as quickly as a change of clothes. Students are not just students: they’re athletes, skaters, goths, druggies, surfers, musicians, and so on. Class, race, gender, and sexual orientation also all play out in class. The mask many adolescents wear is determined indifference. Watch how teachers handle these issues to create productive conditions for learning and bring their students into the academic fold.
One factor to consider is the school schedule. Some schools create longer “block” schedules, and good teachers take advantage of the extra time to establish stronger peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student relationships. Other teachers have only 45 minutes with each classyet, they’re expected to create a learning community. How do they do that? The class norms should be clearly stated, displayed, honored, and modeled by the teacher. Structure helps self-conscious adolescents see themselves as respected members of the group. That respect should be reflected in how students talk to one another.