Using the Responsive Classroom Approach in Special Area Classrooms

Music teachers, art teachers, physical education teachers, librarians, and other specialists are an integral part of school and play a role, as all staff members do, in teaching children to be responsible, caring learners. But unlike self-contained classroom teachers, specialists see hundreds of students a week, often travel to more than one school, and typically have barely an hour a week to teach each group of children.

Given these constraints, many specialists wonder how they can make time to bring social skills into the curriculum, nurture a sense of classroom community, or build meaningful relationships with and among students—all critical elements in helping children succeed academically and socially.

At Penn Valley Elementary School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the specialists have found a way. The school has just completed its fifth year of school-wide implementation of the Responsive Classroom approach to creating safe, challenging, and joyful classrooms that integrate the teaching of social and academic skills. With creativity, help from each other, and support from the school administration, the specialists have brought elements of the Responsive Classroom strategies into their daily teaching, with positive results for the children and themselves.

“Specialists are a part of our school,” says Penn Valley principal Karen Casto. “Having them use the Responsive Classroom practices and making sure everyone on staff is using the practices the same way gives a consistent message to children. It’s good teaching practice.”

The strategies in action

One big thing that got the specialists interested in using the Responsive Classroom strategies was seeing an overall improvement in student behavior since Penn Valley began the school-wide implementation. “I’ve seen a positive change,” says PE teacher Rich Hamilton, who joined the staff at Penn Valley years before it began using the approach. Children will always have their differences, he says, but now they’re more willing to work through them. “I think it’s a better social climate for the kids.”

Today, one can see signs of the Responsive Classroom approach at work throughout the school.

Elements of Morning Meeting—a half-hour whole-class gathering that begins the school day—are common. For example, Art teacher Trisha Roach relies heavily on circle seating, a standard format for Morning Meeting. Children sit in a circle for sharing—about their favorite color, what they like to draw, or a work in progress—or for introductions to new art materials or new art concepts. Librarian Carolyn Wert uses circle seating to have children share about their favorite books or authors. And in Nancy Adamczyk’s music class, students regularly do Morning Meeting-style greetings and activities involving rhythmic chants or songs.

In addition, the specialists attend Morning Meetings in different self-contained classrooms throughout the year as their schedules allow. This gives them a chance to get to know children better. “I don’t have as much conversation time with students as other teachers because I have 500 students,” says Adamczyk. “Going to Morning Meetings lets me see kids, and lets them see me, on a different level than in music class. My being there shows my interest in what they’re learning outside of music.”

Other components of the Responsive Classroom approach have made their way into the special areas as well. Children entering library class are greeted by a written message from the librarian in the style of a Morning message chart. “Greetings, Library Pals! Today is Thursday, . . .” the chart sings out on one typical day. The children sit down in front of the chart to read the message. It gives the date, mentions a few authors who were born on this day in history, offers one or two other historical tidbits, then notes the day’s lesson before ending with a brain teaser just for fun.

In another part of the building, music teacher Adamczyk has built Academic Choice into a class period for fifth graders. Academic Choice is a structured way to give children choices, within boundaries set by the teacher, about what and how they’ll learn. The children are deciding whether they’ll use the period to explore rhythms or experiment with melodies. They’re also planning how they’ll accomplish their chosen area of learning.

Meanwhile, in the art classroom, children are busy working near a display of their hopes and dreams for the year in art. Roach helped the students create the display during the first week of school. Later in the year, she’ll take some time to reflect with students on how far they’ve come in meeting their goals.

And in PE class, teacher Rich Hamilton is doing a Guided Discovery of a jump rope with a class of kindergartners and first graders. Guided Discovery is a Responsive Classroom strategy for introducing materials to students in a way that encourages creative and respectful use of the materials and teaches care of the materials.

Adamczyk thinks that all these strategies have boosted children’s ability to handle challenging work. “I’m able to accomplish a lot more with my classes. The kinds of activities I do with them now are not activities I could’ve done my first year, and I really think it’s because of using the Responsive Classroom techniques,” she says. “I’m covering more advanced musical concepts, having students create their own compositions, choosing instruments, doing performances.”

Consistency in classroom management

One particularly important change that specialists have made is their use of discipline strategies that are consistent with those used in self-contained classrooms. As Adamczyk puts it, “If there’s a kind of language or certain rules that teachers are using, and I carry them over into my area, it’s just going to make my classroom run more smoothly.”

Accordingly, she and other specialists have adjusted their language with children. Among other things, they say “I notice that you . . .” or “Show me how you . . .” rather than “I like how you . . .” or “I want you to . . .” to reinforce the idea that children should act for their own and the group’s good, rather than to please the teacher. Whenever possible, the specialist teachers are also using the same signals that other teachers are using for telling children to stop what they’re doing and give the teacher their attention, signals such as the raised hand or a soft chime.

The specialists also teach children that rules for behavior in their regular classroom carry over to the special areas. Early in the year, students bring a copy of their classroom rules to their special classrooms. The specialists discuss with children what it would look like to follow these rules in the special area, and some specialists post the rules in their classrooms. The message to children is clear: The same high expectations are in place in specials as anywhere else in the school.

Often, the specialists’ adoption of classroom management techniques comes out of the need to address a specific, pressing problem. Late last year, for example, a group of fifth graders were having an especially bad case of the late spring jitters, and behavior problems were showing up in the special areas.

After some brainstorming with Lynn Majewski, Penn Valley’s instructional support BRIDGE teacher, the four specialists realized that part of the solution was to be consistent—among themselves and with the self-contained classroom teachers—in their use of logical consequences for rule-breaking. All four agreed to use the same progression of consequences, and the number of behavior problems soon dropped. “It helped that we were all on the same page,” says Wert.

More shared responsibility

Along with more consistency, Penn Valley has seen more shared responsibility among the specialists and the self-contained classroom teachers in recent years. For example, last year Roach noticed an unusual amount of name calling and similar hurtful behavior in one of her classes. She and the self-contained classroom teacher decided that it was time for a whole-class problem-solving meeting. Realizing that this was a joint problem that required a joint solution, the two teachers decided that they would both be present for the meeting and would co-lead it.

On the chosen day for the meeting, the classroom teacher brought the class to the art room at the usual time, and stayed. The two teachers then used the next twenty minutes to talk with the class, identifying the recent problem behaviors and helping students to come up with ideas for addressing it. The ideas ranged from new seating arrangements, to ways of responding if someone calls you a name, to what bystanders can do if they witness name calling. Roach says there was a marked difference in the children’s behavior after the meeting.

Looking back at the last few years, Majewski sums up the change that’s taken place at Penn Valley. The special classes are now regarded more as part of the school, she says. Instead of the “You’re not my teacher” mentality that many students have toward specialist teachers, children at Penn Valley view their specialists as equal members of the community of teachers, according to Majewski. Roach agrees. “Specials are seen as part of the school day,” she says, “not just a time to go and play, but a time to learn.”

Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE, and Other Special Areas


by Rachel Atzert

Tags: Special Areas

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