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A new way of learning

Burnside Elementary School fourth-graders Faron Heschke (left) and Mia Beck raise their hands during a morning meeting Wednesday Nov. 14, 2012, in Stephanie Ryan's classroom in Red Wing, Minn. -- Photo by Sarah Gorvin

RED WING, Minn. -- Students in Stephanie Ryan's fourth-grade classroom sat in a circle in the middle of the room Wednesday morning. Students took turns facing the student next to them, looking them in the eye and extending their hand.

"Good morning, Mr. Heschke," student Mia Beck said.

Fellow student Faron Heschke returned the greeting. "Good morning, Ms. Beck."

While Wednesday's greeting may have been more formal than others, a variation of the morning greeting happens every day in just about every classroom at Burnside and Sunnyside elementary schools.

"The point is that every kid is recognized," Burnside Principal Sheila Beckner said. "It's our way that we acknowledge them."

But it's not as simple as that. The morning greeting is only a small part of the elementary schools' Responsive Classroom method, which is designed to improve the ways teachers interact with kids and the way the kids interact with each other, Beckner said.

The goal is to help create a culture where students care about each other, their school and their learning.

Burnside Elementary began using Responsive Classroom techniques four years ago and fully implemented the method three years ago. This is the first year Sunnyside has been using Responsive Classroom.

"This is about changing the whole climate so that kids are emotionally stronger and they're academically more successful because of that," Beckner said.

That initial greeting is worked into what is called the morning meeting, which also includes an activity to get kids moving around and interacting with each other, a share time to allow students to tell stories and react to other kids' and a written morning message from the teacher explaining what will happen that day.

"The morning meeting is a place where you're trying to build community," Sunnyside first-grade teacher Amy Pearson said. "Part of the premise of Responsive Classroom, besides teaching academics, is to address the child socially and culturally."

"It's just to kind of get them ready for the day," Sunnyside kindergarten teacher Erin McDonnell said.

On Wednesday, Ryan's classroom played "A Cold Wind Blows," a game that helps show students how similar they are to each other. Ryan then allowed the students to share what they will do to behave well during an all-school assembly later that afternoon.

Sharing time "lets the children have the opportunity to speak, ask questions and show how they care and relate to other kids," Pearson said.

Pearson, who has taught in Red Wing for about 28 years, said that she has always had a "share time" in her classes. But allowing the other children to react to what is being said is new to her, she said, and allows the children to interact with each other more.

"It teaches those social skills," McDonnell added.

'Calm and smooth' classroom

Responsive Classroom goes way beyond the morning meetings. It's also changing the ways teachers and school staff speak with the students. Teachers no longer tell students not to do things.

Instead, they'll ask a student if that's the proper way to do something. Instead of a generic "Good job," teachers will say something like "I noticed you used a lot of good action verbs," McDonnell said.

Going along with that, Beckner said, is modeling, which is where teachers specifically show students how to do something the correct way; everything from sharpening a pencil to walking down the hallway is modeled.

This allows the students to see what's happening and observe for themselves how they should act.

"Instead of us saying, 'Here is what you do,' we say 'What did you notice?'" Beckner said.

By teaching the students how to do even the smallest or seemingly simplest things, Ryan said, students always understand what's expected of them.

"We approach all those routines so that the learning environment is so calm and smooth," Beckner said.

Students are also being shown and encouraged to recognize their own emotions, Ryan said. If a student is feeling overwhelmed or upset, they are allowed to remove themselves from the situation -- without having to ask for teacher permission -- and sit in a designated "chill chair."

Because the chair is still in the classroom and pointed at the teacher, Ryan said, "it doesn't disrupt any teaching. It allows them to get under control without affecting the rest of their day."

Similar techniques are in place throughout both schools.

Now that Responsive Classroom techniques have been in place for about two months at Sunnyside, Pearson said she is already noticing subtle changes in the students.

"They notice things," she said, meaning her students are now more aware of when a fellow child is hurting or needs help and are eager to lend a hand.

It's a statement Ryan agreed with.

"They say 'excuse me.' Not in a way that it's expected of them," Ryan said, but in a way that they want to be saying it and showing that they care about their classmates.

"We're a community," Ryan said. "It does create a much calmer day."