Creating Classrooms
Elizabeth Roach

I love classrooms. I have always loved classrooms. In fact, I can vividly remember all of my classrooms from nursery school through graduate school where I learned as a student as well as all of my classrooms in Founders Hall and Amos Hall where I’ve taught for the last 38 years. I remember where I sat (in pre-kindergarten, each child had her/his own wooden circle to sit on—mine was yellow) and what was on the walls (I couldn’t wait to learn how to write the loopy cursive letters displayed above the chalkboard in third grade), and how I felt in each of these rooms (my senior English seminar in college—Literary Criticism or Lit Crit if you were an “insider,” an English major—was the only class that met in the tower room, so entering that room immediately made me feel special, accomplished, intimidated, and smart all at once). I’ve always felt a reverence for classrooms, but recently I’ve been thinking more about why these spaces are sacred, why these spaces represent and embody everything we are striving for at St. Andrew’s, and why we are so intentional and thoughtful about what happens within these spaces.

As I move from classroom to classroom observing teaching and learning in action, I see that even though each class has a distinctive culture, all classes are actually sub-groups, or microcosms, of the schoolwide culture at St. Andrew’s. Teachers are teaching skills and habits that translate directly to how students live and work outside the classroom. And teachers and students are practicing and developing the same interpersonal skills within the walls of the classroom as they are enacting on the athletic fields, in the dorms, in the Dining Hall, and in the arts program. The classroom, therefore, is the foundational space for our students to learn skills and develop tools that radiate to all other aspects of school life. In short, classroom teaching informs school culture which then, in turn, deepens the learning experience—both within and outside classrooms—since our expectations (which are high) are perfectly consistent in every area of school life. Academic excellence is human excellence. Human excellence is academic excellence.

So, what are we emphasizing in our classrooms? What exactly are these skills and habits that translate so seamlessly and that animate our classroom spaces? We move our students away from memorization, rote learning, and prescribed methods and approaches to learning and assessment. We ask them to do the authentic work of scholars in all disciplines, reading and analyzing primary sources, for example, in history, working collaboratively in math and science solving problems, modeling, and conducting experiments, discussing literature and ethical dilemmas around a table, acquiring language through stories and storytelling, and engaging in exhibitions of learning in all disciplines.

From this authentic scholarly approach to learning, students learn how to listen and engage in conversations with people who have diverse backgrounds and different perspectives. They learn how to be generous in tone and spirit, intellectually rigorous and open and flexible in their thinking, and collaborative rather than competitive with their peers. They learn how to trust their teachers and classmates so that they can take risks, how to be critical thinkers and analytical problem solvers, and how to wrestle with ambiguity and complexity. Classrooms, therefore, are spaces that are respectful and inclusive, as well as intellectually vibrant and joyful; they are where teachers ignite passion, curiosity, and creativity, and where students take ownership over their own learning, take care of each other, and where we—collectively—make each other better scholars and sharper, more responsible thinkers. 

Classrooms are where we all fall in love with learning. Once we do that, we can create classrooms anywhere, with anyone, over and over again, for the rest of our lives.

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