Creating a positive classroom climate

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By Jim Schwartz

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I wanted to respond to your May 15 article "Acting Out," which details the negative view that the teachers at Oak Park middle schools have of the climate at their schools. 

For the past 16 years, I have been an educator, including a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in Chicago and the suburbs. What I have seen from this experience, from research, and from my experience as a parent of a young child, is that kids want to learn in community with other people. When adults create communities that truly value and listen to kids, ask students to do challenging work, and help kids see how their own identities are connected to that work, then by-and-large, kids will respond in a positive way. 

This is true of kids at any age, from their earliest years through high school and beyond. In fact, students' motivation can change from situation to situation and classroom to classroom. This means the individual teacher is the most important factor in the creation of a classroom climate, in collaboration with their students.

I am not sure whether Oak Park middle school teachers really have as negative a view of the climate in their schools as is presented in this article, since we are only seeing one survey of teachers at one point in time, and really we are only seeing an interpretation of the data. But to the extent that teachers do view the climate negatively, I would challenge them to consider how they can change that climate, classroom by classroom, through their own practices.

Your article also mentions that the vast majority of students who received out-of-school or in-school suspensions at the middle schools are either black or Latinx. And while this is not stated directly, for me the inclusion of this data in this article implies that there is a connection between how the teachers see the culture of the school and the race of the students whose behavior the teachers see as a problem. 

I am not in the schools in Oak Park, so I don't know what teaching practices actually look like, but all too often in our society we do teach in ways that marginalize the experiences and culture of black and Latinx students. When we don't engage our students, they don't feel valued, they don't see how our teaching is connected to their identity, and sometimes they disengage. 

And some of those disengaged students, especially if they have trauma in their background, will then behave in ways that teachers feel are disruptive. Again, for the teachers this comes back to how they create classroom environments that communicate how much we value students, appreciate the brilliance they gain from their cultures, and ask them to connect that brilliance to legitimately challenging work.

That is not an easy thing, and it is not to say that I blame teachers for any of this. There is simply too much blame going around in our educational system these days. It is not about who is to blame. It is about the responsibility that each of us has for serving each student who walks through the doors of every school. 

I appreciate teachers for taking on that challenge, and I'm glad that I continue to tackle that challenge with them in my own work.

Jim Schwartz is a resident of Oak Park.

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 26th, 2019 3:00 PM

The May 15 article you are discussing described how only 15 students at Brooks and only 25 students at Julian were the discipline problems. The stat we should be looking at is that there are about 1000 kids at each school, so 40 kids out of a couple thousand is a tiny two percent of troublemakers. It seems extremely unfair to start labeling the teachers as being racists disciplining this two percent of the overall student population, when there are hundreds of Black and Latin students who apparently never ever have discipline issues in these schools. It sounds like the so called Social Justice Club wants to make the school better for the a handful of bad players, at the expense of all the other kids who are of all races. Focus on the 98 percent of kids trying to learn something, not the two percent making trouble. This is a safety issue.

Ruth Lazarus  

Posted: May 26th, 2019 9:04 AM

Thank you Mr. Schwartz. I have never understood how such a "progressive" community could be so reluctant to embrace progressive and anti-bias curricula. About fifteen years ago I was involved with D97 strategic planning, most of the piece I worked on was never implemented. I don't have kids in the district anymore, but felt so disheartened to see the survey coming out just as the district finally passed an equity policy. And then to see the chorus of folks bemoaning "kids today" and "lax discipline". Teachers understand that behavior always has meaning, don't they? There's so much good anti-bias material out there from Teaching for Change, Teaching Tolerance, etc., what is Oak Park afraid of?

John Duffy  

Posted: May 23rd, 2019 8:02 AM

Thank you Mr. Schwartz for your keen observations and insights into what is present when all of our students, especially our students of color, connect to their schools, classrooms, and teachers and believe that their learning experiences are meaningful. When these conditions are present, students invariably feel their school culture is respectful and inclusive, and act accordingly. I also believe many teachers are succeeding in making these connections for their students. Our challenge is to make such experiences systemic and not isolated experiences. With thoughtful teachers like yourself and with teachers in Oak Park, how might we bring to scale a range of practices generally referred to as culturally responsive teaching and learning. An important way to consider supporting systemic change is to resurrect a community sharing of these practices?"from the perspective of teachers, students and families. In the 1980's, this was done through the Oak Park Exchange Conference which included an education conference within the larger exchange dedicated to sharing best practices of racially diverse communities. OPRFHS, through its racial equity coaching and Collaborative Action for Racial Equity is focused on creating classroom cultures that are culturally responsive in ways that can narrow disparities in achievement and discipline. Throughout the America to Me miniseries we see teachers like Jessica Stovall and others creating with their students culturally responsive classrooms. I believe the mindset and behaviors that can help us realize the cultural features you speak to cannot be left to our schools alone; they require the engagement, understanding and support of our entire community. John Duffy, Chairperson, Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education. john20duffy07@gmail.com

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