Classroom climate has, in my opinion, the biggest effect on the level of student involvement and learning outcome. Classroom environments have to start with the teacher and trickle down to the students. As students grow and mature, some teachers tend to put more responsibility on the students to set and maintain classroom ambiance, and while students should become increasingly responsible for their own emotions and actions, it is still up to the teacher to set the standard. An atmosphere of care and concern begins with individual student recognition, collaboration, and differentiation. These three cornerstones should always be considered when developing an educational environment of acceptance and tolerance.
Collaboration is one of my favorite strategies to bring students together and highlight their strengths. Individual activities such as testing or essay writing put students in competitive seclusion. While testing and individual projects have their place in the classroom, it challenges only a singular mindset rather than using multiple perceptions and ideas to shape a student’s response to scholastic material. A sometimes weak alternative is the all-encompassing “group project”. Many teachers create an activity and instruct students to “just do it together”. That presents a huge risk of creating frustration, rather than collaboration, and tends to burden the natural leader of a group and encourage timid behavior in the more apprehensive students. The point of collaboration is not played out in a specific project, but rather a classroom life-style. One specifically good example is Elliot Aronson’s Jigsaw method where students’ involvement in subgroups allows them to be topic experts to a larger group; the overarching idea being reliance on others builds learning. Collaboration should not be a special occasion, but rather an entire class outlook.
Differentiation is most successful when used as a regular part of the classroom, not as a reactive measure used when learning has come to a standstill. Systematic differentiation is another helpful component to understanding how a specific student learns. If a student has more success with project-based learning versus classroom discussion, a teacher should consider what opportunities there are for integrating projects into the curriculum. As a teacher, I fear teaching in a manner that negatively segregates a student’s natural learning strengths. I want to create opportunity for all of my students to succeed in their own unique way while at the same time challenging them to advance their abilities in a wide spectrum of modalities (Test taking, projects, essay construction, verbal communication, etc.).
It is easier to adjust to visually recognizable diversity than invisible diversity. A common mistake is assuming there is not diversity among students who are culturally, ethnically, and or socioeconomically very similar. I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a religious private school with few non-white students. Because the majority of the students came from similar backgrounds, individual recognition beyond academics or sports was rarely or never recognized. As typical for a private school, we were strictly uniformed and groomed, eliminating personal expression of style. When I began attending the school, I felt like another member of the flock who needed to conform to the school rather than an interesting individual who brought new ideas and perceptions to the group. Students who had the best relationships with teachers were generally the high academic or athletic achievers, eliminating other possibly valuable teacher-student relationships. I think it is crucial each student feels irreplaceable, and recognizing this places significance on a student’s unique contribution to class.
I know from experience how frustrating it is when you believe you have a magnificent lesson planned, and it is a complete strikeout. However, I usually discover that if I had been more in-tune with the personality of my students, I could have created a more class-specific lesson that highlighted their learning strengths. It stands to reason that if I am decidedly connected to my student body, this action will reflect on how connected my students are to each other. In other words, if a teacher feels safe building relationships with students, students will feel safe building relationships with each other. Collaboration is, in many ways, the axis of a relationship. Bullying and peer-to-peer isolation is the practice of opposition, which is not a healthy relationship characteristic. Collaboration, in connection with differentiation techniques, stimulates positive classroom climate, and discourages an environment of isolation.