The classroom at the end of the corridor rings with happy chatter. But the voices belong to teachers, not children. School has ended for the day as the teachers circle up for another weekly session of our book study group. After a few minutes, they get their books out and grow quiet, waiting for the greeting that will begin our time together.
When I offered to lead book study groups for my district, I had several goals in mind. First, I wanted to support individual professional growth by offering a convenient, fun way to learn new content. Second, I wanted to help build a greater sense of community by connecting teachers from different grade levels and buildings. And third, I wanted my colleagues to experience as learners some of the Responsive Classroom practices they were using (or planning to try) with their students.
As a certified Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, I have led many workshops on using Responsive Classroom practices for teachers. That work has shown me that experiencing Responsive Classroom practices firsthand can be an effective way for teachers to deepen their understanding of them, in part because it helps them appreciate what they feel like to students.
Starting with an “Afternoon Meeting”
One practice I’ve used successfully with book study groups is a modified Morning Meeting. Many teachers in my district use the Responsive Classroom approach and start each school day with a Morning Meeting, a half-hour gathering where teacher and students have fun together and warm up for the day ahead, all while practicing academic and social skills. I’ve found that if the components and pacing are modified to fit the needs of adult learners at the end of a work day, such a gathering can also be a powerful way to launch a productive afternoon of learning among colleagues.
In adult book study groups I use fifteen minutes—a small part of each ninety-minute session—for what I call “Afternoon Meeting.” At our first session, I explain that Afternoon Meeting is modeled on Morning Meeting and that, like Morning Meeting in the classroom, it will help us set a positive tone for our time together that day and help our group become a caring community. We do the four meeting components—Greeting, Sharing, Group Activity, and Message—in the order they are done in the classroom.
In our first couple of meetings, we do a low-risk greeting, which might consist of simply making eye contact, smiling, and saying “Hello” to the next person in the meeting circle. Later, when group members have grown more comfortable with each other, we might do a more lively “mingle-and-meet greeting” in which everyone greets and shakes hands with as many colleagues as possible in one minute.
For our first sharing, I ask participants to partner-share about why they joined the book study group. At later meetings, a few volunteers at each session share an “Aha!” passage from their reading. For our final meeting, volunteers tell which learning they’re most excited to bring back to their colleagues.
After Sharing, we go into a lively group activity that energizes everyone and gives us a further opportunity to interact and get to know each other. For the first few meetings, I choose a low-risk activity such as “Just Like Me.” I call out a personal trait or a favorite teaching technique—I might say, for example, “I’m a knitter,” or “I use magnets for our class Word Wall”—and everyone to whom the statement applies stands up and calls out “Just like me!” Later, I ask participants to lead this part by sharing group activities that are favorites of theirs.
We wrap up by working with the afternoon message, a short, welcoming letter I’d written on chart paper and placed by the door for participants to read silently as they arrived. The message generates excitement about what we’ll be discussing. My messages often include an interactive element. Here’s a sample:
Dear Empowering Educators,
We’re in for some juicy conversation! Today’s discussion will focus on what we read about the power of “teacher language”—how our words and tone affect children’s ability to learn. Each time I reflect on how I use language in my classroom, I feel eager to stretch myself a bit more.
Your book buddy,
Answer on a sticky note:
What words would you like to use more (or less) frequently with your students?
Just as in a classroom, the group looks together at the responses to the question and notes patterns. Because the message and question relate to our reading, this final part of our Afternoon Meeting eases us seamlessly into the rest of the session.
Off to a Good Start
The time the study groups spend on Afternoon Meeting is well-spent. Those fifteen minutes of greeting each other, sharing, playing, and reflecting together help us shake off the residue of a long school day and come together as a group. By making connections to the assigned reading and the day’s discussion topics during the welcoming, familiar routine of an Afternoon Meeting, I help my colleagues warm up for the next seventy-five minutes, when we’ll be focusing more intensively on the book.
Participants have often commented on the value of Afternoon Meeting in the reflections they write at the conclusion of a book study group. This comment from a colleague puts it especially well:
“Being in Afternoon Meeting during our book group made me realize what a vital part of the day Morning Meeting is for my students. Each time the book group met, I looked forward to hearing from everyone and sharing with them. It was a comfortable way to get reconnected with people. I see how the predictable routine helps students feel safe and how it sets a positive tone for the day.”
Good Teaching and Good Learning
To learn at our best, we all need to feel cared for as valued members of a community—and we need to have fun, too! Through my book study groups, I’ve seen how well Morning Meeting adapts to meet those needs for adult learners. Just as importantly, leading book study groups in this way has helped my colleagues experience how Morning Meeting might feel to children. This first-hand experience can lead them to a deeper understanding and more sensitive implementation of the practice with students.
Julia Luteran teaches first graders at Broad Street Elementary School in Nashua, New Hampshire. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.
More ways to create a positive learning environment for adults
Take care of physical needs—provide or have participants take turns bringing simple snacks; take quick stretch breaks as needed; set a session length that allows for meaningful discussion but avoids exhaustion.
Take care of emotional needs—encourage everyone to share their insights and experiences; use name tags; create small working groups to ease “speaking out” anxiety for shyer participants; use humor to ease around tiredness or bumpy interactions.
Give participants choices about how to share their thoughts about the reading. For instance, they could write about it or talk about it with a partner.
Treasure and make time for spontaneous interactions; they can be a group’s most powerful moments.
Invite participants to provide written feedback evaluating their study group experience.
To learn more about the practices and ideas mentioned in this article, see the following NEFC books: