How Classroom Environment Can Ignite Learning and Cultivate Caring | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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There's a third grade classroom in Oakland, California that I just love visiting. It's a place where children are at the very center, where their academic, emotional and social needs are recognized and addressed.

"I love the way you have your room organized this year," I said to Ms. S, the energetic teacher who has worked in this community for a decade.

"Thanks," she said. "I always spend the whole summer thinking about the theme I'm going to use in my classroom and finally I figured out it would be 'The Village.'"

This comment echoed through my head for weeks, both because I remember that experience -- my teacher-brain never turned off during vacations -- but also because of all the discussion right now about what a good teacher does.

Suffixes on the "Word Well"(left); the class "Carecrow" (right). Credit: Elena Aguilar

Recently, the teacher has been addressing bullying. A child-size "Carecrow" hangs on one wall. Students have taped messages onto the figure reflecting their commitment to care for each other.

Students move around the room reflecting a level of comfort and ownership. Ms. S structures her lessons so that students collaborate with each other, work in small groups with her, and use the resources in the room. She gives them opportunities to move and talk, to manage their active little bodies. The first time I ever visited her class was during a transition from reading to math; Ms. S was leading her children through a five minute yoga routine.

And Ms. S's student learn -- of that there is ample evidence. I would not hesitate to put my own child in her class.

This classroom stands out to me these days given the national conversations about what an effective teacher does. How do we also measure the emotional experience of a student with a teacher? The ability of a teacher to instill a passion for learning? How do we -- as teachers, as parents -- continue to voice our demand that our students' classrooms be places where they feel good? It's not enough, of course, to just feel good at school, but it can't be discounted.

Edutopia community, please weigh in here. What have you seen, what do you do, to address the emotional experience of learning? To create a student-centered classroom? Please share with us your thoughts and ideas!

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kay79's picture
Middle School Science Teacher

I need ideas to "cultivate caring" in middle school classrooms. How can something like a "carecrow" be translated into a comparable strategy for 11-13 year olds?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Something I've seen that works wonders in middle school classrooms are social contracts. Each class period gets time, space and teacher guidance to develop their own contract -- one that highlights the things they think matter most (for example: "All will be treated fairly, by each other and the teacher").

Check out this protocol for social contracts to get you started and guide you and your students in developing a class social contract.

Rebecca Alber

Suzy Powell's picture
Suzy Powell
Teaching principal, The Miami Valley School, Dayton, OH

Have you heard of Responsive Classroom? It's a philosophy the believes that the social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. Language teachers use, classroom environment, and morning meeting are just a few of the many topics you can learn about in an RC workshop. Look them up at

Ms. L.'s picture
Ms. L.
seventh grade teacher from Laguna Beach, CA

As part of our Bully- Free program, I asked my seventh graders to come up with a list of rules for a bully- free classroom. We discussed them. Then I edited the list a bit in order to create a poster. It is now hanging in our classroom. Each child received a copy as well. They felt a sense of ownership in the rules. It also sent a strong message to those students who cause some of the problems in the classroom that others do not like their bullying behavior. I found this lesson worthwhile for the seventh graders.

Bre K.'s picture

You have shared some wonderful ideas on how to create a sense of caring in the classroom. The idea of cultivating a classroom community like "the village" where students feel comfortable and happy is inspiring. It sounds like this classroom really allows the students to take an ownership in their learning. The ideas provided will help me create a more engaging work space for my students.

Dennis P.'s picture
Dennis P.
Middle school health and fitness teacher

I am a middle school health and fitness teacher implementing new strategies to encourage students who are unmotivated. After reading several educational articles on student motivation, classroom environment is one strategy that was regularly discussed.

The 647 middle school age students who enter my gymnasium come to class with vastly different health and fitness experiences. Some students are very active outside the school day and physical education is their favorite class. There are other students who have not had a positive experience in physical education and are apprehensive to participate. Like all content areas taught, when a student enters class with a negative perception about the subject matter, it can be a challenging task to change their attitudes. I believe health and fitness is not only a class, but a lifestyle and I try to create a classroom environment that is encouraging and inviting. I want my classroom environment to motivate students to try their best and feel safe.

I think the "Carecrow" is a great idea, specifically for elementary students. Although, I do not think it would be successful with the age group I teach, I am glad to see that teachers are putting an emphasis on classroom environment. Instead of hanging a "Carecrow" on my walls, I plan on having students write sentences or words on strips of paper that describe sportsmanship and teamwork. In addition to encouraging signs, vocabulary words, and posters with steps to correctly perform the assigned skill, I hope the student voice on teamwork and sportsmanship will assist in creating a motivating and safe learning environment.

Are there any other suggestions on what I can do to create a classroom atmosphere for my students where they feel safe, and are motivated to participate?

Amy Lewis's picture
Amy Lewis
Kindergarten teacher from Wyoming

As a Kindergarten teacher, I have the honor of providing the first academic experience for many young children. I also strive to create an environment that cultivates learning. But, what abot beyond my classroom walls? My school had adopted the HCA (Home Court Advantage) icon and promotes a sense of safety, support, and belonging to all students all of the time. We even have a wall that all students sign to "become one of the family." Our high school media class created movie clips starring the "HCA man", becoming a mediator in unwanted situations. The staff and student body have bought in to the policy and it has helped the climate of our school immensely.

Katie M's picture

Thank you for sharing such wonderful ideas for establishing an engaging and exciting classroom environment. In our preschool classroom, we often refer to our room as a "community" where we work, learn, and play together. Next year, I am thinking about making this concept a bit more accessible for the students and calling it our "town", similar to your posting. I was especially thrilled to read of the "Carecrow" idea as I have been researching ways to combat negative behavior among my students. I plan on writing down my students' ideas for ways to show kindness and respect for one another and allowing them to illustrate their responses for our "Carecrow". This could be an excellent visual reminder for them. Thanks for sharing!

D. Lincoln's picture
D. Lincoln
Third grade teacher from Maryland.

Thank you for sharing this outstanding teacher. The ultimate compliment is to say that you would put your child in her classroom. I am always looking for ways to "cultivate caring" for my students. I love the idea of the village and the carecrow. In my class, we have an established community called Lincolntown. The students run for mayor and town council. We hold an election and everyone in the community has a job. The students love being called Lincolntown. Thank you again for the fresh ideas!

Petagaye's picture

I really like the overall idea of this classroom, I think it is amazing when you are able to create a positive and caring learning environment among students. I really like that the teacher structures the lessons so that her students work together or in groups. I think most students benefit from working collaboratively together. I really appreciate the article for letting me know that having this type of classroom unity is possible.

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