Math ClassroomNo mold, no asbestos, no lead--no problem, right? Not so fast. It takes more than freedom from toxins to have a healthy learning environment. The classroom environment has a daily impact on student attitudes and learning. The kind of environment we establish is directly related to our own belief systems about how people learn, our role as teacher, and how we can all best work and grow together. The academic culture, social-emotional climate and even the physical setting can enhance or detract from learning. Let’s take a peek into some healthy learning environments below and explore why they work.

Room 210--Writing Workshop, any level

Entering the classroom, we hear a hushed “hive” noise as students work on their writing portfolios. Some students are writing independently, others are conferring in pairs, and one is “publishing” a finished piece he’s chosen by posting it on a bulletin board for persuasive writing. Another student is placing his response to a peer’s posted work in a comment pocket below the piece.

In the far corner a student has retreated into his “office,” a desk- top cardboard carrel, where he works wearing headphones to screen out any distractions. Split tennis balls have been placed on the bottoms of chairs to minimize noise as they slide across the floor. All books, materials, and computer stations are well organized, labeled, and accessible. The teacher confers quietly with students using their input to decide which individuals are ready to share their writing.

Understanding literatureWhy it works. The room is set up for maximum efficiency. Materials are handy and distractions are kept to a minimum. Additional options such as the study carrel and headset encourage students to monitor and meet their own needs. Clearly, time was taken early in the year to establish routines and expectations. Younger students especially need these rules to be presented as mini lessons with practice time.

For example, keeping voices at an acceptable level is always a challenge. Students need to internalize this. Young children may practice finding a voice that can only be heard by someone within 12 inches of them by measuring that distance with a 12-inch strip of paper, then speaking so only those children can hear them.

For some students, learning is a risky business. We ask students to try something new in a very public setting. It requires a safe, supportive community to take such risks. Brain research tells us that emotion plays an important role in learning. Strong positive emotion results in better learning. Teacher modeling of sample comments, questions and behaviors teach students to respond critically, yet constructively in this setting.

There is student ownership of the work. They decide, with guidance, when to workshop a piece and ultimately make their own publishing decisions. The bulletin board is one example of that. Writing has purpose and real audiences.

Room 17--Math, primary grade

Students have been working with manipulatives to explore odd and even numbers. The teacher taps a pupil on the shoulder. He goes to the front of the room and plays an eight-note melody on a toy xylophone. The rest of the class put their materials away and gather on the rug for instruction.

“So what do you know about odd and even numbers?” the teacher asks.

“Even means if you split them up, they’re equal,” Dalton offers.

“Can you show us what you mean?”

Dalton takes 10 unifix cubes, splits them into two groups of five and lines them up under each other to show they’re equal.

“Does it matter how many ways you split it?” asks the teacher. “Could you split it three ways?”

“I’m not sure,” Dalton replies.

“What do the rest of you think?” Take a few minutes and discuss it with someone sitting close to you, then we’ll share.”

After sharing, the class reaches a consensus that even numbers must be divisible by two. Students continue to share other discoveries. When one student notes the odd/even pattern of numbers on the 100s chart, the teacher carefully scaffolds questions to extend this discovery into an understanding of counting by twos. Several students are reinforced for asking clarification from each other.

At the end of the lesson the teacher asks students to restate the big ideas discovered today. The class decides these should be recorded in the class journal.

Why it works: Establishing routines that encourage student participation and compliance prevent transitions that waste instructional time. Beginning the lesson with an open-ended question allows students to participate at any level of their understanding, and it gives the teacher valuable insight.

Student talk exceeds teacher talk throughout the lesson. Active listening is both modeled and reinforced by asking for clarification and affirming others who do the same. Finding partial understanding in Dalton’s original response, the teacher pushes to extend his thinking by questioning the number of splits.

A think/pair/share strategy engages the rest of this class in this quest as well. Later the teacher uses a scaffold of questions to connect even numbers with counting by twos. Academic rigor, even at this young age, is an expectation. Placing the learning in a cooperative, social setting increases both emotional involvement and attention. Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning.

In addition to solidifying the learning, the final recording of the lesson’s “big ideas” in the class journal adds to the community’s shared experience. This journal is used both to record such learning and significant events and celebrations throughout the year.

Room 119--Literature, any level

The class is reading a novel together. Today’s lesson’s focus is making inferences. The teacher reads a short portion of the text, then stops to “think aloud,” modeling how key pieces of information help him to infer something unstated. Another portion is read. Students are asked to share their inferences and the clues that support their thinking. Discussion is lively, but civil. Students look at the speaker and no hands are raised until he is finished. Many are anxious to share and respond to each other’s ideas. Not all are in agreement. The teacher nods at each response, but makes no comment regarding correctness.

Occasionally the teacher calls on a reticent student. “You think you don’t know, but I bet you have a hunch,” the teacher declares. Other responses are held at bay, as the teacher asserts that good thinking often takes time. The student finally responds.

At one point a group of students role play part of a scene to demonstrate their understanding. Another student does a quick sketch to demonstrate his point. Many students miss a reference regarding skiing because they lack the background knowledge to make the connection. Although a poor reader, and sometimes a disruptive force, the teacher knows Josh is an avid skier. He calls on him to provide the needed insight.

Finally, students are asked to read the next chapter recording their inferences and the clues that support them. Those who are still unsure may choose to work with a partner or in a small teacher-guided group as needed.

Why it works:  This lesson is structured for success through a gradual release of responsibility. Initially the strategy is made explicit through teacher modeling, then the class practices together with guidance. Finally they try it themselves with differing levels of support.

Both criticism and praise result in closing thought. Criticism shuts a student down, while praise often results in conformity of thought and dependence on the opinions of others. By simply acknowledging student responses, the teacher keeps the discussion and the thinking going. Inaccuracies are generally corrected through further discussion. Students are forbidden from raising their hands when someone else is speaking. When a student’s hand is in the air, he is thinking about he wants to say, not the speaker’s ideas.

Popular culture, where 20-second sound bites and rude shouting matches masquerade as debate, is sadly lacking in models of thoughtful discourse. We need to do better in our classrooms. The teacher’s reliance on Josh to provide needed information helps him to gain status in this community.

Finally multiple intelligences are valued here as students are free to express themselves in different ways.

All these classrooms share a sense of community, purpose, high expectations, and mutual respect in a supportive, but challenging environment. I have seen every example described here used effectively in classrooms I have visited. Certainly, there are lapses and we all have bad days. Not all students will buy into the culture you are trying to create in your classroom, but with consistency and perseverance, enough of them will to make a difference.

Linda Gamble is a retired reading and instructional support specialist from the Cherry Hill school district. Prior to her 10 years in Cherry Hill, she taught in Mount Laurel and Bensalem, Penn. She holds a master’s degree in education and certifications for reading specialist K-12, elementary, and early childhood education. In 2000 Gamble received the International Reading Association’s Celebrate Literacy Award. She has served on the board of directors for West Jersey Reading Council and Literacy Volunteers of Burlington County. Gamble can be reached at jlgamble@verizon.net.