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Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom

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Creating a positive classroom learning environment is a complex but necessary task if a teacher wants to cultivate a new, productive classroom culture. By fully realizing the seven keys the author highlights, teachers can establish clearer expectations, enhance instruction and assessment practices, and foster quality relationships with students, thereby maximizing the potential of all students. The book includes helpful stories from teachers, as well as classroom strategies to consider in implementing the keys. With this book, teachers can clearly define the misunderstood concepts of differentiation and enrichment and know how to use these strategies to help all students succeed, no matter their needed level of support.

Benefits

  • Read stories from classroom teachers that highlight how each key can help establish a positive learning environment.
  • Explore research and anecdotal evidence that maintains that students who feel connected are more motivated and successful in the classroom.
  • Learn how the effective use of data can minimize both academic and behavioral challenges among students.
  • Discover collaborative practices that can establish common expectations between teachers and their students, so a positive classroom tone is set when the school year starts.
  • Consider tactics teachers can use to record and analyze data on students’ progress, to make informed decisions that help students gain proficiency.
  • Peruse the essential practices that teachers should have in their classroom assessment toolbox.

Contents

Introduction

  1. Classroom Culture and Positive Relationships: Precursors to a Positive Learning Environment
  2. Classroom Expectations
  3. Targeted Instruction
  4. Positive Reinforcement
  5. Data-Driven Decisions
  6. Differentiation and Enrichment
  7. Collaborative Teams
  8. Connecting to the Schoolwide System

Epilogue

References and Resources

Index

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8 Chapters

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Chapter 1 Precursors to a Positive Learning Environment

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It is in the culture that classrooms build their success. Hierck and Weber (2014b) state:

A positive school culture is rich in trust and respect; there is recognition that collaborative processes are fundamental, that there is a collective commitment to effecting the changes that will produce positive outcomes. New initiatives are not repeatedly and haphazardly begun. Instead, depth (of student learning and of staff priorities) is valued over breadth. (p. 114)

Classroom culture includes the beliefs and commitments made by individuals as they come together as a collective. It encompasses the reality that a disparate group of students can rally around a collective approach. Culture, then, is the glue that holds together the efforts of people who might otherwise only be loosely connected.

In my work with schools and districts, I have seen those who struggle arrive at an inevitable conclusion: six months into any new effort, the difficulties that schools or districts face will relate more to the culture than to the established structures. Applying structural change (policies, programs, and procedures) that the classroom culture doesn’t support will apparently doom that structure to failure.

 

Chapter 2 Classroom Expectations

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Key 1: Classroom Expectations

Students co-create and condense classroom expectations and codes of conduct into a few easy-to-remember, positively stated words or phrases. Students know the expectations and the adults model them. Behavior expectations link to academic expectations, setting a positive tone. Everyone in the class uses a common language.

Every year, each classroom must establish expectations, routines, predictable structures, and first steps toward creating a learning community where all students become proficient in the desired outcomes (behavior and academics). The goal is to create autonomous learners—students who do not require constant adult control and direct supervision and who function both independently and interdependently in the classroom. While it is preferable to do this at the beginning of the school year, teachers reading this should not believe that all hope is lost if the school year is already in progress. It is possible to alter the course and implement expectations later in the school year, provided teachers are prepared to do some additional work.

 

Chapter 3 Targeted Instruction

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Key 2: Targeted Instruction

All staff directly teach classroom expectations to students in a myriad of ways and in various specific settings (in class, in the library, during assemblies, on the bus, and so on). Students receive opportunities to develop, practice, and demonstrate appropriate social and academic skills. Students learn social skills in the same manner as academic skills: demonstrate, practice, review, and celebrate.

It is imperative that students feel comfortable in their learning community because without feelings of safety and comfort, they will never be able to take in quality instruction. Much is made of the importance of using Bloom’s taxonomy to structure challenging work for students that will build their capacity as learners. What sometimes gets lost during instruction is the importance of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lower two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are defined as basic needs and they become increasingly motivating the longer they are unmet. If students show up to school hungry or tired, they may be more fixated on those needs than on the day’s lesson. If this pattern is repeated and students’ basic needs are continually unmet, the chances of academic uptake severely decrease. Thus, these basic needs teachers must provide before a student can progress and meet higher-level growth needs. Similarly, the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy focus on the lowest level of cognition (thinking), which requires students to recall information in basically the same form it was presented or take several bits of information and put them into a single category or grouping. Students must master these entry points before they can achieve higher-level thinking skills. Simply put, you cannot effectively implement the Bloom stuff if you haven’t taken care of the Maslow stuff. (See figure 3.1.)

 

Chapter 4 Positive Reinforcement

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Key 3: Positive Reinforcement

Students receive timely and specific feedback—both formally and informally—on a regular basis. Celebration, recognition, and reward systems are in place to acknowledge, honor, and thank students for displaying positive social and academic skills.

Feedback is the information a teacher provides to a student in terms of that student’s understanding or demonstration of learning. It is most often an outcome of learning as opposed to a stimulus for learning. Yet, at its most powerful, feedback has the potential to improve teaching and learning if educators utilize different types of feedback and assess their effectiveness during the teaching-learning cycle. The relationship between assessment and feedback is a critical component of this back-and-forth exchange.

Timely and specific feedback is critical to improved learning. Students crave feedback and regularly seek it out. In a fascinating study, researcher Graham Nuthall (2007) put microphones on students and analyzed what was happening for them each day. One of the more interesting discoveries he made was that 80 percent of the feedback students received each day was from other students—and 80 percent of it was wrong! In discussion with students, Nuthall found out they like receiving the feedback. Why? Because, despite the inaccuracies, the feedback satisfies two key criteria for feedback to be effective: just in time and just for me. The timeliness aspect makes sense as the shorter the time lag, the smaller the gap, and the easier it is to close. If teachers delay feedback, students lose the opportunity for improvement. In progressive learning, students will not achieve the next step in the process if they have not yet mastered the previous step. I often encounter high school teachers frustrated with students reading at a grade 3 level. But when did teachers first know about the gap, and when could they first have provided feedback to close it? Grade 3, or possibly even earlier. The challenge becomes more significant and more difficult to amend with each passing day, week, or month. Educators should take care to personalize feedback as each student has unique needs. It’s rarely an effective strategy to offer the whole class feedback unless the whole class has made the same mistake. In my experience this is a rare occasion!

 

Chapter 5 Data-Driven Decisions

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Key 4: Data-Driven Decisions

Various formative assessments are in place to track behavior and academic progress. The information collected is specific enough to generate general baseline data and patterns of behavior for individual students. Using these data, teachers adjust, modify, or reteach specific skills in proactive ways.

In our daily lives, it would be almost impossible to make decisions without first accessing data. We plan activities using weather data, buy food for those activities based on grocery store prices, and fuel up for the trip based on who has the best gasoline prices. If someone falls ill on the trip, we may need to see a doctor who we will expect to use data to advise us on the next course of action. Yet, in education, teachers often make decisions based entirely on supposition and intuition, reacting to what appears on the surface and prescribing an outcome that may not relate to changing the cause. It is akin to spinning a roulette wheel of treatment options based on a general malaise, rather than having a doctor gather and interpret data.

 

Chapter 6 Differentiation and Enrichment

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Key 5: Differentiation and Enrichment

A continuum of strategies, developed and aligned with classroom expectations, exists to support teachers in working to improve students’ individual and group behavior. The focus of the strategies is to help the students learn to behave and succeed in the classroom. Alternative strategies are in place for escalating levels of misbehavior.

Differentiation is one of the concepts in education that has a myriad of definitions and intentionality surrounding it. It is the perfect example of what Michael Fullan (2005) was referring to when he wrote, “Terms travel easily . . . but the meaning of the underlying concepts does not” (p. 67). It may be easier to state what differentiation is not as a prelude to structuring a positive view of the work. Differentiation is not like following a recipe, implementing an instructional strategy, or even doing only what a teacher does when he or she has time. It is also definitely not amending your teaching only to be slower and louder. Differentiation demands that teachers know their students well (think DNA) so that they can provide each one with experiences and tasks that will improve that student’s learning. It means that teachers observe and understand the differences and similarities among students and use this information to plan instruction.

 

Chapter 7 Collaborative Teams

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Key 6: Collaborative Teams

Grade-level teachers (or cross-grade in small schools) engage in authentic collaboration during designated times to ensure positive expectations and outcomes for all students. A school-based team will receive a referral for a student when his or her misbehavior escalates or academics become a significant concern.

The thrust of this book thus far has been classroom specific, and that is still the intention. However, it is clear that teachers new to the profession or new to their roles or schools will benefit immensely from the connections they make with colleagues and the support they receive from those colleagues. With that as the backdrop, let’s explore the many benefits of effective collaboration.

I began my teaching career in 1983 when the teaching profession was very much characterized by isolation (working individually behind closed doors). If there was something a teacher did that worked successfully, he or she kept it to himself or herself. There were often references to my students or your students when behavioral challenges emerged. When my daughter began her teaching career, I was excited to see that the modern teaching environment has become more collegial, driven by teachers’ desires and motivations to work in a more connected fashion. Conversations about supportive interventions for students with behavior concerns are now about “our students.”

 

Chapter 8 Connection to the Schoolwide System

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Key 7: Connection to the Schoolwide System

Systems are in place to ensure that all other keys align with schoolwide expectations. The systems are secure enough to withstand staff changes, yet flexible enough to accommodate changes in situations and circumstances as they arise.

The previous chapters have covered a lot of ground and presented many opportunities for teachers to create positive learning environments in their classrooms. Here is what we have examined thus far.

Teachers should set and support high expectations for student behavior and articulate a focused set of common expectations.

Teachers should deliver targeted instruction to all students.

Teachers should positively reinforce and recognize appropriate behaviors when displayed by students.

Teachers should use data as evidence for adjusting, modifying, or reteaching specific skills. The focus is on learning, not earning.

Teachers should instill collaborative and creative ways of supporting and intervening with students as their needs indicate and as the tiers of support provide.

 

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