Park City Day School tries out a new approach
September 22, 2015
Creating a learning environment in which students feel safe and cared for is something that many teachers intuitively do — it’s common sense that children learn best when they are at ease in their surroundings.
But the Park City Day School is taking it a step further this year. The school has adopted what is known as a responsive classroom approach, a method that prioritizes social and emotional learning to ensure students are able to thrive academically.
"We want students who are socially well-adjusted, who are self-aware, socially aware and who can manage themselves," said Tess Miner-Farra, assistant head of school who has helped spearhead the shift. "And all of those tools support academic learning. Studies show that kids learn better when they’re in a setting where they feel engaged, valued, safe and supported."
Miner-Farra said the approach focuses on creating a sense of community within the school and within individual classrooms. One of the most important elements of the responsive classroom approach is the daily morning meeting in each classroom. This allows students to greet one another, share news and prepare for the day.
"It’s that opportunity to make that transition from home in the morning to school," Miner-Farra said. "It’s ‘Now we’re here, in this community.’ It’s a moment to settle in for the day."
Teachers and students working together to establish expectations and goals for each day and the school year is another of the method’s primary tenets.
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"Students and teachers have a conversation together about what they hope for in the coming year, then the expectations are based on that," Miner-Farra said. "It’s like, ‘So, if collectively here’s what we want to have happen this school year, what do we think we need to do to support each other to achieve those goals?’"
Miner-Farra said many Park City Day School teachers were already familiar with the responsive classroom approach. When the staff underwent training earlier this month, it became clear that teachers were actually already utilizing many of the method’s tools in the classroom.
But formalizing the approach schoolwide will make sure the entire staff is on the same page and using the same terminology. That will help provide a sense of stability for students as they move from one grade to the next, Miner-Farra said.
"The same principle is at work here when you institute an approach to teaching writing or math," she said. "There’s continuity from grade level to grade level. The expectations remain similar, if not exact, and of course teachers have different styles, but students will expect the same effort to build a community and the same collaborative spirit."
Megan Ollett, a third-grade teacher at the school, learned about the responsive classroom approach when she was studying education at the University of Colorado and has been utilizing it throughout her 10-year career. She said the school adopting the method will pay off for students.
"I think it’s a really fantastic way to connect kids to their environment at the beginning of the day and to build community and positive relationships with one another, which is essential to learning," she said.
It also makes it easier for teachers to accomplish their goal of creating comfortable, engaged students.
"Doing that is a huge part of my job," Ollett said. "Character development and social and emotional growth that happens every year in different ways is completely essential to learning. So percentage-wise, I think it’s about 90 percent of my job, honestly. Because if they’re not feeling connected to school and to one another, it’s really hard to push them academically."
Most importantly, the approach is a good fit for the Park City Day School because it aligns with what the school is all about, Miner-Farra said.
"We have developed our own school values and have integrated and woven those ideas into the fabric of the school so that we do ask students to engage in thoughtful consideration of what it means to be a good citizen in the school community and how to support each other," she said. "This is just more of that."
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