Thursday, August 17, 2017

Setting Up A Classroom Environment That Teaches

My classroom environment is truly a labor of love for my kids. I love how the amazing and inspiring Opal School in Oregon describes their environment as one that will inspire, engage, provoke and support learning. That is my goal as I start setting up my room for the new year. 

I want my room to inspire my students as artists, scientists, engineers, story tellers, builders, writers, mathematicians and more. 
I want it to be a place where they will engage in creative and critical thinking, plus engage in experiences where they can use reading, writing and math in authentic and meaningful ways that are natural for them. 
I want it to be a place where they are provoked to explore, investigate, take risks, try again, ask questions, and feel safe.  
I want it to give them the support they need to succeed at all the above.  

Doesn't this all sound like my role as a teacher? It is totally my role.  In our room, we have three teachers.  Me, the students, and the environment.  We all teach, inspire, engage, provoke and support each other.  I use the environment as the third teacher. Here is how I make my room into an environment that teaches.

Each area in my room is set up very purposefully to make learning happen naturally.  The 21st Century Skills children need such as, creative and critical thinking, communication, problem solving, collaboration/team work, are a major focus.  At this age they need to learn how to learn. Being in a public school I am also held accountable for the Common Core Standards plus State Standards for Science and Social Studies so I have to take into consideration how these will be fostered in each area naturally. Books, paper, writing tools and clipboards are available in almost every area to encourage kids to authentically use reading and writing skills. Here are the areas in my room. 

This first area is our Building/Engineering Area.  This is always one of the favorite spaces in our room.  A lot of STEM happens in this area.  The wood and natural blocks along with the natural items on the other shelves are slowly introduced and then are always available.  Other items are sometimes added such as tubes, ramps, and different characters with which they can create stories. Sometimes I will write a specific challenge for them, sometimes they create their own challenges. They are not pictured, but this area has paper and clipboards for kids to write their plans, blueprints and stories on and a binder to keep them in so kids can use other's designs as inspiration.

On the Engineering Table, we are starting out with Legos. Many other STEM materials will changed out and added as the year goes on. Favorites are Legos, K'nex, Magnetix, and Marble Runs.  Here they also create plans or document their projects.

Books for inspiration are displayed with the materials.

Here is the learning that takes place in our Building/Engineering Area. I post these in each area for parents and visitors to see. Feel free to use these as inspiration to create your own! 

The next area is our Dramatic Play Area. It starts out as a home/kitchen, but usually becomes a project as the kids turn it into things like a vet or doctor's office, pizza parlor, bakery, restaurant, space station, beauty salon, school, haunted house...a lot of creativity is shown here! When they transform this area, they take ownership of it.  Sometimes it is connected to an inquiry, but not all the time. Reading and writing happen as naturally in this area as they do in real life as they are pretty much role playing life here! The art piece was created by a class two years ago.  I love it so much that I can never let it go!

Here are at the skills they are using and fostering as they play in this area.

The next area is our Art Studio. So much creative thinking and story telling happens here.  The kids use real artists tools and mediums which are switched out often for them to explore what they can do and create! The table right now is almost set up for them to use loose parts to create self portraits that show feelings. I still need to add mirrors.  Nothing is cookie cutter in this area.  Each child creates as they are inspired to create.

Here are the life skills they are learning while they explore this area.

Below is our Maker's Space.  Here they can come up with their own creative ideas looking at the materials available which are always changing based on what we find or bring in.  Parents like to send materials in for this area!  The kids are required to come up with a plan.  A template is provided where they write the name of what they are making, list the specific materials needed including the amount and colors, and show what it will look like by making a drawing with labels showing the different part.  Lots of writing skills happening here as they prepare to make their project and reading skills are used as they reread what they wrote or when they read someone else's plan to create the same thing. This area is not open right away.  They need to prove responsibility as a class first as it is a messy station that takes work to clean up.

Next is our math area.  I have a table with materials to explore a certain concept, and shelves with math manipulatives and materials for them to explore specific math concepts.  The difference between these and Math Centers/Stations is that I do not tell the kids what to do with the materials.  Once they know what math is, they explore these materials as mathematicians and see what they notice or discover about math.  They share with the class what they noticed or discovered and this act of sharing usually turns into a mini-lesson on the concept.

Our next area is our Look Closer Table.  This is where they become scientists and researchers. I set up invitations for kids to look closer, and document through pictures and later words what they notice to share with others.  As we get into inquiries, this table will have materials to explore whatever it is we are investigating and learning about. Books about the subject are also added here for them to read and use for research. I start our with something simple such as shells, rocks, or things from nature until we start to get involved in an inquiry.

This area is our Sensory/Fine Motor Area but sometimes it will become something else entirely like another "Look Closer" table or "small world play" if needed.  It is a sand/water table. At the beginning of the year I cover it up and start with play dough to work their fine motor muscles which they will need desperately in kindergarten as they learn to write and use a keyboard.

Here are the materials we are starting with to explore texture, print, lines, and work those fine motor skills.  Lavender is in the bag for them to mix with the play dough for a calming sensory experience.

Here is why this area is so important!

Below is our library.  Clipboards are available to incorporate writing also.  They will start with drawing their favorite part.  Later paper may be available to practice opinion writing about books they read, or sequencing a story, or writing about what the story reminded them of or made them think about (making connections).  At some point I would like to add portable CD players for listening to stories. My old boom box broke!

The Library is part of our Literacy Area.  I also have a table there with materials to explore Literacy concepts.  Again, they are different from stations in that they are not told how to use the materials.  They explore the materials and I pick some to share what they did with them with the class to create a literacy mini lesson as we talk about what they did.  Right now it has materials to freely explore letters.

I also have a Writing Area.  This area has shelves by the window filled with writing materials such as pencils, colored pencils, crayons, markers, twistables, paper, and booklets.  Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it so I will include one in my next blog post!

While the kids are exploring the environment I am very active with the kids.  I join them and grab onto learning opportunities to point out to them. I guide them to use writing, reading and math, but it usually happens without my guidance! I spend a lot of time identifying what they just did as a mathematician, scientist, engineer, artist, writer, reader, etc. or what 21st Century Skills they used so they see the connection to their experiences and share with the class. They understand those academic concepts so much more when they see how they are using them naturally, meaningfully and authentically in their everyday experiences. I also do one on one lessons as I help them as they are trying to use reading, writing and math skills. You will never see me sitting at a table by myself during this time.  

Here is the finished room! I tried to make it as homey and calming as possible!  I hope you enjoyed the tour and understand how the environment can be used to teach purely from the kids exploring it freely.