Lately, I have been thinking about dandelions. The relatively ubiquitous plant despised by lawn enthusiasts and beloved by children (in reality and in spirit). Who among us hasn’t pick up a dandelion pod and given it a good puff, launching a burst of parachute-like seeds into the atmosphere to be carried off by the prevailing winds. Some of the seeds will land on inhospitable territory: rock, gravel, asphalt or dry soil. The odds of these seeds maturing to become a healthy plant are relatively slim. By chance, some of the dandelion seeds will settle on nutrient rich soil–receiving ample amounts of water and sunlight. These seeds will thrive, producing more healthy plants, to the chagrin of the weed conscious and delight of the kids among us. Success based upon overcoming the odds and sheer luck.
In education, we spend a lot of time preparing for instruction. We carefully consider curriculum, plan lessons and activities and devise methods of assessing student understanding. All important roles of an educator. But do we spend a sufficient amount of time, preparing the school environment in a manner that encourages students to take root and demonstrate educational growth? A recent session of #edchat focused on the physical structure of our schools (see the archive here). This discussion got me thinking about how important our school environment is to student performance, and how dismissive we can be of its relevance. So, how do we prep our school environments to ensure that our students “land” in territory that allows them to thrive?
1. It Starts at the Gate
When students walk onto your campus, what do they see? Dilapidated structures, littered school grounds and weed infested lawns, or well maintained buildings and a clean campus. Physical structures and aesthetics send a message to students about the value we place on their education, and to some extent, their future.
Adults should demonstrate pride in the physical appearance of their campus and both staff and students should have an active role in maintaining a clean campus. Students who have pride in their school are more likely to be connected and engaged. It’s not all about appearance, but it makes a difference.
Are we seen? Before school. Between classes. After school. An adult presence on campus has a calming effect on both parents and students. Visibility is a tried and true method of combating bullying and diminishing negative interactions among students. In order for kids to enjoy school and focus on academics, they have to feel safe. Staff and administration visibility can have a dramatic impact on the overall climate of a school campus.
Perhaps more importantly, increased visibility means more interaction between students and adults, the development of relationships, and a more personalized school experience. A commitment to being visible is not always easy, but it can be the difference between an unsafe, impersonal environment and one that encourages respect and connectivity.
3. Classroom Design
Would you want to spend time learning in your classroom? Is the room warm, inviting and stimulating, or are the desks in straight rows, walls bare and the room sterile? Does your classroom inspire learning or lead to boredom.
I have previously mentioned that I think elementary schools get this aspect of developing school environment correct. They regularly post student work, they create spaces for small group or individual learning and they utilize brightly colored, stimulating classroom displays. Why does this stop when kids arrive in middle or high school? Has there been a study that concluded that older students learn better in classrooms with desks in rows and ecru walls? Our classrooms should be places where students want to spend time, where the senses are stimulated and where kids have ample access to tools and resources. In addition, students must feel ownership in their classroom. It should be seen as their space.
Planning and preparation obviously must take into consideration specific academic strategies and pedagogy. There is curriculum to cover and objectives to be met, but as educators, we would also be wise to consider the physical environment we are creating for our students. Effective preparation will ensure that our student’s opportunities at success are not left to blind luck, or worse yet, blowing in the wind.