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The Responsive Classroom: "Why Is Everyone So Nice Here?"

Symonds Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Keene, NH

Joan Murphy

M.Ed. - Counseling/Psychology, Elementary School Counselor
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A poster pinned on the wall drawn by students that says "Be A Friend"

In the fall of 2007, a new fifth-grade student arrived at Symonds Elementary School. His demeanor was reserved, and his attitude about attending a new school was skeptical. For this 11-year-old, life started in an orphanage, and many of his learning, social, and emotional challenges stemmed from this deprived early experience. Maintaining positive relationships with peers and adults was difficult.

Like all of the other Symonds' students, he began his days with a morning meeting, worked with teacher support in large and small groups, experienced academic choice, lived by rules and consequences, attended art, music, physical education, and media classes, and became a part of the Symonds community. One day, he was walking up the stairs to his classroom with his teacher and asked, "Why is everyone so nice here?" She answered, "Who we learn with is as important as what we learn. It's important to show that we care about each other.

Guiding Principles and Teaching Practices

Symonds Elementary has been using the Responsive Classroom approach for 25 years. It's the foundation of our learning community. Our long-term use of Responsive Classroom comes from the shared belief that social curriculum is equal in significance to academic curriculum. The Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc. promotes the Responsive Classroom's fundamental principles and practices, and Symonds follows the seven Guiding Principles:

  1. The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.
  2. How children learn is as important as what they learn.
  3. The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.
  4. There is a specific set of social skills that children need to learn and practice in order to be successful academically and socially: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
  5. Knowing the children we teach individually, culturally, and developmentally is as important as knowing the content we teach.
  6. Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children we teach.
  7. How, we the adults at school, work together is as important as our individual competence.

The six teaching practices used in a Responsive Classroom are:

  1. At a morning meeting that happens each day, students are welcomed with a written message, greeting, news and announcements, sharing, and an activity.
  2. Rules are clear, simple, positive, and generated with children. Student hopes and dreams guide rule creation. Logical consequences are a consistent approach to discipline.
  3. Classroom organization promotes a caring environment and maximizes learning.
  4. Academic choice invests children in their learning.
  5. A method known as Guided Discovery is used to introduce materials and how to care for them, and to encourage inquiry.
  6. It is important to reach out to parents as partners in their child's learning.

Buddy Classes and Sprinklers

A strong school community is central to Symonds' positive school climate, building the relationships that drive learning. Students, families, and faculty share a sense of place, ownership, and connection at Symonds. Community meets the basic human needs of safety and belonging. Daily classroom morning meetings, weekly assemblies, and use of common language for expectations and rules are mandated practices at Symonds. They serve and support our community in numerous ways.

Symonds has added its own flavor to these practices. Families are invited to participate in morning meetings and weekly assemblies. Each non-classroom teacher (i.e. reading specialist, school counselor, art teacher, media specialist) is assigned to a classroom for morning meeting. These assignments change four times during the school year. Students and non-classroom staff have the opportunity to interact with each other in a different way. In some cases, students may not have other contact with this staff person due to the nature of his or her job, so this practice emphasizes the importance that we all are part of one community.

Morning meetings at Symonds support other initiatives as well. We use this time to bring buddy classes together. Many of our primary classes have an older buddy class. The classes gather at a morning meeting and share a greeting and a partnered activity, such as reading books or creating an art project. The grade levels have a chance to share what they are doing.

Morning meetings are also a time for introducing Sprinklers to the class. All fifth-grade students are considered Sprinklers. They join K-4 classes during our weekly assemblies as role models and helpers. Sprinklers rotate classrooms during the school year. Students start their official role as Sprinklers by joining a younger class' morning meeting to be introduced and participate in the greeting, sharing, and activity of the day.

Social Thinking and Whole Body Listening

Morning meetings and weekly assemblies have helped us integrate other programs that support social learning, such as Social Thinking developed by Michelle Garcia Winner. Symonds chose to include Social Thinking vocabulary and strategies into its common language and practices to strengthen children's ability to think about others as they work and play. During a weekly assembly, we introduced the idea of Whole Body Listening through a student-created presentation and a song written by our music teacher. For five days following the assembly, greetings and activities during morning meeting focused on Whole Body Listening throughout the school.

There are many more examples of how our school has used Responsive Classroom practices to support academic and social learning that are beyond the scope of this post. The flexibility of these practices is an attractive feature of this approach.

This year we will use Responsive Classroom techniques to continue developing the core values that make us a strong school: the Four Pillars of effort, kindness, knowledge, and community. These pillars stand comfortably on Symonds' Responsive Classroom foundation. The enduring message remains "Who we learn with is as important as what we learn."

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Symonds Elementary.

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Molly Bair's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your expertise on The Responsive Classroom. I ordered and read the First Six Weeks of School and attempted to implement it into my classroom this year. With the beginning of the year so busy, I was not able to follow it as much as I wish I could have. It was very helpful to read your condensed version and hear how it has positively impacted a whole school.

erinkreamer's picture

I really loved reading the ideas in "The Responsive Classroom: Why is Everyone So Nice Here?" I teach third grade and was just discussing with my grade-level colleagues the other day how we have no time to listen to kids stories or comments and create relationships with them anymore. I think that these social strategies, that are so often skipped in older grades, can really set the scene for learning to occur. Thanks for sharing!

SMartinez's picture

I really like the idea of teaching students to have close social relationship with each other. I would like to see this implemented in my school. I feel there would be less discipline problems and it would have a positive impact on our students. Thanks for sharing.

KV's picture

Hi Joan! Kudos to your school - 25 years with Responsive Classroom! Wow! The organization that developed Responsive Classroom has been going through many positive changes in the past few years. They've changed their name to The Center for Responsive Schools and have articulated many, many teaching practices (not just six) that teachers, specialist, administrators and other school staff can use with students. Some of the most important and essential Responsive Classroom teaching practices such as interactive modeling, positive teacher language and logical consequences are missing from your list. RC also has lots of supporting structures for teachers and students, such as energizers, closing circle and quiet time. Here is a link to some of their updated information. If you took the RC Level 1 or Level 2 workshop many years ago, I recommend taking the updated 4-day Responsive Classroom Course. Even experienced practitioners find new ways to reflect and improve their practice during this highly interactive, reflective and engaging workshop. You can check out their website for all the updated info and lots of free resources as well. Thanks for sharing about all the wonderful things happening at your school, and how you were able to integrate many different programs and initiatives to benefit your students.

Juxta Dunn's picture
Juxta Dunn
"If we do not destroy ourselves, we will, one day, venture to the stars." #SingItSagan! <3

Wonderful Joan--thanks so much for sharing!

Tim Ramsey's picture
Tim Ramsey
Retired School Administrator / Teacher

This is a great article about the importance of getting to know your students as human beings. Every morning I host "Radio Ramsey," our own class meeting. I learn so much about the kids and vice versa. This fifteen-minute start to the day truly sets the tone and provides me with so much insight into the lives of my kids. It is definitely not a waste of time.

mpollock's picture

Thank you for writing and sharing this article! My school just recently switched from PBIS to Responsive Classroom, so this is my first year experiencing it. The changes we have already seen in student behavior this year are remarkable, it truly does work. I also introduced Whole Body Listening to my class this year, but I admire how your school introduced and practiced that in a weekly assembly. In addition, I love the idea of Sprinklers, and I am looking forward to presenting this idea to my school community. Also, including other students, families, and all staff members in the morning meeting experience is a fantastic way to build and strengthen school community. This is something I would also love to present to my school community next year, as we continue to explore and navigate Responsive Classroom as a school community. Thank you again for sharing, your insight and examples were very inspiring and helpful!

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