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Classroom Environment – The Emotional Side

By Janice Ewing

Along with the thinking and care that we give to setting up the physical environment of our classrooms, most teachers are concerned with establishing a safe and productive climate for learning as well. As a new school year begins, it seems like a natural time to reflect upon the emotional spaces that we’re striving to create and sustain. With that in mind, I turned to a few mentors for inspiration.

Donald Graves, in The Energy to Teach, says: “You, the teacher, are the most important condition in the room.” That sounds obvious on the surface, but what does it really mean? Here’s more from Graves: ‘It is the quality of our own lives as we engage with the world that is one of the major sources of energy for our students. It is the questions you ask aloud about the world, your curiosity, the books you read, and your personal use of writing that teach far more than any methodological course you’ve ever taken.”

 I had read these words before, but rereading them at the end of August opened a new window. The added meaning that I took this time is the value, as the summer draws to a close, of holding on to the personal experiences and growth that we’ve had over the summer and transferring that energy to our students. My husband and I just returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest. Browsing in a bookstore in a small town along the Columbia Gorge, I had come across Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which chronicles her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. In my graduate class, I’ll share the serendipity of finding a perfect-fit book and encourage them to share similar experiences.

Regie Routman, in Literacy and Learning Lessons From a Longtime Teacher says, “One of the most dramatic and significant changes I’ve made in my teaching and coaching is to notice and celebrate everything the learner has done well. When we celebrate the learner, we make honest statements that explicitly acknowledge and name learner’s accomplishments.” In my experience, finding a balance between celebrating success and providing the constructive feedback needed for growth can be challenging, but a foundation of trust makes it possible to achieve.

In What a Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher shares a quote from Patrick Shannon: “Risk allows students to outgrow themselves.” In discussing the importance of experimentation, Fletcher adds “We need to redefine the success ethic, not just in writing classes but during the entire school day, to mean not only Did you get it right, but also Did you take a chance? Did you try something you’ve never tried before?”

My own teaching experience ranges from Head Start to the graduate level. I’ve found that some things remain the same. If learning requires risk-taking, then learners of all ages need a safe environment which encompasses a broad view of success and a celebration of  small, but meaningful steps along the way. As you begin the school year, here are some questions to reflect on, either independently or with a trusted colleague:

  • Do I share my interests and passions with my students, and invite them to do the same?
  • Do I find ways to integrate these interests into the curriculum?
  • Do I share my growth and struggles with literacy with my students and encourage them to do the same?
  • Do I model the curiosity and vulnerability that I want my students to evidence?
  • Do my students have the autonomy to make choices with appropriate structure and scaffolding to enhance their learning?
  • Do I use read-alouds (with all ages) to build community?
  • Do I use writing as a way to enhance learning and community-building in all subjects?
  • Do I use language that invites open-ended responses and inquiry?
  • Do I model and expect respectful communication with all members of the school community?
  • Am I creating an environment in which my students feel safe enough to take the risks needed for learning?

How are you fostering a safe and energetic climate for learning in your classroom? What practices have you found to be successful in the past? What new practices are you trying out this year? We would love to hear what’s happening in your classroom!


???????????Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.

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