- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

Schoolteachers these days worry about how to get students to meet academic standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Demands from outside the classroom are increasing to the point that it often seems the only control teachers have inside the classroom is the environment they create for their students.

The challenge then becomes how to enliven a room in ways that encourage students’ intellectual, social and emotional development. The three often are best developed together, especially in early grades, say educators concerned with how classrooms are arranged and what materials are chosen to put on the walls.

The strategies teachers use involve a multitude of factors that may reflect a particular educational philosophy.

Both Dogwood Elementary in Reston and Peabody Early Childhood Center, a District school for prekindergarten and kindergarten students in Northeast, follow an approach known as the Responsive Classroom. The approach was developed in the early 1980s by the Northeast Foundation for Children in Greenfield, Mass., and was spelled out in a book published by the foundation called “Classroom Spaces That Work.”

“It’s about creating a classroom that will fit the needs of the whole child,” explains educational consultant Marlynn K. Clayton, the book’s primary author. “One of the big ideas is seeing that it isn’t a teacher’s room but a community classroom in which the children feel some ownership.”

“It is in the details that the classroom is defined,” writes Jay Lord, an NEFC co-founder, in the book’s introduction.

Two of the most discouraging factors for children are the lack of order and the existence of clutter, Ms. Clayton says in an interview.

“Sometimes there is just so much stuff, you can’t see the forest for the trees,” she says. “Teachers get so inundated with paper, and they are pack rats; they work in basically what we call a culture of poverty — never knowing when they will have enough equipment or materials.”

An excess of display materials clutters children’s minds, she says. And a reliance on store-bought or commercial posters, such as travel posters promoting foreign climes, she believes makes little sense where teachers strive to encourage a child’s identity within his own community.

A small carpet with blocks of numbers in the design and a computer monitor are among the features in Larry Watson’s colorful, ever-changing prekindergarten classroom at Peabody, where words, numbers and letters are prominent everywhere in different guises. He strives to integrate visual and verbal learning by combining children’s writing and drawing centered around class projects. Results are posted on bulletin boards, such as one with children’s self-portraits labeled “All About Me.”

He also has children compose stories with his help and photographs them talking and reading. Half the class can do phonics — a method of reading and spelling by recognition of speech sounds; some not at all. “But they love seeing themselves on TV,” he says, referring to the computer screen. “This gets them talking together. I’m very language-oriented. It’s important to get these kids talking so they can describe what is happening to them.”

Each wall has a theme. Before the class visited a farm, they made models and pictures of what they expected to see and posted them on a “Building and Sharing” wall. The project was titled, “Where Does Food Come From?”

Mr. Watson, a jewelry maker on the side, considers what he does in the classroom to be even more creative. Like teachers everywhere, he spends a great deal of his own money on materials — “I’ve given up counting how much” — but he agrees with Susan Burke, lead teacher in the School-Within-School Charter on Peabody’s third floor, who says: “The amount of money isn’t the point. It’s the philosophy and the way the environment is arranged.”

In Anne Gray’s kindergarten class at Dogwood Elementary, children make just about everything that is on the walls. Displays change constantly. The daily schedule is shown both in writing and in pictures taken with a digital camera she bought with her own money.

“That way, children who come into classroom not speaking English can understand how pictures and writing go together,” she says.

The class has been busy preparing for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and will be celebrating Presidents Day next month in a special way.

“It’s really hard for children to understand the past, so we do a lot of acting out and role playing,” she says. “For Martin Luther King Day, we take the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and illustrate their own hopes and dreams and what they want to do in the school year.”

Abraham Lincoln is the chosen topic for Presidents Day. “We’ll probably make log cabins out of pretzels because they are fun to use and it’s food they love. They get to eat them when they are done,” she says.

Teachers in older elementary and middle school grades like to focus on materials, often made by students themselves, that illustrate current study projects.

In a comprehensive science class for gifted and talented students taught by Stephanie Defibaugh at Quantico Middle/High School on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., the posters and handcrafted items these days all relate to a unit on rain forests. The idea is to study Panama’s rain forests and connect them to regional and global issues, giving students training in technology, geography and human history and culture.

Somewhat similarly, students in Michelle Bassett’s fifth-grade class at Annapolis’ Rolling Knolls Elementary School are surrounded by word walls created by Mrs. Bassett to guide and stimulate their study of writing and literature. One wall poster may list character traits; another, examples of authors’ tone and voices.

“Most are related to learning content or strategies. I can have them look at a poster and ask what else could be added to it,” she says. “Fourth grade might do a unit on Japan that uses maps, but everything [on the wall] relates to content. It’s not just decorating the room to look pretty. Posters have a purpose. We have icons for making connections.”

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