My intent in starting this discussion is to identify best practices in the classroom that fall outside the range of student-teacher interactions. For instance, what are some of the things you do as a teacher on a regular basis that set your classroom apart in a positive way?
Here's my example: My classroom has brass fixtures on all its cabinets, closets, and doors. The classroom doorknob and lock are both made of brass as well. While most of our teachers simply allow their fixtures to go green-brown with age and overuse, I have a different routine. Every week, I take a small amount of Brasso (available at most decent stores in the cleaning aisle), and scrub each knob, each hinge, each piece of brass in my classroom until they all shine like new pennies. It doesn't take a lot of time, and the kids recognize that there's something different about Mr. D's classroom that is just brighter and happier than most of their others.
This practice has resulted in an unexpected outcome, as well: Last summer, our maintenance department came around and replaced every doorknob in our building, forcing teachers to be issued all new keys and "break in" a new lock. The only "old" doorknob left in place was the one on my classroom door. Apparently, the administration and staff just didn't have the heart to throw out something that looked that well-cared-for.
Many times, it's the little things we do that set us apart as professionals. What do you do?
I like to let my personality show through. I have personal pictures above my desk that students comment on. I also hang pictures and art they give me there. I have a large poster of Yoda that catches their attention right away, and a lot of the color green. Green is my favorite color. It helps students feel that they know me. I just started at a new school this year, and a lot of the students brought me green Christmas presents. They had only known me a few months, but knowing my favorite color is green gave them a kind of personal connection.
Whenever I want a poster to highlight something, I try to make an effort to have a student make it. The student takes the time to carefully create something, and then it is up as a reference for years. I also like to do the same thing with really cool student projects. I love it when I walk into a classroom and see years of students, not just one year's. Of course, this requires having a lot of room in your classroom! It creates a sense of community and longevity though.
I just want to share one of the coolest unintentional "little things" that happened in my classroom.
My screensaver was set to a slideshow of "my pictures" on my computer. I had the projector up for notes and at some point the screensaver came on. It took a couple seconds to realize what my class was so silent about... it turns out that one moment of sharing pictures of my family (my adorable kids, mostly) connected me to that class instantly. The rest of the year continued to be more and more successful and I know it was a result of this moment as students constantly came up to me after asking to "see more pictures" of my family.
I now make it a habit to share a little more of my personal life (including pictures) at the beginning of the semester. Kids like to know we're normal people with regular lives. Hah.
One of the things that I do which I really feel helps me in my teaching is constantly change the layout of desks and the groups my students work in. As a teacher trainer, I have seen so many classes where students are allowed to choose where they sit or sit in the same places all year, and problems with classroom management result because of this. If I control the seating, the moment the students enter the classroom, they invariably remark on what we will be doing today because of the change in layout, and they also are used to me assigning them into different groups. This encourages them to work with different people across the class and breaks up any particular grouping. It also kindles interest in the lesson before it has even begun. I have experimented with some really way out seating arrangements and the feedback my students have given me has been invariably positive.
I am amazed at some of these FABULOUS ideas about making rooms more inviting! I am definitely going to "borrow" some of of these gems! I never really put reasoning to my actions, but I suppose I do some of these things, too. I always have a comfortable bean bag chair in the room as a reward for good behavior. I also have a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin's dinner begins to spout a soliloquy from Hamlet. I actually got permission from the author to enlarge each square to posterboard size and hang it in my room.
More importantly, though, I place a high priority on making English truly fun for my students. I use tiny media clips almost every single day to spark interest in whatever concept I am teaching that day. (I was especially excited recently to use a small part of The Blind Side to teach "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and even revisit Ferdinand.) Even my photo was taken during our annual "Speakeasy Party" that we have to celebrate the completion of The Great Gatsby, . . . where we drink (Cheer) Wine and (Root) Beer while dressed as flappers and gangsters. ; ) Therefore, I must echo "lrwilliams" about "taking an interest in each student" as being the most important thing.
Three years ago, I began teaching at a small alternative school. I wasn't sure what it would be like since all of my experience had been in a typical large high school. My students at this school, for the most part, are troubled teens who have dropped out of the typical high school because they couldn't, for a number of reasons, make it there. The sizes of my classes are never more than fifteen students. I was apprehensive at first to teach these "type" of students, but I have been rewarded more times than I can say by working with my students. I cannot say enough about smaller classrooms. We all know that smaller class sizes are better for students, but we continue to build these huge high schools where teachers have a minimum of thirty students per class. Now that so many states are cutting budgets even further, and some teachers are being laid off, class sizes are going to increase even more.
Best practices must include smaller class sizes. My experience has allowed me to get to know my students and to realize when one of them is having a bad day. They are able to talk to me about everything, and I have found that when students feel they have an adult at school they can trust, they tend to come to school with a better attitude and do better academically. I am grateful each day that I am teaching these "type" of students for they have shown me how important it is to connect to my students. I have also been able to establish a wonderful rapport with many of the parents of my students. Never have I been more aware of how important it is for me to have a smile on my face when students arrive and greet them with a good morning. Sometimes that is the first smile they have received that day.
The best practice I've done in my 16 years of teaching is to really, honestly not be a snob. So many English teachers condescend when they grade: they compare student writing to the literary cannon. This sets students up to fail.
Instead, I have become more lenient. I have become more focused on audience and purpose and less on grammar and sheer content. And I compare student writing to student writing.
The AP program is also a best practice. It is the best learning community I've been in. It helps isolated classes feel part of the big picture, namely college. The test is a real way to prepare for something instead of putting the curriculum on auto-pilot in Spring. It sets a high quality standard and translates into real rewards. It makes everyone better: students, teachers, schools, parents, colleges. It's a win-win-win-win.
I am glad you are having a good experience with Ning. I use it for my on-line students (most are adults and disable). I post class schedules, assignments, and projects. I also have a file server so that I can post files for them to download and they can upload their assignments.
My class and I began a Ning online community. Their parents had to sign them in, so that way if their children failed to comply with netiquette, it goes back to the parents.
This being said, we have a lot of fun there. When we chat (off school hours) they are required to use all the correct punctuation marks, etc. If a student tries to use the forum for something negative, the posting is not posted. They go crazy.
It is a great activity and you can create it with www.ning.com
I teach high school students, and many high school teachers seem to forget that their students enjoy a positive learning environment as much as elementary students to. With that in mind (and also because I spend more time in my classroom than in most other places), I try to make my room as inviting as possible. I have a huge, comfy dish chair that students sit in when we are practicing close reading or other silent skills. I hung Japanese lanterns from some areas of my room, and I make sure that my room always smells nice (through incense sticks or Plug-ins). These may sound like small things, but students remark how they like coming to my classroom, and when their friends whom I don't teach come with that after school for a minute, they make remarks such as "I wish I had class in here."
A practice that I use during class is a semester-long competition between the two sides of my room. My students will do almost anything for points--read parts in plays, review, stay quiet, etc. If I start the year out with this, it gets to the point by the end of the semester, that my students volunteer to participate without even thinking about points because they associate participation with a positive.
While at a conference a couple of years ago a presenter gave stastics on the difference in behaviors of a group kids when the only change had been in the physical makeup of the classroom, posters on walls, windows cleaned things like that. The behavior of these students improved with just those changes, however the biggest change came when the teachers changed their attitude toward the students and began taking an interest in each student. Teachers have to remember that they are the largest influence in the learning and behaviors of their students.
I hate bare walls, so I try to cover every inch of my classroom with with posters and artwork of my personal choice to give the students (and myself) a sense of culture and escape. You'd be surprised how many questions are asked and discussions are fueled (and daydreams visited) from some well chosen poster art.
One thing that I have made a common practice of is consistent positive parent contact. I make it a goal to contact the parent or guardian of every student coming into my classroom before school starts. I also make it a point to make sure I have positive contact with every parent again in the first quarter or two of school. I think it goes a long way toward improving school/community relations if the positive contacts outnumber the corrective contacts by at least 2 to 1.
I find that taking the time to call a parent when their child does something right is a big help in making the class a happy place. The parents are very surprised at first, but it makes them happy as well.
I also had the students in our leadership institute paint math "posters" on my walls so that it is colorful and happy looking from the very beginning. It seems that if we set the stage, the students will accept the role we know is good for them!
Recently I met a woman who is a director for a Montessori school and realized that I do many things in the classroom to enhance their awareness of beauty and balance. The messages above have all mentioned images and smells. I agree that these are important. We are not allowed to use plug-ins or candles, so I have an oil diffuser to give the room a pleasing fragerance. I try to keep it a "clean" smell and not have it too "flowery" because it might be overpowering.
I have the blinds open so we can get as much sunlight as possible. Florescent light is not good, so I want to get some "grow lights" this winter to give us more of the sunlight experience in the room.
Each season, I change the pictures to celebrate or recognize holidays or events. During January and February I try to put up some beautiful pictures of African-American children and women for Black History Month. I have pictures of ordinary people doing ordinary things so that they students can relate.
I "keep it simple" and elegant so it is not overwhelming.
I like your approach to teaching. Many of my students comment on the fact that my classroom "feels comfortable" to them. I enjoy teaching and I believe my students respond positively to my positive attitude. Students spend hours with me each week and I believe my impact should be more than just teaching the curriculum. I also use Plug-ins in my classroom and display photos I have taken as I travel. Many of my students have commented on them. This opens a dialogue with them about the location. Surprisingly, many of them have never been very far from where they live. I enjoy teaching and I believe my students respond well to someone who likes what they do.