At the beginning of each school year, teachers look to the upcoming classroom of students with the hopes of giving them the best education possible.
Last week, a group of 28 Fairfax County teachers gathered at the Potomac School in McLean to learn about a method of teaching which allows both teacher and students to create a community in their classroom with the hopes of creating a better learning environment for everyone.
"The Responsive Classroom approach began in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a small group of teachers in Greenfield, Mass.," said Holly Blum, a Responsive Classroom-certified teacher from the county's Public School Office of Early Childhood and Family Services.
During the three-day intensive training session last week, the teachers and administrators learned about the Responsive Classroom method of teaching, which is "based around the belief that social learning curriculum is as important as academic curriculum," Blum said. "It helps teachers implement social curriculum systematically."
Responsive Classroom teaching allows teachers to incorporate basic social skills, like taking turns, self-control and empathy, with their regular academic lessons, Blum said, and takes away the assumption that children come to school having already learned those skills.
"There is research dating back to the 1980s that shows that this method of teaching not only increases academic achievement, it helps decrease behavioral problems," Blum said.
Not only that, but "teachers love it. They really like the fact that this is a tool based in quality educational practices," she said.
THE CURRICULUM IS based on seven principals and six teaching practices that teachers can adopt and become comfortable with at their own pace and incorporate in their classroom as their students progress through the year, she said. "The whole systematic approach is very tightly knit, but there's also a challenge because as a teacher gets familiar with one or two of the principles they have the opportunity to incorporate another principle and reflect on how it works in their classroom," she said.
The program was co-sponsored by the Fairfax County Public School system and the Safe Community Coalition.
The Safe Community Coalition grew out of a yearly meeting of teachers from across the county purely for the purpose of meeting, networking and brainstorming with other teachers, said Jan Auerbach, president of the Coalition.
"At last year's meeting, Jeff Jones from the Potomac School said that he had several teachers trained in the Responsive Classroom concept and it was working well for them," Auerbach said.
After contacting some schools in the county to gauge their interest in offering a workshop to train teachers on the Responsive Classroom approach, the county decided to offer the program with a local trainer instead of sending teachers to Massachusetts, where large groups are trained, she said.
"We offered three-day sessions, one at the end of the school year and the second last week for teachers to have a chance to plan around including the Responsive Classroom techniques in their classrooms starting at the beginning of this school year," Auerbach said. The training sessions usually consist of five eight-hour days, but having the session split up into three eight-hour days and four weekly after-school sessions once the year has worked better for the school system, she said.
"The program teaches students how to make good decisions and have good social interaction but it keeps everything structured," she said. "When I first heard about the concept, it sounded like just the kind of thing we'd be interested in."
For Naomi Sweet, a resource teacher at Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean, becoming trained in the Responsive Classroom technique provided her the opportunity to "have a more caring, exciting, interactive classroom" in the upcoming year.
"It really works best if the classroom teachers and resource teachers all use it together," she said. "Everyone could be talking the same language and following the same procedures, which would make it easier on the children. We're all wonderful people and we're all great teachers, but sometimes we're not using the same words to describe things," she said.
ONE ASPECT OF the Responsive Classroom system is to start the school year with an empty room and, "as the year progresses, put up things the children make on the walls so they have a part in creating the classroom," she said.
Another technique is to start each day with a morning meeting, Sweet said.
"Everyone greets each other in a certain way and we all sit in a circle to discuss things," she said. "It's a fun activity to start the day with," she said, adding that while substituting for a teacher last year in a room that had adopted the morning meeting practice, she was "amazed" to see a group of second-grade students eager to begin their morning meeting without the need of her guidance.
Using the morning meeting practice allows children to practice taking turns with who starts the meeting or who begins a reading activity. "The teacher acts as the facilitator and the kids know what has to be done," Sweet said.
Incorporating the techniques into the classroom "impacts the whole school day because it changes how you talk to the children," she said. "This promotes a more understanding way of teaching. It takes a while to get used to it but it provides a specific way of validating the work the students are doing."
Although she "won't be able to do it the way it's meant to be done" because she doesn't have a regular classroom or homeroom group of students, Sweet said she learned a lot through the workshop.
"Most teachers who were already trained said they have been using this kind of language a lot in their classrooms," she said. "It's a great way to enhance learning and make the students feel like they have a part in the school," she said.
At the Potomac School, "a significant number of our lower and middle school teachers have been trained" in the Responsive Classroom method, said Donna Lewis, lower school division head. "We feel it really fits our philosophy, and it's really nice when teachers have a common language to speak with the students."
A former Fairfax County teacher, Lewis said she was interested in getting trained in the Responsive Classroom practices to incorporate not only in her school but also in meetings she arranges.
"We want to try and help our kids be more independent and stronger problem solvers," she said. "We're planning on finding a way to incorporate these techniques into recess for the children, and the next obstacle to tackle after that will be the lunchroom," she said.
By carrying over some of the problem-solving techniques learned in class, students will be able to organize games and other recess activities quicker, which will give them more time to enjoy their time outside of class, Lewis said.
"We are so focused on what we teach our children inside the classroom that sometimes we assume that children come to us with a certain social set, but children need to know what's expected of them so they know what they have to do," Lewis said. "This technique makes everyone much more respectful of each other. We're very committed to it."