Classroom Environment, Student Engagement, and Commitment to Learning

My plan to learn how to establish an effective classroom environment, student engagement and commitment to learning began with the educational video based website for teachers, The Teaching Channel.  As most teachers know, this site provides beginner teachers with many authentic video recordings about several topics a newer teacher wants to explore. There were many videos attributed to improving and creating a classroom environment and also geared towards how to give students a joint responsibility in their learning.  I focused my video watching on how teachers establish classroom environments that live beyond the teacher.

In other words, my goal in watching the teaching videos was to work on having a classroom culture that is collectively committed to learning, even when I am not present in the class.  A Teaching Channel video that supported me with this module was from Sarah Brown Wessling’s, “How To Build A Culture for Starting” she focuses her goal on creating a classroom culture that supports learning.   The second way that I developed new learning was through my conversations with my mentor teacher during our meetings.  Through these meetings, I was able to seek professional advice about a dilemma in my classrooms specifically related to classroom environment and student engagement, in which my mentor teacher provided me with specific strategies for these areas for my class.  In short, we discussed how to give students very specific roles in the classroom that in turn allows for student assume responsibilities in establishing an effective classroom environment.

For the latter strategy, I first came to my mentor teacher with the problem.  This was probably one of the clearest moments when I realized that the classroom environment and commitment to learning needed to be reviewed and adapted to better fit a learning environment that was maintained even when I was not there.  Upon being ill for a few days, I came back to school with a note from the substitute teacher essentially expressing disappointment with my students’ behavior during the days I was out.  The behavior reflected a classroom that did not have an effective learning environment and it even brought the teacher covering my class to question whether or not my students had regard for me as their main teacher.  My immediate thought to myself was that my students are typically not like that and then I realized perhaps they were being complaint mainly because I am the main teacher.  This was not good enough for me so I sought out the support of my mentor teacher.  After sharing the problem to him, I was encouraged to think about the following question, “how do I establish a classroom learning environment that goes beyond myself?” and thus began my quest on possible solutions so that the next time I was not going to be in class the culture and environment would remain together.  

With one colleague I was suggested that I have students essentially reflect on the experience that took place with the substitute teacher and have them write a letter to the substitute in acknowledgment of their behavior and how they will use this as an opportunity to establish integrity.  While I did this, I knew I needed to do more, so in discussion with my mentor he suggested that I reevaluate what work I was giving students when I was gone, and to consider ways to divide up the responsibility of the lesson to multiple students, especially the students that cause the most unbalance in the learning environment.  I knew that I had some in school meetings during the class period coming up and that I needed to work with on classroom environment, so I took the time to try out the suggested practice.  Right away I was able to think about which students would most benefit from leadership roles and well as support roles for the teacher that would substitute in my place.

The day that I was scheduled for a meeting in school, I made sure to tell the students that I would need their help with the class running smoothly.  I divided up the things that needed to be done with different students based on what I knew they could handle.  Some students were in charge of explaining the instructions; others were in charge of passing back work, and some collecting work.  As a result, because students had specific tasks it established for them a purpose and they were needed to engage in the learning even when I was not there.  Prior to beginning of this module of improving the classroom environment and commitment to learning, my students were not able to maintain an effective classroom environment when I was not in the classroom.  After the classroom module this changed and my students were effective in maintaining a classroom environment and commitment to learning, which was impacted by their more direct engagement with the learning.  To be more specific with evidence of how this classroom environment module impacted my student’s learning, whether or not I am in the classroom, my students have been able to assume more responsibilities that directly influence the maintenance of the classroom environment.  This was something that they were not able to do prior to the module.

Prior to using this strategy, I mainly would leave work that correlated with the curriculum, but in all honesty, it was sort of busy work.  Now I see that when I give students a purpose they are more engaged and intrinsically invested in respecting the learning environment even when I am not there because they are now more committed to learning.

To continue, Ms. Wessling from “The Teaching Channel” discusses the importance of giving students a clear purpose in the classroom and consistently ensuring that students know they are an important asset to the learning environment and that their thinking and actions are of great value.  She explains that a great way to achieve this intrinsic understanding for students is to provide them with authentic learning experiences. So, I decided to figure out ways to take the curriculum required of me and adapt it in a manner that would allow for students to be invested in their own learning, in other words, more committed to their learning.

I started to reflect on the nature of my lessons and how students would be able to produce work that portrayed their understanding of the objectives and correlated with my module goal of establishing a learning environment that effectively shows that my students are engaged with their learning.  With this learning goal in mind I created activities that required each student in their small groups to have a specific role that also was very important to the group’s success in the activity.  The Tableau Vivant or “living image” is an activity that gives students the ability to show that they understand some of the major philosophies in our unit of study.  Each group has a student in charge of directing, taking pictures, writing analysis with evidence, posing for snapshots, and ensuring that all work got back to me so that they were prepared to make their posters for our classes upcoming gallery walk.  This activity not only established a purpose for each student it also created the atmosphere of an authentic learning experience.  Students were aware that the entire class would be coming to see their work, so it had to be their best.  

As a result of activities like the Tableau Vivant and establishing more specific roles in learning goal activities, my students are now able to develop a sense of responsibility and can run the classroom as groups that have established purposes.  Whereas before, they were not as committed to group activities because they did not have a clear understanding of what their specific role or skill would contribute to the group’s learning.  Now my students are more independent in being given tasks for their learning goal, and dividing up the responsibilities amongst themselves without my immediate direction.  This demonstrates growth within this learning module because my students have developed an autonomous desire to maintain an effective classroom environment that is committed to their engagement and learning goals.  

Similar to Ms. Wessling, I was able to understand that there is a correlation between authenticity and purpose.  To elaborate, for students to develop a commitment to learning where they intrinsically desire to do whatever it is they are doing in the classroom, there needs to be a real reason as to why they are doing it.  While I understand this theoretically, and see in my classroom day in and day out why this is important to do, I also see where I fall short.  In order to reach my students with a deeper sense purpose tied to what they are learning, I need to be deliberate and cognizant about how, when and where I can incorporate this committed to learning environment.  To that end, from Ms. Wessling’s videos I found that when I established a strong learning environment I also was invested in the activity not only as a teacher but also as a learner alongside my students.

My students continue to make progress and grow towards becoming more engaged and committed to the learning in the classroom, and this has established a more effective group of learners.  I now see how this level of engagement has changed through their desire to ask more questions, to wonder why things are being done the way they are, and to seek alternative ways to do it better.  As the teacher, leader, and coach I now feel less anxiety when I have to leave the class for meetings and I’m always taken aback by what new learning they have come across as a result of working on the classroom environment together with my students.