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  • Learner-Centered Classroom

    2010 - 10.24

    Students participating in a spelling lesson in Mrs. Ellenwood’s 3rd Grade class, Fall 2010

    Too often, I think, teachers succumb to the tremendous pressure placed upon them to teach in a manner focused on “covering” required material or preparing students for mandated standardized tests.  When these, albeit important, matters are at the center of teaching, what does that say about the priority given to student learning?  If the prime goal is to meet externally arbitrated objectives, then how can one be sure that her teaching is meeting the needs of her students?  Thus, instead of an attempt to meet these external goals, I believe that it is the interests, knowledge, and skills of the particular students in one’s classroom that MUST be at the center of teaching and learning.  Only in an environment which puts the learners first will students feel supported such that they can learn and grow in a manner fitting their unique and important needs.

    I think that the first step in creating such a learner-centered classroom is to simply remain open to, and observant of, the rhythms and balances of a classroom and the learners within it.  Listening to students sounds like a simple task, but it is one that I think is often overlooked.  If a teacher is to truly understand the thoughts, interests, and needs of learners collectively and individually, she must listen to them.  She must strive to hear her students through their words and actions such that she can respond in a manner reflective of what she hears.  In my own teaching, I make it a priority to listen to my learners, providing opportunities for my students to communicate with me in oral, written, formal, informal, explicit, and implicit ways.

    One example of such an attempt to listen to learners involved the creation of a Child/Youth Study, completed in my first field placement experience.  In the study, I observed one learner in my field placement class, taking note of his actions and behavior and his place within the class as a whole.  Though written at an early point in my teaching career, this product nevertheless demonstrates a commitment to striving to understand my students as a group and as individuals that began at the very start of my teaching and continues now.

    Please click here to view my Child/Youth Study.

    Students taking an active break in Mrs. Ellenwood's 3rd grade class, Fall 2010.

    Of course, creating a learner-centered classroom goes far beyond simply observing students and striving to understand them.  In addition, a teacher must build instruction, and indeed, structure the classroom itself, with these particular understandings in mind.  The physical arrangement of a classroom, the learning and teaching schedule, the patterns for student behavior and management, these are all things which must be created and articulated based on the needs of one’s learners.

    In my Professional Internship, I demonstrated an understanding of, and commitment to, a learner-centered classroom when I conducted an Action Research Project aimed at improving student focus in the classroom.  I observed a growing problem in my classroom with excessive chatter, and worked to decrease this chatter and improve student focus by incorporating movement into our daily afternoon schedule.  I found that my students individually and collectively loved the movement breaks and benefited from them.  Student behavior seemed to be positively impacted overall, and I observed an improvement in the quality of student work as well.

    Please click here to read further about my Action Research and the positive impact it had on student focus in my classroom.

    In my Professional Internship, my mentor teacher and I worked hard to create a classroom that was safe for our learners, striving to structure our classroom based on the behavior and achievement patterns that we saw to be unique and worthy of honoring.  We arranged and rearranged seating frequently throughout the semester, hoping to help individuals and the class as a whole to be as focused and feel as supported as possible.  We established rules and routines aimed to help our particular learners achieve maximum success, while also trying to create an attitude of mutual respect and safety for all of our learners.  Policies and practices were adjusted as needed to accommodate changing needs and our growing understanding of individual personalities, experiences, and knowledge as well as the development of the sort of personality that a classroom possesses all its own.

    Just as classroom design and teaching schedules must be based upon the individual and collective needs of a group of learners, so must instruction.  Good teaching takes the needs of learners into account, valuing students and placing them at the center of planning and implementation.  In my own teaching, I strive to differentiate my instruction such that all students are given the opportunity to learn and grow.  I work to plan and teach lessons and units which do not just address but indeed are created around the needs, skills, and interests of my learners as a group and as individuals.

    The first step in addressing these student abilities is to define them using formal and informal assessments.  My first experience in this area was the completion of an assessment case in the fall of 2009.  In this study, I worked with one Kindergartner, using various literacy learning and teaching tools to evaluate both her understanding of the different levels of language and her overall literacy development.  One task at a time, I grew to understand what she knew about language more and more.  If I had been her teacher, I would have been provided with ample information to guide instruction not only for her, but for the entire class.

    Please click here to read a discussion of this assessment case.  Please note that all names have been changed.

    Sample of student work, Mrs. Ellenwood's third grade class, Fall 2010.

    In my Professional Internship, I demonstrated an ability to create a learner-centered classroom in several facets of my teaching.  In one instance, I found that my learners overall were struggling in the area of reading comprehension. As a whole, they were also struggling to write with clarity and structure.  Considering these wide-spread needs, I began planning a unit (the Chocolate Unit mentioned in the Literacy-Centered Teaching and Learning portion of my teaching philosophy) which would allow students to practice and improve in their reading comprehension and writing skills at the same time.

    As this unit started to take shape, I also worked to meet the equally important needs of individual learners, creating three different reading groups reading three different books.  In the teaching of the unit, each learner had the chance to work in a small group, receiving both collective and individual instruction.  Group work helped students to gain and repair understanding in areas in which their knowledge had previously been lacking, and individual work allowed students to apply that knowledge independently.  I saw progress in nearly all of my students.

    Please click here to read about the connections between my Showcase Unit Plan and my learners and the assessment plan for the unit, also designed with my learners’ needs and abilities in mind.

    The spelling curriculum that I taught during my professional internship was also centered on student needs.  Using the framework of Words Their Way, I began by working with my mentor teacher to evaluate each students’ spelling skills.  Each child took a spelling test at the beginning of the school year, and we used those tests to evaluate each child’s mastery of the spelling patterns needed to spell each word therein (with a tool from Words Their Way).  Once we discovered which patterns each child had already mastered, and which patterns each student was still developing, we placed the children into groups.  Spelling was the first subject I took over in my teaching, and so the final step in this process was to plan and teach spelling lessons which would address the identified needs of each spelling group and the individuals within those groups.

    In these lessons, my learners focused on sorting activities and reading and writing work which required using their spelling words in context.  These lessons were aimed to help the students recognize and understand the spelling and sound patterns in the words of their spelling lists, and to eventually extend those patterns into other words.  Common questions asked were: if I can spell this word, what other words can I spell?  What other words do I know that look and sound like this?  How can I use this word in my own reading and writing?

    In this manner, the spelling lessons that I taught in my professional internship classroom were entirely based in the needs and skills of my learners.  To view sample lesson plans, please click here.

    More recently, I have gained additional experience in assessing student learning and using those assessments in planning and teaching.  As an Overload Aide at Edison Elementary in the Wayne-Westland Community School District, I administered “Developmental Reading Assessments” to my students.  For the lowest-achieving readers in my classroom, these DRAs were used to direct instruction in the “Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention Program.”  I worked with two small groups in the implementation of this program, using the data collected about student reading, and my observations of their work over time, to guide my teaching.  All of the students in my groups improved their reading level over the course of the program.

    I believe that creating a learner-centered classroom is absolutely imperative to effective teaching.  Or course, it is important for students to meet the requirements set forth by schools, districts, and states.  However, the first priority must always be to give the students the support that they require.  If students’ abilities and struggles are identified and addressed in the classroom, then those students will be more confident and able learners, ready to take on all required material, and will feel supported as important participants in their own learning.

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