“Look fors” in effective classrooms

A friend (and parent) and I got talking about this the other evening: Imagine you’re moving to a new state, a new city, but before you decide on a neighborhood and therefore a school for your kids, you want some sense of your choices. You want to kick the tires a bit: Get into school buildings and observe some classes, to get a sense of just what each school is like, at the classroom level. Sure, there are other things to consider, such as the school culture or the building leader, and obviously a visit of a few minutes to any classroom will only tell you so much. But knowing the limitations of that sort of visit, just what are some “look fors” that might suggest an effective classroom? Here are a few ideas.

1. The teacher both leads the class and allows kids to lead it. I’ve written about this before when I wrote about the flipped classroom: I believe that effective teachers move naturally from teaching to guiding, from speaking to listening, from themselves to their kids. They’re not always the locus of control and are more than willing to cede that control to their charges – in fact, that’s what their working towards each school day. How do you know that’s happening, when you just have a moment or two in a classroom? Ask yourself these questions: Is the teacher asking questions that cause kids to think and talk among themselves? Are kids asking the same sort of questions, not just of the teacher but of their peers? Is there a sense that the class is, as Douglas Barnes wrote, “preparing young people for a complex world with many uncertainties and many occasions when rational choice is” required? “In such a society” he continued, “we need people who can think for themselves, and make informed judgments.”

A mimeograph machine

2. To continue on this idea of questions and talk in the classroom: It should feel very alive. Is there a buzz in it? Are kids on task and working together on schoolwork, not gabbing about the latest Lady Gaga video? Are students up and moving around? Is there a little chaos in the room – noise, movement, laughter? For me the deadliest classrooms are those that have kids all in rows quietly filling out worksheets. An occasional hand might shoot up with a query, but that’s the exception. A caveat: There are times when students need to work on their own, quietly at their desks, with the teacher floating around. But you’ll notice a difference between this kind of work and worksheet deadliness. In worksheet-driven classrooms, there’s a smell in the air, like that of mimeographed copies.

3. The classroom is organized. Yes, I know: I tend to like more messy classrooms, places that feel lived in, with aquariums gurgling in one corner, the classroom bird chirping in the other. But think of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: Beneath all those wildly flowing curves is a critically important superstructure, holding it together. The classroom is the same; it needs to be well organized. For example, is there an agenda somewhere in the room, so that kids know what’s in store that day, from one block of time to the next? See examples here and here. Has the teacher posted the objective for the lesson, usually written as, “The student will be able to…”? And does the teacher refer to it? Has the teacher posted the state standards on which that lesson focuses? Do you get the sense that the teacher’s referring to a lesson plan? Is there evidence of some kind of classroom behavior management plan, to help kids navigate appropriate choices in the classroom and not so appropriate choices? All of these markers show an important organization.

A word wall example

4. Does the class look inviting? Student work should be on the walls, with rubrics or guides that tell how that work was marked. No matter the subject area, the classroom should be print-rich, with a book nook or library and with vocabulary words up on the walls – what are called word walls. I was in a school recently where vocabulary words dangled from the classroom’s ceiling. Are there colorful and relevant bulletin boards in the class, with recent stuff up, even ones that students created? And how about the class not just looking good but sounding good? I love teachers who play Bach or Mozart or Macy Gray as kids move from one activity to the next.

5. The teacher differentiates for her varied learners. I had this post about differentiated instruction last October. Feel free to reference that. In short, as you watch a classroom, do you get the sense that the teacher is aware of different learners and is modifying her instruction to accommodate those differences? In some manner this gets back to that chaotic classroom, as students in a single classroom might be engaged in multiple activities, all to get them to the same learning objective. See more at Differentiation Central.

6. Lastly, friend Susan Hayes, who’s at WestEd’s Northeast Regional Resource Center and also a parent of a burgeoning drummer, had this to add: Is there “trust in and fondness for the teacher?” She continued: “Do the students seem to actually like the teacher? Is she warm and kind to students? Is there mutual respect? Are both students and the teacher smiling? Laughing? Do they really seem to know and enjoy each other?” Not an easy thing to measure during a quick classroom visit but so critical. As former colleague Lisa Johnson wrote in this paper, “Educators would do well to consistently recognize that teacher support and adolescents’ sense of school membership are important factors associated with learning and motivation.” I remember my high school physics teacher Mr. Jacobs – one of the toughest teachers I ever had but always with a smile, a pat on the back, a short nod that told me I was on the right track but needed to work a little harder. And I did, for I knew he cared about me and my classmates very much.

So, a few ideas. What am I missing?

I got the map here. The word wall photo came from this site. The mimeograph machine photo came from this blog.

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