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16 June 2009

Musings on Creating the Social Context of a Classroom

In our motivation class we're discussing the social context of learning, and how we foster motivation and support our students in the classroom environment.I would argue that the social learning context embodies three distinct areas of consideration: the organization of the physical classroom space, community building activities, and finally, curriculum design and implementation. In the article Welcome to Room 202b, Ford (2005) provides an analogy in which she compares the careful planning and work we undertake when readying our home for a guest to the considerations and planning we must undertake in the classroom to ensure that we welcome all students.

In preparation for our guests, we frequently rearrange furniture to their liking, and add items and scents intended to beautify the atmosphere. We do these things in an effort to ensure that our guests feel welcome, and to show that we care about them. With respect to food and dinner menus, our selections represent our guests preferred tastes and favorites, and throughout their stay, we attempt to attend to our guests every need further solidifying their understanding and trust that they matter to us. Ford argues that we must take the same care in creating the learning environment for our students.

We must carefully plan our physical space to ensure safety, ease of movement, and an area that is conducive to learning. We can foster a positive atmosphere by ensuring that every student feels welcome, and by clearly conveying our belief in each student’s ability to learn and succeed. Our menu of curricular offerings and teaching styles must take into consideration the likes and dislikes of each student, the past experiences each brings, and how these varying learning needs fit together in a cohesive whole.

I strongly believe in the importance of giving children the opportunity to transition to each school day, allowing them to enter a space where they can be present, as well as time throughout the day for quiet reflection. I believe we need to actively foster our students’ awareness and recognition of emotions, and their ability to self regulate (Shriver & Weissberg, 2005). In addition to supporting the development of self, we support our students’ understanding of self in relation to others by modeling and encouraging positive relationships. It is imperative that as educators, we remain present and connected for our students, and provide a safe environment and time for students to express themselves (Kessler, 2000). As teachers, we must pay careful attention to atmosphere and building a cohesive classroom community where all students, regardless of social, economic, or cultural background, feel welcome, valued, and accepted

A safe and supportive environment fosters our belief in our ability to learn, and willingness to take risks. Feeling unsafe, or possessing a lack of trust in the environment has a disastrous impact on our students’ willingness to engage in learning. Likewise, noisy, cluttered spaces serve to distract children, and often derail successful learning even when the learner is committed to learning. An instructor’s passion for learning and belief in his or her students’ abilities greatly influences learning success. I'm sure every one of us experienced the sinking realization that those around us doubted our ability to perform an action or see a project through. For many of us, this alone served to decrease the time and effort we put into attempting the project. On the other hand, a teacher’s outward expression of belief in each student’s abilities influences work effort just as strongly, though in a much more positive manner.

In the article The Teaching Presence, Kessler states that, “Who we are, and the environment we create in class, are at least as important as the teaching skills we possess” (2000). That resonates deeply with my core beliefs. I know that as a teacher, I must take great care to create an environment that fosters positive relationships and successful learning opportunities. I dream of a classroom where the organization of our room creates natural areas for collaborative work, social interactions, and quiet reflection. The layout of materials and furniture invites exploration, and provides a safe haven for appropriate risk taking. In this setting, I aim to create a space with a variety of materials and activities with which students create meaningful experiences, yet avoid creating excessive sensory stimulation (Novick, 1996). In order to address the social / emotional needs of students, I want to build an atmosphere that clearly values each child, and respects their individual strengths, needs, and cultural backgrounds (Gibbs, 1995; SREB, 1994).

Within this environmental / social context, I know that I must utilize a variety of instructional strategies, and strike for a balance of teacher directed and child directed activities that build my students’ confidence in their own learning abilities. I possess a commitment to use flexible grouping (rather than ability grouping) and collaborative group projects in order to provide an opportunity for appropriate peer-to-peer scaffolding. Similarly, I recognize a strong desire to use thematic units because they serve to engage students in in-depth exploration of a unit across the disciplines, and they allow students to demonstrate conceptual understanding through practice and application in a variety of mediums.

I see places and potential to incorporate technology throughout all of that, and in ways that result in a true feeling of shared responsibility for all members of the class. I perceive beautiful opportunities for growth as a cohesive group, and for improved social interaction, but I also see a dark side. I sense the unwitting, accidental creation of a technology divide in my class between those who know and those who don't. We live in a society where many adults, young and old, measure their sense of success and self worth by the gadgets owned and mastered. I perceive the unintentional act of offending the parent who prefers to limit screen time and use of all things technological.

These musings force me to stop, reconsider, and reflect on my excitement for incorporating technology in my classroom. I will, and am sure it carries great benefit for all. At the same time, I believe I must first explore my motivation for incorporating a specific technological tool. What is my anticipated outcome? How will it foster community and engagement? Am I fostering growth within the group dynamic and individual understanding, or am I engaging students in the gadget itself. Does use of this technology allow equitable use, or are their students who might disengage due to lack of familiarity?

I read once that the worry and concern over how we create and maintain a social learning environment seemed somewhat silly given the apparent ease of this task. I would argue quite the opposite. In a reflective approach to teaching, there exist many considerations with respect to the learning community, from the arrangement of our physical space and the community building we endeavor to incorporate, to the teaching strategies and tools we introduce. Underlying all that, I perceive a need to reflect on how I interact with my students, how they interact with each other, and what strategies I use to support, encourage, and motivate each student and the group as a whole. In essence, it is not a task one undertakes at the beginning of each school year, but an ongoing, always growing, reflective process.

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