I recently had the opportunity to observe a fourth and fifth grade classroom teacher at my mentor school. When I approached him about the possibility of observing his class, he suggested that I sit in on a morning meeting where the students will be working together to solve a problem. Problem-solving meetings occur once a week and give students an opportunity to share equal voice, and agree on a new approach to a problem that has arisen in the student community.
For this particular meeting the teacher had chosen to talk with the students about the fact that the fifth graders would soon be receiving either acceptance or denial letters from independent middle schools. He wanted to help students to be empathetic and resilient with one another as the students begin to share the news of acceptance or denial to various middle schools.
I arrived in his room to find the class of twelve students engaged in independent activities prior to morning meeting. It was apparent from the student’s self-directed behavior that the teacher has instilled an intrinsic motivation in students to engage independently with learning opportunities as they wait for morning meeting to begin. The teacher remained in a central area of the room, and engaged with four or five of his students as they approached him to discuss various subjects. One student wanted to discuss a math problem from the previous day’s homework, and several students gravitated into the circle to share in the lively discussion. Another student needed conferencing for a piece of writing she was working on. Rather than telling this student how to revise their writing piece, the teacher suggested strategies that would lead this author to see their writing more objectively. He listened to the student read their story, and said; “ I wonder what it would sound like if you read it aloud to yourself?” Then, I observed this student try out this approach; and generate new ideas for their story. Through out the observation, the teacher used this instructional strategy of suggesting new processes for students to use to self-assess, and then construct new understanding of information.
The teacher called the class to begin the morning meeting by calmly and matter-of-factly asking students to, “come down for morning meeting.” He takes on a firm, yet kind manner to facilitate the meeting, and allows the class to set the tone of the meeting by having the students do a silly greeting during attendance (it was animal noises on this day); and allowing students to share any news and announcements they have. One student shares that her computer got a virus because she opened a “bad” email. The teacher takes a moment to talk about strategies he has for protecting his computer from potentially harmful email solicitations.
The teacher sets the tone of respect and equal voice for the meeting by engaging all the students at the beginning of the meeting. At one point during the opening of the meeting he reminds a student not to call out; but for the most part the class self-regulates and listens to one another respectfully. The teacher says that soon the fifth grade students will be making final decisions about where they will go to school next year. He shares that he went to public school and, just like private schools, some are excellent and some are not so great. He sent a clear message that regardless of whether an individual is graduating to a public or private school, their experience is equally valued. He asks the students to share suggestions for how the students can gracefully support one another as graduates are determining their placement for next year. The teacher uses a talking stick to ensure that each student’s voice is heard. His responses to the students as they share suggestions were acknowledging and free from judgment. As students shared the teacher waited patiently for individuals to gather their thoughts, and build on one another’s ideas.
I asked the teacher how the weekly problem-solving meetings have affected his classroom culture. He said that there have been a couple of weeks when they didn’t have a problem-solving meeting and the students expressed how important these meetings are to them. He feels that the meetings have cultivated empathy and a strong sense of classroom community.