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.
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!