Post Road Embraces "The Responsive Classroom"
(as printed in December 2011 Inside Our Schools, A Publication of the White Plains City School District)
When Lisa DiRenzo's kindergarteners arrive in her classroom each morning, something close to miraculous takes place. With very little fanfare, difficulty or distraction, each child puts away his coat and lunch, and then gets right down to work. First on a recent day's agenda an assignment on an easel at the front of the room.
"How many letters are in this sentence?" That's written on the easel, along with the sentence: "I can jump." Sure enough, in no time, 19 students have written the numeral "8" below the sentence.
Next, they tackle a brief writing assignment at their desks, where they find a small booklet waiting for them. In it, they're asked to copy some simple vocabulary words with the short "a" in them. And if there's time, they can color the related drawings in the booklet.
These quick assignments allow Ms. DiRenzo to answer individual questions, hear about what the tooth fairy brought one child the night before, and hand over much-needed Kleenex to a couple of other sniffling students.
The morning routine is nearly identicial in all the classrooms at the Post Road Elementary School where teachers, administrators and Principal Teresa Niss have implemented The Responsive Classroom, a program that focuses on improving both academics and the social-emotional skills of students.
One of the hallmarks of the program is repeated modeling, where teachers demonstrate proper behavior for students. In addition to the quick morning assignments, teachers throughout the school hold meetings with their students. Sitting in a circle, they greet each other by name, talk about a specific topic, and share news. The concept is designed to increase class cohesion, prepare everyone for the day ahead, and develop students' social skills.
The circle exercise also "gives every students a voice," said Mrs Niss.
The ideas seem simple, but in fact, are serious. When teachers are distracted by behavioral problems, their valuable time is spent putting out those fires instead of teaching.
Responsive Classroom "is a classroom management tool," said Mrs. Niss, "but the payoff is improved student achievement."
Trainers from the Massachusetts-based Responsive Classroom worked for one week with 30 Post Road teachers last summer to implement the program. And since it started in September, the program has proven so successful that teachers will participate in a retraining session in January, and this time, teaching assistants will be included.
"We're finding that it really works," said Mrs. Niss. "The teachers are so excited about the progress they're seeing in the classrooms."
Responsive Classroom also focuses on the culture of the classroom, with the goal of developing less of a hierarchy and more of a community. Teachers are encouraged to create rules for classroom behavior, but do so by "modeling" that behavior themselves and by demonstrating "what good behavior looks like."
"We don't just tell them what to do," said Mrs. Niss, "We show them the right way to do things."
In a three-year study of the Responsive Classroom program conducted by the University of Virginia, students' math and reading scores improved, teachers said they felt more positive about their teaching, the social skills of students had dramatically improved,and the teachers more frequently collaborated with one another.
At Post Road, when the school's younger students gather in the auditorium for the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. Niss strikes a small handheld chime to get their attention. The gentle chime is just one tool provided by the Responsive Classroom program and it works.
In fact, when Mrs. Niss has explained the new program to parents - at Open House, PTA meetings, and in the Post Road newsletter - she often gets the same response.
"They want to know where they can get their own chime," she said.