Responsive Classroom is like a Map Because it Guides Our Journey

processing new teaching tools

As I sat down last month to prepare a week-long course for my colleagues at St. Anne’s School, I was reminded of the first Responsive Classroom course I took in 1996.  Back then, I was moved and inspired, affirmed and challenged and excited with a powerful, youthful zeal.  My enthusiasm was unmatched by those colleagues who did not attend the course with me. I was met with everything from skepticism to “oh yeah, I know that stuff…” to “gee, could you tell me more in case I want to try it one day?” Like any of the warrior poses in yoga,  I stood strong and firm; I wrestled with my own strengths and faults so I might balance and support my use of Responsive Classroom with a sometimes  dissimilar way of thinking.  This struggle fueled me to understand and refine my teaching and to share it with others.

Over the years, I moved to St. Anne’s where this approach was valued and incorporated as a strategic initiative that unfolded over fifteen years (and continues!).  The Responsive Classroom approach is the vehicle for which the school’s mission as an Episcopal school  has been able to unfold organically with a deep commitment by the adult community.  The school and teachers keep a careful eye on child development as we designed our curriculum and classrooms.  It impacted the way we scheduled our days, how we honed our teacher language, and how we viewed parents and families as partners. This approach is a natural complement to the mindset and daily life at St. Anne’s.  Our students know what it means to care of themselves, each other and our environment.  Adults know and believe that this is a process which is influenced by many variables, but that we are village charged with raising these children to be thoughtful contributors to a range of communities.  When I see our children asking tough questions, thinking critically about information they uncover, and then showing equal determination and sensitivity when dealing with peers or social justice issues, I know the work on our social  curriculum is validated.  (This has recently supported by research – just click here to read more.)

Even though these teachers are philosophically on board and geared up to learn more, my  job wasn’t  going to be easy.  The course content is challenging (volume and breadth) and every participant brings his own set of experiences and perspectives to share or develop.  Questions arise as teachers analyze and synthesize new information into their own experiences and knowledge.  Like any good teaching, I was as prepared with the content as best I could, checked on all the nuts and bolts, and took the leap, knowing I was in good hands if I were to free fall.

Thanks in large part to the thoughtful sequencing and the training I received, the week unfolded smoothly. What was obvious, but unexpected, was the burning desire so many expressed to have more time to hash out concepts, brainstorm application of the approach or child development, or begin planning the school year. Minds opened, perspectives changed, questions about practices and strategies arose, things that had been in place suddenly made sense. The energy and excitement among these teachers was inspiring.

Like sending a 16 year-old off for her maiden voyage as a licensed driver, I felt like a big part of my work was done, but I worried whether I had prepared them well enough.  I had laid the foundation by sharing information, fielding questions, challenging participants to think critically and to see themselves implementing pieces of this approach.  I had also stumbled, forgotten details and realized there were areas I need to talk less, listen more, refine my explanations and even ease up and laugh a little more.  This is all part of the learning process made  possible within our community of learners willing to take risks.  We’d all felt a sense of both validation and challenge, because we had taken the time to get to know each other, agreed to support others and be compassionate with those who were here to learn and grow.

teacher collaboration

Teaching – in any form or capacity –  can be complex, messy, challenging, and rewarding. There’s much to learn in the Responsive Classroom approach, but each step towards approximation of mastery of both social and academic skills is a step forward.  If we’re to position children for the best possible academic and social outcomes in school, teachers need to the tools to do the same.  We need colleagues who have the similar  philosophies and who will be supportive and provocative in our quest to refine our practices.  The critical next step is for follow up – including self-reflection, continued learning, and collaboration among teachers and administrators and coaching from mentor teachers.  As the research shows, thoughtful implementation of this approach yield strong academic and social gains.  Our work is not finished.

As we closed out our training week, I asked participants to generate similes about their experience. Each of the examples below are as unique, genuine and heart-felt as the person who uttered them. They all speak to the complexity and commitment to learning that we now share.

Responsive Classroom is like a motor because it has lots of moving parts.

Responsive Classroom is like a map to guide our journey.

Responsive Classroom is like a ladder because you take one step at a time.

Responsive Classroom is like hole at beach; each time you dig out and can see things, it gets refilled.

Responsive Classroom is like music you have break down to play it well.

Responsive Classroom is like lava lamp; just as I get a hold of one blob, there’s another one floating out there I try to grab!

Back to School Reads

LlamaMamaWith about a half of a year of blog-writing under my belt, I’ve already learned that some posts are read quietly and some produce a bit of chatter.  The last post on back to school and what our little bambinos think and feel produced the latter.  It also led to discussions about how to help prepare children, particularly with literature. One of the items alwasy on my August to-do list but never fully executed, is a bibliography of back to school literature.  A few have asked for recommendations, so I’ve once again started that list and share it below.

(Keep in mind that even if school started or starts soon, it’s often helpful to read this type of story before and after the start of school – anytime during the first six weeks of settling in to a school routine!)

1.        Llama, llama Misses Mama – Strange new teacher. Strange new toys.  Lots of kids and lots of noise!  What would Llama like to do?
Llama Llama feels so new. It’s Llama Llama’s first day of preschool! And Llama Llama’s mama makes sure he’s ready. They meet the teachers. See the other children. Look at all the books and games. But then it’s time for Mama to leave. And suddenly Llama Llama isn’t so excited anymore. Will Mama Llama come back?  Of course she will. But before she does, the other children show Llama Llama how much fun school can be!

2. Wemberly Worried – Wemberly worries about everything, especially the impending first day of school. However, when that day arrives, her worries are lightened, and she even finds a friend with whom she has a lot in common.

3. Hands as Warm as Toast – Hands as Warm as Toast is a heartwarming story that any teacher, parent, or student can make a connection to and kids love!  The little girl in the story does not want to leave the side of her mother to go to school on the first day, so her teacher, who has cold hands, comes up with a job for Libby.  The teacher’s magic touch and way with Libby make school a place Libby wants to be a part of.

4. The Kissing Hand – School is starting in the forest, but Chester Raccoon does not want to go. To help ease Chester’s fears, Mrs. Raccoon shares a family secret called The Kissing Hand to give him the reassurance of her love any time his world feels a little scary. Since its first publication in 1993, this heartwarming book has become a children’s classic that touches the lives of millions of children and their parents, especially at times of separation, whether starting school, entering daycare, going to camp

5.  First Day Hooray! – This book stands out from others in that it shows how everyone gets ready for the first day of school: students, teachers, bus drivers, principals and janitors. Nancy Poydar, a former elementary teacher, eases fears by showing that, even though you’re nervous, even though you have ‘school dreams’ the night before, everything is ready and turns out fine.

6. First Day Jitters – As this delightful and light-hearted book about the  first day jitters we all get! The first day in a new school has Sarah Jane Hartwell ducking for the covers and trying to stay put. Mr. Hartwell tries to ease her nerves with calm reassurance and wise advice.  But Sarah Jane is convinced that staying home in bed is the answer to her general fears about a new school: she doesn’t know anyone, no one will like her, it’s just too hard and besides, she hates school.  The ending twist will have five and six year olds roaring with laughter!

7. Giggle Wiggle Wake Up – Sammy’s Monday morning routine comes to life in this rhyming text.  Nancy White Carlstrom fills the pages are full of joyful noises as Sammy excitedly gets ready for school, and the fun continues once he arrives with the other children. Parents may want to use the book as a springboard for creating a special First-Day-of-School morning plan with their own children.

Please don’t forget to share the survey site with friends, new connections at school and of course, complete it yourself before the survey closes on September 15th.  Those who include an email address will also be eligible for a $50 American Express gift card drawing!

A Welcoming Start

sc000bb054This is the time of year that my family likes me just a wee bit less than usual.  Really.   Lot of big things (classroom environment, curriculum, how will my class community come together, how will my own kids settle in?) and little things (did I spell names right, do I have enough time outdoors with kids, did I order supplies, where are lunch boxes?) dominate my consciousness and zap my ability to be fully present as a parent.   My family loves me and therefore, tolerates and supports this crazy-busy time of year.  Thank goodness!  My energy this week is really focused on a group of children I’ve yet to know but am eagerly awaiting their arrival.

Aside from the multitude of tasks inherent in setting up a classroom,  there are also a lot of  thoughts and emotions floating in and out of my head at this time of year.  Nobody needs to share in that tangled web, but one of the thoughts that I’ve been coming back to is how the start of school really feels to children?  And how do we, as adults, know how they feel?  Not how we think nor remember nor expect them to feel?  But how does it really feel to be in a three, four, five or six year old body getting ready to leave the safety and comfort of your own home or summer routine? I wonder if any of us can honestly understand what it feels like?  As parents and teachers, we like to think it’s a positive experience and a time of joyous expectations.   No adult wants kids to be racked with worry about the start of school, but how do we know what it’s really like? More importantly, how to we help make this cyclical milestone more likely to be positive and exciting?

I liken it to being summoned to a meeting with someone important whom you don’t yet know. No agenda is presented, no task assigned, no preparation outlined and what will happen is completely novel, i.e. you don’t have much in your schema that you will draw upon, except for your own confidence and sense of self.  And your five. you live in the moment and  most actions come from the bottom of your brain.  I don’t think there are many adults who would be eager for that gig. Essentially though, that’s what we ask of kids, especially those starting school for the first time or starting at a new school.  In the best case, kids visit the building and meet the teachers (and maybe peers) ahead of time and often know some of their friends from last year.  There are conversations about what school will be like and what is expected of all parties.  Supplies and clothes are purchased and some of the really great books on back to school are read ahead of time.    The unknown and change lie ahead, schedule pick up the pace or shift, and the lazy days of summer fun come to a close.  Not selling this package to some, I know.

But to the others, the anticipation of starting fresh, reunions with old friends and meeting new friends, adapting to a routine, and hopes and expectations get many excited. That’s the perspective many teaches cling to, perhaps because our own feelings come from the same place.  I spend a lot of time getting my room ready  for the year, with goal of setting the ambiance and tone of a welcoming and inviting place in which a dozen or more children will begin to help turn it into our home away from home.  It’s an obligation which become obsessive, and then my colleagues and I get down to the real business of looking at our program, articulating our professional hopes and dreams, reviewing what we know of children at a particular age, and how we will communication with parents  and families –  and it all comes back and fits into place.

But still, I wonder how it really feels to my little friends?  I”m thinking even more about this  now since I have the distinct privilege and honor of teaching three year olds this year.  While some will have been in day care or other organized programs, this is the first real school experiences.  It’s sort of staggering to me. I’ve heard adults talk about how their early teachers deeply shaped them – for better or for worse – and know that all of us in this profession share the awesome power and responsibility to make the year positive for each child. But that seems like a bigger assignment  this year with my little bambinos.

So I’ve tasked myself to dig deeper this week. I’ve asked parents of little ones and elementary aged kids.  Here’s a sampling:

  • can’t wait to give her teacher a hug!
  • loves new folders and pencils
  • held the welcome letter out like it was  a draft letter!
  • acting surly and grumpy right now, (I) hope the teacher doesn’t get the wrong impression
  • has bag packed already and is setting alarm clock
  • cries because best friend is in a different class

As adults, we know most all of these feelings will come to pass, but the memory may be imprinted for life. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of children and think about how they feel – in an effort to make my room and my presence feel more welcoming, the classroom feel safe and inviting, and to make this start of school once of the best starts for all of us.  Check back next week to see and hear how we do.

If you want to read more on a kindergarten teacher’s perspective and excitement on back to school, check out the article below:

Get On Back To School

school days
school days

The replaying of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” commercial in August raises so many feelings of back to school.  Seems like the summer flew by and the back-to-school busy-iness is starting to creep into our calendars.  Before I let that happen, I will enjoy several days on the beach with a gaggle of kids, plenty of sports gear, and a straw bag of books.  And I bask in the unproductivity of it all!

Given my beach-mentality this week, I was grateful to come across a fantastic article which the author has graciously given me permission to share here.  Mike Brock, a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas,  write eloquently about the transition to school and sustaining a solid, child-centered routine.  He co-authored (with Jane Nelson, Cheryl Erwin, and Mary Hughes) Positive Discipline for Christian Families, which is part of the fantastic positive discipline series – definitely something to check out if you are looking for guides on how to minimize conflict, be a more effecitve parent and instill a strong sense of self-control in your child.

In this article, Mike outlines several steps to ease your child and your household back into the routine of school in ways that should minimize the impact and allow you to focus on what your child really needs.  I hope you find a piece or two of this which reinforces what you already do well and gently challenges you to think about school and homelife in a new way.

Enjoy the lingering days of summer before we all have to get on back to school!   Also, f you haven’t already taken the survey, check out the link to the right and then forward this blog to other parents you know.   Survey is open until September 15 and one respondent will win a $50 American Express gift certificate!

7 Parenting Tips for a Happy, Successful School Year
by Mike Brock, LPC, CPDA

Her mother was a fastidious archetype of the 1950s, so fanatical about having the perfect household that she did her children’s homework to ensure it was just right.
-from an August 2008 report in The Dallas Morning News

It’s hard to imagine how things can get so ugly so quickly
just because the word “homework” has come up, but they do.
-Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, 2005

For many children and their parents, returning to school is a joyful occasion—reconnecting with school friends and families, the excitement of purchasing school supplies and new clothes, the return to the comfort and normalcy of the school routine, and, of course, the gift of a little breathing space for Mom and Dad.
But for many other children, the new school year brings with it a large dose of anxiety: Will I struggle like I did last year? Will I make any new friends? Will I be bullied or isolated? Will the teacher like me?
And for many parents, the specter of another year dealing with various school-related issues, perhaps foremost of which is homework, creates its own anxiety, as suggested by the above quotes. To help reduce that anxiety and replace it with a sense of joyful anticipation of what the school year can bring, I offer the following seven parenting tips for a happy, successful school year:

1. Project a positive attitude about school and confidence that your children will experience success and happiness. Communicate to your children through words and body language that you are excited about the new school year and confident they will enjoy it. Children pick up on the messages we send, so make those messages optimistic and hopeful.
2. Establish supportive home routines. The school year calls for renewed attention to home routines, such as those surrounding bedtime, morning, and meals. Children appreciate and thrive on the routines that we parents establish. It gives them comfort and security and better prepares them for the routines and expectations of the school day. One routine consistently correlated with success in school is the family dinner, all family members around the table together—make it a habit as often as possible.
3. Avoid the temptation to make schooling a competitive sport by over-focusing on grades. Our culture is plagued by competitiveness in all areas of life—sports, fashion, looks, talents, wealth, and more. Let’s protect our children’s school experience from this hyper-competitiveness by focusing on their own gifts and talents and avoiding comparisons with others.
4. Remember that homework is a contract between the teacher and the student, not between the teacher and the parent. Somewhere along the way, many parents have come to believe that children are incapable of doing their own homework. This is not good for the child, who needs to learn how to deal with his own responsibilities, or for the parent, whose anxiety level and patience are often strained to the breaking point over homework issues. Homework is the child’s responsibility, not the parents’. (And school personnel need to assist in this area by ensuring that the amount of homework is reasonable and the quality is such that the child is capable of doing it on her own.)
5. Establish family rules related to TV, computer, and video game usage. There is a place for electronic learning (and playing), but every minute in front of a monitor is a minute away from family communication. No one forms a healthy relationship with a monitor; we only form relationships with real people, and home is where those relationships and the life skills surrounding them are born and developed.
6. Make optimum use of parent/child time during trips to and from school. Make travel time between school and home a cell phone-free experience. Think of the message we send our children when our attention is given to others on the way to and from school. And think of the message we give them when we put aside our cell phone and tune into what’s going on in their lives.
7. Avoid the temptation to over-involve your children in after-school activities. Life is getting busier every year for our children, as well as for the parent, usually Mom, whose job it has become to spend late afternoons and evenings as family chauffer. How many activities our children should participate in is a personal choice, and a key word here is balance—for example, one sport at a time might be a good rule of thumb. If we adults insist on leading harried, distracted, overworked lives, let us at least spare our children that. Children need far fewer activities after school and far more family time with Mom and Dad.

And one more tip for good measure: Take care of yourself. I love the metaphor of the oxygen mask, in the familiar words of the flight attendant: “If you are traveling with a small child, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child.” We are no help to anyone if we are not taking good care of ourselves. Take care of yourself—physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, relationally, and spiritually. Make it a priority—for your sake, as well as for your children’s.

Looking for more? Contact Mike at, or