First in a series--how a new student teacher tries to implement character education based on her experience attending a National School of Character before entering college.
With nervous energy and excitement, I arrived at the elementary school where I planned to begin my student teaching. It was superintendent’s conference day, and I was taking the opportunity to get a lay of the land. I walked into the second grade classroom and I could not find it. The heart of an elementary school classroom, it was missing. There wasn’t a carpet or a rug, or even a patch of open floor where the students could congregate around an easel or board. There were only desks. They were laid out in a U shape, with two rows in the center. I couldn’t imagine an effective way to facilitate discussion in this set up. Perhaps I was overly critical, after my professor had assigned us to read McKenna’s “Uncovering the Lessons of Classroom Furniture,” but I couldn’t shake the feeling that building a sense of community in this business-like room would be quite difficult.
When I sat in on the first faculty meeting of the year, I was far from comforted. The principal presented statistics to demonstrate just how horribly children were performing on standardized tests and used that as his introduction to our need for the Common Core. Something has got to change he insisted and so he passed out many resources and rubrics and informed the teachers that they must follow every lesson given in the pre-designed curriculum book. But doesn’t that take the fun out of teaching? I wondered. Where was the trust in his teachers? The teachers broke into grade levels to begin planning. They mocked the fact that the book, which they were supposed to be nearly reading from like a script, instructed the teacher to introduce personal narratives by “holding up the book like it is a piece of gold.” Who can blame them? They didn’t choose the book. They weren’t allowed to choose the book. They can’t share their favorite stories, the ones that really make them grin, because that would be deviating from the material.
When a teacher feels passionate about the content that she’s teaching, the kids know it. They can sense their teacher’s excitement and they get excited themselves. They see their teacher enjoying her job and they feel wanted and cared about. They connect with the teacher on a personal level and the class begins to develop a sense of community, a community where they can have real, meaningful discussions. Luckily, this story has a happy ending, because my student teaching placement was switched, two days prior to the first day of school, and that classroom I just described, is where I ended up. In a school in the very same district, I had an entirely different experience.
Before I even met my cooperating teacher, I entered the classroom on the first day of school and immediately felt at home in the environment that she had created. There were tables for the students to work at, cubbies for their belongings, a couple of ottomans for comfortable seating and storage and most importantly, a large open area with a nice colorful rug. I could picture it. I could see students working together happily here. In fact, it was hard to envision anything else.
After talking with my teacher, I felt even more confident that she was creating a learning environment where students could be active, engaged and take ownership over the activities and their behavior. She told me about the curriculum and it was nearly identical to the one used at the neighboring school, but it was her attitude and her approach that made all of the difference. She made the curriculum work for her. She used the aspects that she liked, and she found ways to adapt or adjust, the ones she didn’t. While she followed the common core curriculum, she used her book choices and added her personality to every lesson. She has fun with it and so do the children.
She also explained to me that she was not planning to assign seats for the first few days. She announced this to the children as they entered that morning and they gasped with glee. Starting off the year by giving the children that sense of autonomy helped to set the tone. Sitting next to their friends also seemed to keep the first day nerves to a minimum. She had sent the message loud and clear: I care about what you want and need.
I found it invaluable to see the set up of two extremely different classrooms, especially since they were within the same district. The contrast between my two experiences demonstrated the importance of first impressions, including everything from the classroom furniture to fellow teachers. Building a foundation of comfort and trust, for everyone, teachers, administrators and students included, is crucial for creating an environment where thoughts can be analyzed, emotions can be discussed and beliefs can be challenged.
Rebecca Bauer is a senior psychology major at Vassar College pursuing teacher certification in Childhood Education. Rebecca attended the Montclair Kimberley Academy, a National School of Character, from grades 1 through 12, where she had many hands on experiences with character education. She particularly enjoyed helping to rewrite her school's character standards, creating character education lesson plans and teaching them to the elementary school students.
She found her college community to be less aware of and knowledgeable about character education but continues to make it an essential part of her education. As she begins student teaching this fall, she is eager to find new and creative ways to integrate character education in the classroom.
If you are interested in teacher training and enjoyed Rebecca's blog, you might enjoy this session at the Forum: "The Effects of Character Education Training in the Pre-Service Education" presented by Katie Bahm, who currently teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.