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On the Podcast: Creating Welcoming Classroom Environments with Berit Gordon

Creating Classroom EnvironmentsHow do we create a welcoming classroom environment during a pandemic? What about while teaching online, or in a blended approach? How do we stay happy and healthy through all of it?

Today on the podcast we're joined again by Heinemann colleague Jaclyn Karabinas and author Berit Gordon. Her new book is The Joyful Teacher: Strategies for Becoming the Teacher Every Student Deserves. In previous episodes, we've explored strategies from Berit's book, like creating classroom routines and rituals.

Download a sample chapter from The Joyful Teacher

Today, Jaclyn and Berit dive into two more strategies: creating a classroom environment, and staying happy and healthy in a demanding job. 

Below is a transcript of this episode. 


Jaclyn: Good to have you back for another conversation about your recent book, The Joyful Teacher, which just came out in May. Can you just tell for those who haven't learned about it yet, tell us a bit about why you wrote this book, how your experiences led you to organize it the way you did?

Berit: Sure. I've been in teaching all my life, I come from a family of teachers, and now I work with teachers. I get the privilege of working with teachers across the country, really in K-12 classrooms, and I would say something that's been true in all of those experiences is the reminder that teaching well is so important, and yet it's also such an ongoing challenge. Let alone during a pandemic, but especially now when all the rules and the guidelines for what it means to teach well have shifted. I think regardless of our circumstance, I find it so rare that teachers have this feeling of "I've got this. I know what I'm doing, and I know if I'm doing it well." And so, I wanted to provide a guidebook of sorts, a way so that when teachers are trying to figure it all out in isolation, and they're feeling overwhelmed, that they don't feel like it's such a mystery of what it means to be an expert teacher.

I worry a lot because the teachers I work with are overwhelmed, especially during the crisis teaching that we did last spring. I've read statistics that say 93% of all teachers experience high stress, 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years, and that's all in sort of "normal circumstances." I wanted to give teachers a self-paced PD guidebook of sorts. The Joyful Teacher is a compilation of teaching strategies that are all up to date, culturally responsive. They're all strategies that have been tried and vetted, and they work. It's a book that is not a book of paragraphs and long chapters, it's a book of very concrete steps. Every strategy is about a page or two pages, very bulleted, highly visual, how to steps to work toward one aspect of being a better teacher.

The book is organized by teaching goals. There are 10 chapters, each chapter is a different teaching goal. The goals might be anything from routines and rituals, to building relationships, to providing effective feedback, to assessment, to how to foster student talk and collaboration, but the goals are organized in such a way that teachers are building a foundation so that while I hope they choose the goal that's right for them, they're thinking about what's this first goal along a possible progression that will serve them the most in terms of creating a really highly effective classroom. I say that because I know for instance, there was a time where I was really trying to get my students to all talk to each other and collaborate, but that's chapter nine in the book, and what I hadn't done was really look at what is in the book, say chapter three, which is routines and rituals or chapter four, which is developing relationships with students and among students so that something like talk could really flourish.

I also wanted to design a book in a way that reflects what we know works for students. I think about what we know works for students, best practices is determining what each student will benefit from. Where are they at, and where can they go next? Also giving them a line of choice, and so the book is designed in the same way. It's really allowing teachers to figure out what is right for them, and it's not just looking at all the gaps and all the deficits, but really looking at what do they have in place, and what's one way they can grow from there, but with a lot of choice and letting them establish what it is they want to work on.

Jaclyn: Yeah, that sounds great. It sounds like something that would really help teachers focus at this time, to focus on one thing a bit at a time, and really block out all the noise of everything that's new and stressful now, in addition to the stress that teachers all had before. Which makes me think about goal two, classroom environment, pretty much everything we ever knew about classroom environment was really turned upside down this spring, and we all learned a lot through trial and error and collaboration, talking to families and caregivers for sure. Can you share some strategies you found to be successful when thinking through how you might transfer thinking about classroom environment to a remote teaching environment?

Berit: I'd love to, and I'm so glad you brought up environment. It is the second goal, and the second chapter in the book, with a lot of strategies for how we create a really healthy, safe, welcoming environment, but they are geared more toward when we have the physical four walls of a classroom. I still think that the reason it's so important is because it's the first thing our students see. It sets the tone for everything else, and that is just as important, if not more important, when we're in a virtual space. It's still the first thing they see, it's still the thing that's going to help them feel welcomed, safe, valued, and heard. In fact, now we have this barrier of no longer having them in the physical room of our classroom, so I think it's even more important that we think about how do we make that virtual space really intentionally designed with students in mind, because what we have on our classroom walls shows what we value.

Again, it's sending all kinds of subconscious messages towards students about what we care about most, and so I think when we're very intentional about creating our virtual space we can be sending messages again about how we care about our students, how we care about them feeling welcomed. Even though the strategies are more geared toward a traditional classroom, there are lots of ways to adapt them for virtual. For instance, one of the strategies is letting students have a huge part in what goes on the walls, and in fact, there is a rule of thumb that students should be creating about 80% of what's on our classroom walls and 20% can be teacher created. That's a really good rule of thumb when you think about your bulletin boards, and your classroom door, and even what's on your desk, that if we're purchasing a lot of pre-made things or it's all in our own handwriting, that's not sending a message to students that this is their home too, that this is a shared space and that we value their voices.

Also, I will say, how many of us have stayed late at school on a Friday coming in over the weekend painstakingly cutting things out to go on a bulletin board, and really, who's that for? Is it for the other adults in the class or in the school, or is it really for kids? I think we can think about our virtual space again with that 80/20 rule in mind, that we could think about how are we letting students contribute to that? Whether they're posting a student of the day and sharing some things about them, or we're having students contribute quotes, or we're creating a collage of student artwork as our virtual background. We could be having graffiti walls of quotes collected from student work. There are lots of ways that students can still have a big presence in our virtual space, and so I encourage, for instance, that strategy.

Another strategy in the book is documenting the walls, which is asking teachers to do a really specific inventory of who is represented in our classrooms and who isn't, and making sure that lines up to the students in our room as well. I think we can do that same sort of inventory with our virtual space. We can look at all of the texts that we're using, the videos, the articles, the books, what are we hyperlinking, and then we can think about our students, what races and ethnicities, genders, visible and non-visible disabilities, are all of them represented?

I think even apart from the students we know we all teach or will teach, students who are adopted, queer, undocumented, autistic, and more, and we need to make sure that what we're posting reflects them. Just like we can document the walls in a physical space, we can really take a hard look at what sort of resources that we're posting in our virtual classrooms, making sure that our students see themselves and see people unlike themselves so that we're representing the rich diversity of the world, and not excluding people. That's just a couple examples of how we can use strategies in the book for a physical classroom and adapt them for a virtual classroom as well.

Jaclyn: Can you talk us through another one of your strategies for goal two, with considerations for the various learning environment schools across the country will find themselves in this fall?

Berit: One of the strategies is to enter your classroom as if you were your student and to really see your classroom through your students' eyes, and this is something we should be doing with our virtual classroom as well. That means that you open up your platform, your virtual classroom space with a specific student in mind, and I suggest that teachers have a specific student in mind who is unlike themselves so that you can be as objective as possible, and to really go through each component and think what in this space is inviting, what is clear and welcoming, what makes sense, and what maybe is confusing or unwelcoming or not particularly inviting. And then do it again with a different student in mind, maybe a student who has a disability and think about what, again, would make sense to you and what would be a little bit of something that feels like clutter, or is cumbersome.

I think we can extend this being the student and actually inviting real students. Get feedback from your students. Our class or virtual classrooms should not be a static fixed thing. The more that we invite their feedback through Google Forms or a SurveyMonkey poll and ask them which of the tools are you using on a regular basis? Where do your eyes go first when you open up this space? And then we could even look at other class websites and assignments, and think about would I know what to do? Would I know how to get my questions answered? Do I feel represented in this space? Does this space work for me or no? We could even try this with colleagues and do it for one another.

One of the other strategies in the book is to Marie Kondo our classrooms because sometimes our classrooms have too much stuff in them, and that visual clutter is overwhelming for students. We can think about streamlining and really just keeping the things that serve highly useful function for a great number of the students in our room. We could do that same sort of hard look at one another's classrooms and tell our colleagues, "This was the part where I just knew exactly what to do, and it all made sense to me, and I knew where to go if I wasn't quite sure." That's a strategy that I really recommend teachers try with their virtual spaces. And then to keep that space, a living breathable, adaptable environment as we go throughout the year because our first iteration shouldn't be the one that sticks until May or June.

Jaclyn: Right. This sounds like a really good opportunity for teachers to collaborate even before students get that walkthrough to give feedback because you get so wrapped up as a teacher in your own design sometimes that it's really hard to see outside of that. Inviting a colleague to take a walk through your virtual classroom, it's the same as when you set up your physical classroom and you run down the hall and say, "Can you come look at this? Does this look like too much?" And that kind of thing. I noticed that all of the strategies for goal two are completely student centered versus location platform or tool centered. Can you talk a bit about how you keep students and relationships at the focus when building a positive learning environment?

Berit: I think that's such a great thing that you picked up on because of course we want the space to work for us, and there will be a lot of non-negotiables that we have to use. We're going to use the school wide LMS, we're going to be on whether it's Schoology or Canvas, those things are the non-negotiables, but so much is really left for us to adapt with our students in mind. I think we need to be very conscious that while the space needs to work for us, we can unintentionally favor our own needs and stylistic preferences when in fact students are at the greatest risk of feeling either unwelcome or having their attention waiver or even just checking out completely if we don't make the space one that really welcomes them and helps them thrive. I think while we might be in a rush to figure out things like our welcome letter, and our first assignments, and how we're going to enter grades, that we really prioritize a thoughtfully designed space because when we have that, it lays the groundwork for everything else, then we'll be able to put our energy into teaching and learning.

When we have that really intentionally designed space it yells from the rooftops to students, "This is your home. This is where you're safe and you're welcomed. You have a place here." There are strategies in almost every chapter, for instance, about how we can remove obstacles, not just for students with disabilities, but for everyone. This is something I've been so fascinated about is learning about universal design. We might know this architecturally that there's a move to, for instance, build ramps instead of elevators because everyone can use the ramp to get into the building as opposed to having steps that most people use, and then the person with the disability uses the elevator. When we use the equivalent of a ramp, we make accommodations that work for everyone and it levels the playing field, and it destigmatizes difference. That's an example of another set of strategies in the book that there are a lot of design tips and tools for classroom environment, both for a digital classroom and a physical space, that support everyone.

In a physical space that might be like making fidget tools accessible to everyone, or having really user-friendly lighting and varied lighting, or flexible seating, or I suggest taking your charts and making them tabletop charts so everyone can see it. We can extend that to a virtual space by having things like a set of videos and resources that break down how to use everything in our virtual classroom, and we can make those accessible to caregivers and to students. It might mean putting some time at the forefront into recording a Screencastify video where we model and narrate the steps on how to mute a microphone, or how to join a breakout room, or how to upload a document because that's really, again, inviting everyone into a space where everyone thrives.

Jaclyn: I think screencasting is the number one skill that teachers really need right now to make short, sweet screencasts of how to navigate various things, just like you described. Thank you for talking about that. In the previous podcasts, we talked more in depth about goal three routines and rituals, and then goal two classroom environment. I feel like I left this one for last, stay, happy and healthy and in a demanding job because it's so important. It's really hard to wrap our brain around what this means. Staying happy and healthy, especially depending on where you live, staying healthy can be a real challenge during this pandemic. Can you share some of your thinking on this goal in this time?

Berit: Right. There's being happy in a demanding job, then there's the demanding job, then there's this layer of remote instruction, and then there's also what it's like to be a black educator right now, or what about being a queer black educator in Oklahoma, or a teacher who has to go into the classroom right now and has a diabetic partner at home. There's just layers. There are layers of unique identities that teachers are bringing in, and there need to be ways to honor those unique identities that teachers are bringing to the work, and there also have to be concrete ways for everyone to be and to stay well during this time. I worry a lot right now about how this is possible for teachers who have to go back into the classroom when it doesn't feel safe. I think we need strategies to take care of ourselves, and also the permission to know that it isn't selfish to prioritize our own wellbeing at this time. It's essential.

I think teachers might've managed that crisis teaching last spring going on pure adrenaline because it was for a short, contained time. This is the long haul. It needs to be something that teachers can sustain without burning out, and I worry a lot about teacher burnout right now. We know 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years, and that was under normal conditions. The reason this first chapter is the foundational goal now more than ever is because we need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of students. It's so that you are still there in May, so that you're energized and you're rested and you're able to teach. I think teachers have always loved students and care deeply about their job, but they've also always been stressed, and exhausted, and overwhelmed, and there really needs to be another way so that we can be role models for students also to take care of themselves.

I know we're all worried about students' social, emotional health right now, and the more that we can think about prioritizing our ability to manage our time, to take care of ourselves, to figure out what needs to be done and letting other things go, the more that we can model those same skills for students who are also facing this daunting challenge. I want to remind teachers that our students deserve sane and rested adults in their lives, that students will experience our best teaching selves, and then we'll help them to not just survive, but to thrive in this really demanding time.

Jaclyn: Just listening to you talk about that I just got a little bit emotional thinking about what all of this means on so many layers, and I think that even though it's hard to pause and think through these layers of who we are and what we're bringing to the classroom, and the same with the kids, it really makes this whole situation even more overwhelming, but if we don't stop and I think name it and acknowledge it, then it just gets buried inside our souls and can eat away at us. Thank you for talking so much about that. When I look at the strategies, one that really sticks out to me as critical in a challenging time is core beliefs. Can you tell us about what this can look like in this time, and why centering and beginning with core beliefs will help sustain us?

Berit: Establishing core beliefs is one of the strategies in the first chapter, and I have done a lot of reading about the happiness psychology studies that have really been at the forefront in the last decade or two. One of the findings is that our greatest contentment occurs when our actions align to our values, and if what's really important to us is showing students that we care, but then we end up putting most of our time and energy into grading and answering emails and scrolling Facebook. I'm saying all these things because this is what I see that a lot of my time gets invested in, but our discontent will really grow because our actions aren't aligning to our core values.

If we were to come back to, and I'm going to use this one as my example because I don't think we can go wrong by saying that we want to show students we care, so if we want to wack up that belief and we were to instead prioritize things like sending a postcard to every student with a personalized book recommendation, or putting out a survey for caregivers and students at the beginning of the year to find out what resources they have access to, if we were to start our class with a very informal question on a Google Form just finding out a little bit about them and who they are, if we were to spend more time on individual feedback, as opposed to creating these super involved lessons, then we would be aligning our values to our actions. I think when so much is unstable in our lives, it really can help us to remember the core reasons that brought us into teaching.

That is easy to lose in the shuffle of all of the overwhelming parts of our lives and pandemic teaching, so I suggest that teachers try this. If you can do it on your own, that's great, if you could do it with a colleague or even a grade team during the very first days of school, during one of these PD days when you're all coming back together, instead of immediately going into learning your online platform, if everyone could take just a minute to jot down what they care about most in terms of impacting student lives or what they feel is most essential.

I think for all of us that has likely shifted in light of the Black Lives Matter protest, in light of the shift to remote instruction, and then to think, what are the actions that I can do that would best support that belief? I hope teachers give that a try. I hope they try distilling all the many goals and ambitions that they have for this year into one core belief, and I hope that might ground you and keep you from feeling overwhelmed when you're trying to get to everything.

Jaclyn: Thank you for describing that. It's a really good exercise. I try to remind myself to do it frequently just because there's so much noise, and there's so much chaos in the world that just taking that moment to focus in on it and quiet everything down is really helpful. Do you have any advice for teachers who are trying to remain positive right now while still managing work life balance? It's pandemic, they're advocating for inequities they observe. It's just really tough, and if we only focus on the positive we risk avoiding confrontation. I feel like it's a good thing to practice, to think through being positive and advocating for yourself and students.

Berit: I'm so glad you brought that up because one of the strategies in the first chapter is to find the positive, to outline what are the challenging parts of teaching and what are the rewarding parts of teaching, and to remind ourselves of those rewarding parts. I still suggest teachers do that, but I want to acknowledge that finding the positive, especially now, shouldn't just be this Pollyanna, rose colored glasses look at instruction. I want to still say teaching is damn hard. It is hard in the best of circumstances, but we're looking at glaring inequalities that have been exposed. We're looking at feeling unsafe if we're having to go back into a classroom.

I still suggest finding the positive and focusing on that, and maybe for you right now you're going to focus on the little things. Maybe you're teaching remotely and you want to say, I get to wear yoga pants and I don't have a commute. That's okay, but I also really encouraged teachers to look at a bigger positive that might fuel less that is a bit more nuanced, which is that this is a time where we can revolutionize teaching. A silver lining and a positive right now, which might not make teaching any easier, is to acknowledge that this is a time where we can do something different on purpose, and that we might hope that we don't ever return to normal in some aspects because normal has failed BIPOC communities for decades, it's failed students with disabilities, it has failed to empower every student with a voice.

I also think that we could be thinking in a silver lining way that this is an opportunity to really deeply and creatively rethink how we teach. There is a blog called Chicago Unheard, it's by public school teachers from Chicago, and in it a teacher, Ashley McCall, asks what if we made space to acknowledge the anger and the demands of our students? What if our priority was healing? She has this long list of what ifs that are a call to transform what is going on, and that we work toward valuing humanity of our students and the humanity of one another, but we can't do this if we're exhausted and overwhelmed.

I want to encourage teachers, again, to prioritize taking care of themselves because we need a lot of nerve to take that leap. And having nerve demands that we're not burned out. It demands that we have time, that we have energy, that we're not just flailing as we try to teach 120 students and maybe our own kids at home. At the end of the day, it demands that we're still here. That we're still here in teaching. So again, I want to remind teachers that whether it's just looking at the happiness of having on yoga pants or whether you really do find the time and energy to feel a call to action, that you find ways to just stay in teaching and make this time work for you so that you can be there for your students.

Jaclyn: That's great advice, and I think anybody listening to this podcast right now should bookmark this and put a note on your calendar to go back and listen to it again in November, and then go back and listen to it again in March during those times of the year when sustaining is really hard. Thank you, Berit. This has been really great to talk to you again.

Berit: Thanks so much for having me. My heart is really with all these teachers who are working so hard to cover so much. In particular, making their space a really welcoming one for students.

Learn more about The Joyful Teacher on Heinemann.com

Download a sample chapter from The Joyful Teacher

beritgordon-1Berit Gordon brings many years of teaching experience in New York City high schools as well as in the Dominican Republic to her literacy coaching work. She is a graduate and former instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Berit is the author of No More Fake Reading, which offers solutions for boosting stamina, joy, and skills among adolescent readers. Whether running workshops, leading literacy coaching sessions, or working in classrooms, Gordon strives to help students fall in love with reading and writing, and to lay the groundwork so they are experts at both for life. She lives with her family in Maplewood, New Jersey. 

You can connect with her on her website at BeritGordon.com or on Twitter at @BeritGordon

Posted by: Steph GeorgePublished:

Topics: Podcast, Classroom Environment, Heinemann Podcast, Covid_19, Berit Gordon, The Joyful Teacher

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