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

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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  

What Works for Me: Reciprocal Teaching

unspecified-4Reciprocal teaching is a collaborative structure used to help students engage in essential proficient reader actions with the support of a peer group.  Many years ago, before my reading specialist education,  the desire that fueled my summer research reading was to find a method to support non-readers, reluctant readers, and struggling readers in my content classes (ELA & Social Studies), or according the NAEP, about 64% of 8th graders and 63% of 12th graders in 2013.  I started reading anything about best practices that would help adolescents read strategically in my class.  The data around reciprocal teaching grabbed my attention and has held it for most of my career.  My education since those days has only reinforced my desire to find the most effective method for implementing reciprocal teaching in content classes, as well as in my intervention classes.   I have used many variations to structure reciprocal teaching over the years.  Most recently the process below is bringing the strongest results to-date. I embed re-telling into the process, at the risk of complicating the collaborative structure, but the results have been positive.  Below you will find the general process I currently use, although please note that I adjust and tweak as needed based the struggles and strengths I observed as I monitored student progress.

Sample framework for reciprocal teaching session (with retelling embedded):

  1. Activate prior knowledge on the topic.  The topic should be chosen to engage and challenge the readers.  A variety of options exist, including but not limited to: KWL, Connect-Extend-Challenge, Question Formulation Technique.
  2. Groups can all meet at once or meet in a rotation as part of a station structure.   The READER will read until he/she reaches a “STOP”  break in the document.  I keep text to a manageable length and add 3-4  “STOP” breaks in the text.
  3. The RETELLER, who has annotated for essential vocabulary, will use those essential terms to retell the main ideas.  Other students are encouraged to help adjust the retelling if they feel the author’s meaning is altered or main ideas were excluded.
  4. The CLARIFIER, who has been annotating for words and concepts that were confusing, will offer those to the group for discussion and clarification.  If background knowledge of the group is not sufficient, a discussion on and application of fix-up strategies should ensue.
  5. The QUESTIONER, who has annotated for important ideas and inferences, asks explicit and implicit questions to check for understanding.   This is how I use the questioning element.  It is an extension of the Question Answer Relationship strategy and encourages students to focus on what is important in the text.  This is not the only way to use this questioning element.
  6. This process will be repeated at each of the 3-4 stops in the text.
  7. The READER, who is also the SUMMARIZER, will develop a summary independently or with the collaboration of the group.  If completing the summary independently is the option, the final summary is shared with the group to discuss if anything should be added or subtracted.  Another options requires all members of the group to prepare a summary independently and share out for similar feedback.

NOTE:  This process will develop over time.  Add each strategy to the process as you provide direct instruction, modeling and practice.   You can start with reading, retelling, and prediction/purpose setting, and then add the other strategies as they are introduced. Students can complete one strategy for the whole article or switch after each stop.  Be intentional about assigning roles to encourage practice and growth where needed.

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If you would like more comprehensive guidance on how to implement reciprocal teaching in an intervention class or a content class, I recommend the thorough support that comes from Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension by Lori D. Oczkus (2nd Edition, 2010).  In this text, Oczkus includes the research that supports the validity and long-term effectiveness of this instructional practice (also see Palincsar & Brown, 1984).  Additionally, in Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12, Implementing the Practices that Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016) reciprocal teaching is identified with an effect size of 0.74.  The authors note that the evidence supporting the effectiveness of reciprocal teaching is broad and that “researchers have found it to be effective with students with disabilities, English learners, and bilingual students.”   It is especially useful as an intervention strategy when used with fidelity.  

When I say this comprehension strategy should be used with fidelity, I do not mean that there is one classroom room process that works for all in every situation.  As noted earlier, organizing the use of the skills collaboratively and authentically can happen in a variety of ways.  However, there are some common mutations that alter success:

  • Focusing on engagement versus monitoring comprehension as a primary goal/objective.  
  • Altering the use of the strategies in unison. Strategies should be explicitly introduced and modeled individually, but the long-term development is built on using the strategies in unison, as they would authentically be used by a proficient reader.
  • Lack of specificity around the processes of questioning and clarifying strategies.
  • Not holding students to fidelity of each strategy as students collaborate to make meaning in reciprocal teaching groups.
  • Too much scaffolding (lack of gradual release by teacher or ownership by students) that prevents students from working towards independence.  
  • No scaffolding.  This involves not having a clear instructional process proven to support learning strategy development.

If you are using a structure for reciprocal teaching that is encouraging authentic student conversations and building natural application of comprehension strategies,  please comment about how your process works in your classroom.   I enjoy hearing how teachers at all levels and in every content areas are helping students make meaning from challenging text.