by Pat Harden
The third grade classroom quickly fills as 16 boys and girls file into Ms. Ryan LeCesne’s room Monday morning at Flint Hill School. They quickly place their sitting crates in a circle and sit down with their morning snack. The academic day is about to begin with “Morning Meeting.” I find myself riveted as Ms. LeCesne counts backwards from 5 to 0 and every child settles into silent attention. The “Morning Meeting” is a particular characteristic of a popular program for early childhood, elementary and middle school called the Responsive Classroom program.
In recent years much attention has been paid to the need for schools to attend to the moral and social/emotional development of children. Character education was once the sole or primary purview of the family. Now character education is taking center stage in the mainstream educational dialogue starting with those planning the earliest pre-school programs and continuing through secondary and post secondary educational programming. In an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development publication, Developing A Character Education Program by Henry A. Huffman, Tom Lickona in his forward lists reasons why schools should pay more attention to character education. The list ranges from rising youth violence and increasing dishonesty to increasing peer cruelty, self destructive behaviors, and growing ethical illiteracy, including ignorance of moral knowledge. While many of these behaviors seem very distant from first grade, prevailing wisdom dictates that the process of setting the groundwork for combating these problems must start with the earliest socialization curriculum of the pre-school years.
“As a child learns socially appropriate behavior in school, she learns that the behavior is useful in other settings…when we as educators invest this time and effort with children during childhood, we are providing them with the tools that can make the difference in their school careers and in their lives” (Warner and Lavarne).
Younger children are now joining older students in spending longer hours in structured school settings while parents work. The importance of schools joining parents in the effort to impart values and relational training is self-evident. As a result, a plethora of character education programs have hit the market. Some are stand alone programs delivered by specialists separate from the primary teaching teams. Other programs are designed to be utilized by primary teachers in a program integrated with academic teaching. Many schools offer a combination of both.
The Responsive Classroom is just such a program. It has been developed by the private nonprofit Northeast Foundation for Children and sets out a structure of interaction for the classroom that takes certain basic tenets into account. After much research and observation of children and early adolescents within the school setting with teachers, administrators and other child development specialists on the development team, it became clear that there are two basic tenets that support the idea of integrating academic and character/social education.
§ The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction
§ There is a specific set of social skills that children need to learn and practice to be successful academically and socially: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control (CARES).
The Responsive Classroom sets for a structure of practices that teaches social skills and guides the acquisition of academic skills in a way that supports positive interactions among students and between students and teachers. The practices include
- Morning Meeting
- Rules and Logical Consequences
- Classroom Organization
- Academic Guided Discovery
- Academic Choice
- Outreach to Parents and Guardians
The Morning Meeting which starts the day in every Responsive Classroom school combines aspects of the entire program and begins each day with a pro-social learning experience. The meeting begins with students and teachers sitting in a circle. A specific format is followed which builds on every student’s need to enter the academic day in a particular way by having certain developmental strivings met. It begins with a greeting where each student greets his or her immediate neighbor in a specified way decided upon by the group. This helps every student feel acknowledged and welcomed to the school day. The second component is sharing. Here students are given planned sharing time on a pre-determined schedule to share whatever they would like with the class. Sharing ideas or events are given as much emphasis as sharing things. This component, over time, helps all students feel known and understood as individuals. There is also an emphasis here on public speaking and interaction with your audience as the sharer calls for comment, questions and thoughts. The third component is a group activity which helps the group join together in a fun and cooperative manner and the last component, news and announcements, sets the structure for the academic day.
As the new Director of Admission of Flint Hill School, I must immerse myself in the FHS experience. This is why I find myself seated with the third grade class. A little girl walks in late and the teacher says, “Welcome, here’s a great space for you. We were wondering where you were,” as two boys scoot over to make more room. The first order of business is greeting me and the teacher explains that there would be an addition to the usual messenger job and from now on the messenger would also be the class greeter. She then asks what a greeter might do and, giving a clue, says, “It has to do with a guest!” Hands shoot up and a greeter is defined by the group with great enthusiasm and participation. “How would you like to be greeted as a guest?” the teacher queries and, again, with much interest a young girl says, “I’d like a handshake.” Someone else says, “A Smile!” Ms. LeCesne then adds that she wants to know the person’s name. The teacher congratulates another student for using a complete sentence with what, who, when and where when she describes what she would like as a visitor. This is a topic they are working on in language arts. A hallmark of this program is seeking academic teachable moments within the context of natural social interaction. Many educators believe that using social interactions as teaching moments, helps students to integrate their learning into real life situations heightening their ability to retain information.
The meeting proceeds with sharing which includes descriptions of each shared experience or article with calls for comments, questions and connections to other topics that had been discussed before. The interaction is rich and lively watching these 8 year olds adroitly handle the audience is quite impressive. As students talk, connections to spelling and vocabulary words are pointed out by students and teacher in an ever expanding shared learning experience. The group activity and news and announcements are equally filled with educational moments on all levels.
I leave my visit feeling that the first lesson of the day had accomplished so much. They had learned and integrated information about:
- Sentence structure
- Public speaking
- Welcoming others
- Decision making
- Intellectual connections
It was all done in a way that involved everyone at their own level and with interest and enthusiasm.
Ultimately, character education is important because it gives us, as a society, a common language of social interaction that enables a discourse that solves problems and forms connections in a way that enriches the societal fabric. For students it must also be fun and integrated with other aspects of the educational day to make sense and have meaning. The Responsive Classroom model is one that does this well. Parents should expect schools to pay attention to this important area of education. You and your school can work together to educate and raise academically skilled and socially competent students.