Environment Matters

Engaging adolescents in literacy intervention, which is often the hardest kind of work for teenagers, requires something different. Intervention can never be more of the same, especially for students who have been intimately aware of their own actual and perceived deficiencies since early elementary school.  Too often intervention IS just more of the same.  The effort we are making with secondary intervention requires focus on motivation, improved self-efficacy and self-perception in addition to data-driven, differentiated skill development and vocabulary enhancement.  This all requires intentional relationship building in a brain-friendly learning environment.

When students visit our classroom, one I have shared with another literacy teacher,  the first thing they notice is our environment.  We even have students who wander into our room, without true awareness of the metacognitive torture we offer, and ask how they can get into our class.  Although the appreciation is nice, our goal is building a learning environment that makes it clear to students that this class is not just more of the same.  We attempt to build an environment that respects student needs on multiple levels.

I have the privilege of teaching in a summer academy with high school students who are interested in becoming teachers.   We offer students many real-world experiences and lessons about what it takes to be an effective educator.  One of their favorite “ah-ha” lessons is the jigsaw we do with the chapters from a book called Shouting Won’t Grow Dendrites: Twenty Techniques for Managing a Brain-Compatible Classroom by Marcia L. Tate. Our future-teachers make immediate personal connections between enjoyable learning environments and their best learning experiences. As a literacy instructor of students who find reading mostly painful, the environment is an important contribution to encouraging sustained periods of silent reading and enhanced learning through the intentional structure and organization of the classroom.  Since this post comes at the heels of a post on Thomas Armstrong’s book on effective instruction for the adolescent brain, today’s post is focused on the physical environment.  This can not be undervalued. 

Below is a review of some physical elements from Tate’s book (first edition) that are among those my colleagues and I apply to the general environment of our classroom. The pictures are from literacy classrooms all over our district.  

LIGHTING  

Classroom Application:

  • Reduce or reject fluorescent lighting
  • When natural lighting is not available, use lamps or alternative soft lighting
  • Blend options to reduce fluorescent lighting 

Benefits of more natural lighting:

  • Improves learning and cognitive processing
  • Improves behavior by reducing impact on central nervous system
  • Allows for more focus, more relaxation, and improved performance

img_20161017_124434776img_20160503_075430408

SEATING/ROOM ARRANGEMENT 

Classroom Application:

  • Create a structure that promotes easy movement, allows all students to engage with classroom action, and enhances classroom processes and procedures.
  • Provide alternative forms of seating (especially for independent reading)
  • Choose tables and chairs over desks for reciprocal teaching and other collaborative discussions
  • Develop locations where students can stand and work
  • Develop processes for efficient student movement into a variety of grouping structures 
  • Get students moving around to talk, share and present
  • Change groupings and seating locations regularly to build relationships and improve episodic memory

Benefits:img_20161005_101356978_hdr

  • Enhances episodic memory
  • Allows for movement to enhance connections and kinesthetic learning
  • Encourages curiosity, novelty, and anticipation for new learning
  • Facilitates comfortable and efficient transitions
  • Allows easier access to monitor and support student learning

COLOR

Classroom Application:

  • Use high-energy, warm colors for collaborative, engaging activities
  • Use relaxing, cool colors for calming and focus (silent reading, etc)
  • Provide feedback or corrections in cool colors
  • Ask students to add color for annotations and graphic organizers

Benefits with intentional application:

  • img_20161006_080704567_hdrBright colors (bold reds, oranges, & yellows) encourage activity and enthusiasm
  • Cool colors (blues, greens, lavenders) encourage relaxation or calmness.
  • Color assists in semantic memory and visual recognition  
  • Colors improve comprehension and retention

MUSIC

Classroom Application:

  • Develop a collection of music of different genres (catchy & calming)
  • Start your day/class with calming music
  • Use upbeat, catchy tunes for active engagement
  • Identify tunes that fit content or help enhance memory of content

Benefits of effective use of music:  

  • unspecified-21Creates positive emotional impact
  • Enhances personal connections
  • Fills the background space with positive sound
  • Contributes to increased relaxation, stress reduction, and improved memory
  • Awakens the brain for engagement
  • Improves of concentration 

SMELL

Classroom Application:  

  • Encourage alertness with cinnamon, lemon, or peppermint
  • Promote learning and reduce stress with lavender, rose, jasmine, or chamomile  
  • Consider student allergy concerns when using aromas
  • Pair calming aromas with calming music.

Benefits of use of scents:

  • Creates a direct pathway to the brain
  • Affects learning by enhancing mood and mental clarity (proven with lavender and vanilla)
  • Increases concentration and attention (proven with lemon, peppermint)

Of, course the physical environment is only a single piece of a complex practice that must include intentional, thoughtful instruction and consistent classroom processes and procedures for learning (also included in Ms. Tate’s book).  The physical environment should only enhance good teaching practices.  A safe, warm, functional environment promotes learning.   Intentionality and an understanding of the impact all of these elements on the adolescent brain make for an experience that extends beyond your room, beyond a given day, or even beyond a given school year.

Where do you see the benefits of being intentional about environment?  Do you think students value  a classroom that honors their minds?  Which of these elements are you implementing and how is it benefiting your students?

Other resources to enhance the physical learning environment:

3 Quick Tips for a Beautiful, Brain-Friendly Classroom by
5 Research-Based Best Practices for Brain-Friendly Learning Environments
10+ Tips for Using Brain-Based Methods to Redesign Your Classroom  

3 thoughts on “Environment Matters

  • Thank you for this GREAT info! What a wonderful environment to be in, when all these issues are addressed!! I can see why students would want to be in your class! I especially would enjoy the calm lighting and scents!

    • Thank you, Ami. I appreciate that you had time to read. Lighting and scent are super important to me, and seemingly to our students, as well.

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