Quick Tip Tuesday: A welcoming classroom environment for all students

February 1st, 2011

In this week’s Quick Tip, Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, talk about how everying in the classroom environment matters when it comes to building a learning community and making ELL students feel safe to explore and learn.

As teachers, we thoughtfully design a physical environment that contributes to the development of an inclusive community, one that is safe, secure, and supportive for the young learner. We spend a great deal of time sketching out our rooms, shoving furniture around, and finding the perfect placement for every center, every piece of equipment and furniture. We are thinking about the individuals who will inhabit and shape this space into a community. We design the space for interplay between each individual and the group. Let us look at how some specific areas help second language learners as they become active participants in their community.

Fostering Security and Success for All
We design our classrooms to take children who speak a variety of different languages to the place where they can play and learn with a shared common language of English. We think and talk a great deal with colleagues and walk through each other’s rooms to get ideas about how to set up our own rooms and create safe, secure environments for learning. We arrange furniture so children can socialize in small groups. We want them to mimic behaviors of others and listen to the conversation around them. Interaction in small groups provides a safe environment for early risk taking with language.

We arrange all the supplies children might need throughout the day so children will be able to access them even without having the language to name them or ask for them. Our goal is to build a classroom community where every child is successful and is developing independence. For example, children who do not know the word for scissors need to see them and be able to reach them.

We plan for routines and procedures that will build respect and acceptance as well as security and success, for example, many small-group opportunities for guided practice and a circle time that honors each child’s attempts at contributing. We believe in talk all day so we design rooms conducive to talk yet comfortable for silence. In order for children to take a risk and utter their first word of English, they must feel safe and secure. A child’s first English word often comes when lining up to go to recess. Beginning English speakers will call out, “He cut!” These English language learners have learned that in their classroom community the routines of lining up pertain to everyone. The more thoughtful consideration we put into our learning environment, the deeper the feeling of community will be for the students. The safer children feel, the more risks they will take and the quicker they will start to acquire knowledge and language.

A Welcoming Meeting Place for Conversation
The heart of the room is the meeting area. It must be large enough for all children to gather comfortably on the floor for conversation, reading, and singing. In this space, children will share experiences through books, conversations, meetings, and shared instruction that will build community. We are reluctant to sing solo in an adult group! However, both of us will take a risk and sing out with joy when someone beside us or behind us has a lovely voice. Those voices give us confidence and keep us on pitch.

Young nonreaders or new English speakers can experience this same feeling in a well-designed meeting area. Children attempting to speak a new language will tentatively join in choral rereading of poems and Big Books if children surrounding them are reading. Soon they will be confident and joyful participants. A solid community makes everyone feel a “part of the choir.”

A teacher chair or rocking chair, an easel, dry-erase board, markers, and stacks of books are the starters for this area. A teacher must always be ready to sketch a quick picture or grab a book to find a picture to illustrate a point. As the year develops, this meeting area will take on the personality of the class with student-generated charts, favorite books, children’s art, lists of questions, and colorful clutter. This space is the meeting area for wholegroup math, science, social studies, as well as read-aloud, writing workshop mini-lessons, and writing workshop sharing. It is the morning meeting area, class meeting area, and dance floor.

A Library That Meets the Needs and Interests of All Learners
An extension of the meeting area is the library space. We display an everchanging selection of books face out as an invitation to all. In addition, children can browse through baskets labeled with a variety of genres, topics, and authors. Many of our ELLs are from homes with few, if any, books. We surround our students with hundreds of books and want them to learn to pick up a book and read for pleasure and information. Looking at books should be both a social and an independent activity for them. We know that the lively social interaction between children and books will help develop social and academic language. We also know that one of the best ways to develop community is to have a shared experience.

To develop a love of reading for pleasure and information, teachers read books to start the day; to begin reading, writing, math, science, and social studies lessons; and to bring closure to the day. ELLs need the illustrations to make connections with their prior knowledge, the instruction, and the oral language they hear. They need the books to show us what they know. They eagerly point to pictures to show us things they like or that interest
them.

Children learn to choose from a variety of genres and reading levels in their classroom library, such as nonfiction, current unit-of-study books, math books, ABC books, and series books. They are taught from the beginning how to respect the books and where to return them. The library is set up for buddy reading and conversation. Students are delighted to see books that mirror their cultures, experiences, and languages. These shared experiences with many books help bind children together in community.

Teachers encourage book browsing and model enjoying books. We demonstrate how to have conversations while browsing through books. Children learn from the beginning that reading is making meaning. Even if they cannot read yet, they are engaging in early reading behaviors and see themselves as readers. This secure feeling will make it easier for the teacher to take them to the next level as readers. Each child learns he or she is now a part of a literate community.

Shannon Blaney is one of many teachers who engages her students in designing their class library. Building their library together introduces her first-grade students to the classroom collection, the concept of book genre, the organization of their library, and the expectation of maintaining that organizational system.

By the end of the first week of school, Shannon is ready to lead her class into setting up their library. The open meeting space at the front of the room is strewn with picture books from Shannon’s personal collection and more from the school library. Plastic baskets are stacked haphazardly behind the books. (See Figure 2.1.) The children gasp and exclaim in shock at the mess as they come back into the room after lunch. Shannon asks them to sit down gestures that they need to come up with a plan to solve this problem.

From her actions, the children can tell that she wants to put the books in the baskets but does not know how to set about the task. Shannon starts by pulling four books in front of her. She points to the covers and says, “Hmmm! Lions. Alligators. Squirrels. Bears. What do you think?” “They’re all animals!” shouts Donte. “Oh, you’re right!” says Shannon. “What should I do with them?” “Put the animal books in the same basket,” suggests Caleb.

Shannon picks up an index card and writes the word Animals. She spreads out three sheets of mixed stickers and asks José to find some animal pictures and stick them on the card, which he does. José speaks few words of English but is able to understand Shannon’s gestures. Shannon tapes the card to the front of a basket. Next Shannon asks Uriel, Dat, Samia, and Nikki to find some more animal books. Nikki and Samia do this quickly, as Dat and Uriel look on. Shannon points again to the animal stickers on the card and to the books the girls have selected. Uriel catches on next, followed quickly by Dat. (Even though they have the least English of the class, Shannon has orchestrated this moment to allow Dat and Uriel to really understand their task.)

Shannon asks all the students to look for any animal books to add to the basket. She labels another, asking Dat to find animal stickers this time. Shannon continues sorting books in this way over the next few days, until all the books are stored in baskets along the wall. Later she tackles sorting the animal books into fiction and nonfiction baskets. Children are excited to see that there are also baskets for books in their first languages. All students are involved in the design of their precious classroom library. Shannon has orchestrated a wonderful community-building activity!

Entry Filed under: Differentiation & ELLs,Quick Tip Tuesday

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