Delaware Writing Project

Creating a Classroom Environment Where the Next “Romeo” Can Take the Stage

By Alayna Ford

I have seen firsthand how a safe and encouraging classroom allows children to spread their wings and take chances. My “light bulb” came on at the end of this year as one of my shyest students volunteered to come up to the front of the room to play the part of Romeo while we were reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  I was so shocked; I emailed his mother immediately, to praise his bravery and growth. She was even more surprised than I was. I thought long and hard about what made this student so willing to volunteer, and I truly believe classroom culture/environment was the key. By the end of the school year even my shyest students began to feel comfortable. This particular “Romeo” had watched everyone around him get positive feedback and be successful, and he was eventually willing to take the risk for himself. How did this happen? The following steps were essential…

  1. Create clear classroom expectations

It starts with me. Early in the year I must set up classroom expectations that encourage students to speak kindly to one another, work together in structured ways, and respect one another. This takes a large amount of effort on my part, but I know the payoff is worth it. How does one set up such a classroom environment? First, I explain the expectations to my students. Simple as that. I have found that kids are actually very good at meeting expectations. On example of an expectation I share involves what students should do as soon as the bell rings. I always place a “Warm Up” on the board while students are walking into class. I tell students that when the bell rings each student’s job is to take out his/ her journal and follow the directions for the warm up.  Consistency on my part is critical. I cannot go back on my expectations and allow them to chat with friends, wander the room, or finish homework during this time. I need to show the students that each and every day they will find the same expectations to be true in my classroom even if that means I am redirecting and correcting a significant amount until that expectation becomes a routine.

  1. Collaboration – with Proper Guidelines

Whenever collaboration is going to take place in a classroom, it is important that all students are made to feel valuable and part of the group. This can be difficult, because there are many different personalities, friendships, and interests in every classroom.  Therefore, before assigning students to groups, I remind them that each member of the group is to be heard and respected, and I do not expect to hear any negative comments made about my group choices. I have two ways I primarily handle situations that arise where classroom expectations are not being met. First, I take a proactive approach by constantly walking around the room during group work and monitoring conversations, as opposed to taking group work time as a “free” moment for me to answer an email or grade papers. This cuts out most off-topic conversations. If during my time circling the room I notice that one student is being left out, I remind the group that each individual needs to be participating and try to suggest ways that child can be included. Second, if a student is off task or behaving inappropriately, I remind that student of the expectations set for the activity and pull him/her out from the group if necessary so we can have a private conversation about behavior based on the level of distraction he/she is being. To help reinforce the  the group-work guidelines, I always have the directions for an activity on the board, and reminders of expectations posted so I can always refer to the aforementioned directions.

  1. Opportunities for Students to Praise One Another

Most group assignments in my classroom end with a presentation. Presenting information is risky, so it is critical that students are able to feel like they will be accepted. I model positive reinforcement for my students after each presentation by standing up in front of the room in between presentations and saying something specific that I enjoyed about the last presentation. Then I take volunteers to share what they enjoyed. Students sometimes fill out graphic organizers of positive feedback and other times we simply give oral replies. Hearing students compliment each other is encouraging and helps provide that safe environment where children can take risks and the next “Romeo” can confidently take the stage.

About the Author

Alayna Ford received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Education from the University of Delaware in 2013 and was certified through the state of Delaware in Secondary ELA, Elementary Education, and Special Education. She is currently working to obtain her Master of Education degree in Teacher Leadership through the University of Delaware. Alayna has a passion for literacy and writing instruction, and is working as a 9th grade English teacher at Odyssey Charter High School.

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