Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Your Classroom Reminds Me of Panera" and other educational developments

"I feel like I'm in Panera" said one of my students. I thought about it and I have to agree, to a point. I'd love to offer them delicious hot coco and yummy pastries as they work on their projects, however the school nurse would probably hunt me down faster than a missing lap top cart.

I've been experimenting with music in my classroom lately. As I'm sure you know from my previous posts, students work on independent projects during the week in my class, however they sit in groups while they complete them. Well- some students sit in groups. Some sit in a "cubicle" in the back of my room, some sprawl on the floor, some sit on a rug near my book shelf, some pull up a chair along side another student- in other words they sit where they are most comfortable and where they are working most effectively.

I stumbled on music as an aid to learning by accident a while back. On occasion I listen to music while I work during my prep period, like some students it helps me focus and makes time spent doing tedious or arduous tasks go a little faster. One particular day I forgot to turn the radio off, students entered the classroom and started working. The particular class that I had at that point tends to be on the "louder" side (note I did not say noisier side because they're conversations are useful and valuable, they just have difficulty regulating volume at times). However students were "in the zone" that day, they were having quiet chats with their group mates, moving about, but were really focusing in a way I had never seen before. It wasn't until about half way through that I realized the radio was on.

I decided to further experiment with this. I've realized early on I had to choose music that was soft, soothing, and had no lyrics to distract them. I tried classical music originally but noticed that the students had an immediate aversion to it (eww Classical music). Being the mind opener that I am, I told my students to give it a shot, however Classical seemed to have too much variance, getting really loud at times that forced me to rush to the speakers and turn it down and then at other times getting very quiet to the point that it was ineffective and we had that "awkward silence" that is so dreaded in middle school. I've toyed around with several other styles and artists and have finally settled on the Vince Guaraldi station on Pandora.

For those of you that don't know Vince Guaraldi is the musical genius behind Charlie Brown, think of all those great songs in the films and how calming they are- his station on Pandora is filled with similar artists. Its Jazz, but soft Jazz, soothing and calming. The first day I tried the station the students didn't even notice, they sat down started working and I noticed that they were very focused, they were still collaborating and talking but their volume was lower as I made the music very soft.

I'm not sure if its the music or the evolution of the year in general but I've noticed students moving in and out of groups to work now. What do I mean by this? Well, I love collaboration and encourage it, but I think sometimes students felt like they had to talk or get involved in conversations when they really needed to think something out for themselves before joining in with peers. Perhaps its the absence of "awkward silence" but I've noticed several students grab materials and get lost in their own thoughts exploring them. Later they may join in with a group of students or may get up, ask some classmates some questions and return to their work, but I love that I can see them really working on their own terms.

My students that choose to work in groups are also more focused, the music seems to have a calming nature on everyone- including me. As I circulate the room I can't help but feel cheery and peaceful, its as if we all take a breath when class starts, relax and simply start learning. It almost takes me back to days at the library in college just before finals. It was quiet but social, people stopping by your table, some people were in groups studying some were solo, but the learning was palpable, it was an energy of education.

Perhaps someday I'll get permission from the nurse to have a "hot chocolate" day, perhaps someday I'll invest in some comfy reading chairs for students, but for now hearing a student tell me that my classroom reminds him of Panera, for all its humor, is actually a pretty positive statement, after all, people get a ton of work done there...don't they?

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