Lower School Curriculum Coordinator Diane Mackie is excited about kicking off the new year with the return of a powerful and much-lauded resource.
On January 12th, 2013 a number of Lower School faculty as well as teachers from Mary McDowell Friends School will be participating in a day-long Responsive Classroom Sampler workshop here at BFS. The event was organized by Lower School Curriculum Coordinator Diane Mackie, an enthusiastic proponent of the innovative teaching techniques the workshop presents. “This is an increasingly widely used classroom management approach for creating environments that are constructive and conducive to kids being engaged and participatory,” she explained. “Its initial premise is building community in the classroom.” The introductory sampler workshop gives a smattering of experiences and activities teachers can utilize in the classroom, so kids can move about and be less restless in the course of the day. The singing, quick games, and brief movement activities are usually used during transition times when students are changing from one subject to the next, or changing classrooms, as a way to refocus and reenergize.
At BFS the activities are also used in morning meetings for grades kindergarten through fifth, in which students usually gather in a circle on the floor. “One of the big issues is just how you start that morning circle,” said Diane. “Usually you start with a greeting. The intent is to make eye contact with the student, to be welcoming, to make the student feel valued and important to the group. It’s all about safety, and part of a larger anti-bullying curriculum. There are also closing circles to end the day, to leave kids feeling like they had a good day as opposed to a bad day.”
She stresses that the seemingly simple activities aren’t just a way to let young children burn off steam. “This is not just a little kids’ thing. It really does help kids in fourth and fifth grades as they start to get increasingly self-conscious or more inhibited and become more reticent to speak out and be judged by their classmates. It’s about providing a space where kids feel safe to speak.”
The Responsive Classroom series of workshops, videos and publications is a creation of the Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC), which has a mission of “bringing together social and academic learning,” according to the group’s website. “The approach is a widely used, research-backed approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills and leads to more high-quality instruction.”
Diane explained that interactive modeling is a cornerstone of the program. “So if you want the kids to be greeted when they sit in the circle, you as the teacher say this is what we’re going to do, and you introduce this activity by doing it yourself.” She added that there is much emphasis on teachers using positive language, “to invite kids into learning,” and cited the NEFC’s companion book The Power of Our Words as a popular teaching resource at BFS. “It’s about how to make kids feel safe in taking a risk in answering a question, and how not to alienate them. There’s a real focus too on child development, and recognizing where kids are in their learning.”
Responsive Classroom offers other workshops besides just the sampler, including intensive week-long institutes such as one held last year in Virginia which First Grade Head Teacher Hannah Williams attended, but the sampler works as a gateway to the other offerings. “In New York City it only occurs once a year,” said Diane. “We can’t have our whole staff out of the building so we thought, why not have them come here and invite teachers from other schools?” Thus, last year she arranged for the sampler to be held here and invited teachers from Mary McDowell and Community Roots Charter School. The event was extremely well-attended and remains a popular topic with BFS Lower School faculty. “We did it on a Saturday and we had a great time. So this year when I floated it again to faculty, we had 15 people who wanted to go! 13 BFS Afterschool faculty have also signed up to attend.”
Diane is thrilled that so many faculty are enthused about participating, “because then everybody’s got the same terminology when we talk to kids. It creates a consistent culture in the Lower School in terms of how students relate and respond to each other. Responsive Classroom is fundamentally in keeping with our culture and approach, but it’s given us a consistent language, and it’s fluid from one grade to the next.”