Building a responsive school community

Teacher Ellen Berube. Photo by Keri McLeod
Teacher Ellen Berube uses a Message Board in her third grade class last May. Students answered questions the board as they came into the classroom. Photos by Keri McLeod

By Julian Wise - September 14, 2006

If you're a parent of an elementary or junior high student in the Island school system, it's likely that sometime this year you'll hear your child talking about starting the day with a morning meeting, complete with a greeting, themed share, and activity. Perhaps they admitted to a behavioral infraction and were sent to "time out." If they got into a squabble with another student about a stolen pencil or a ripped paper, they may describe the "you broke it, you fix it" rule. All of these concepts are part of the lexicon of The Responsive Classroom, the social curriculum program that is rapidly gaining currency in the Island school system.

At the slightest mention of a new educational program, many parents and teachers roll their eyes. The educational landscape is littered with discarded programs that were initially heralded as miracle cures and later discarded as ineffective canards. Noteworthy examples include the "open classroom" philosophy in the 1960s which strived for openness by doing away with walls between classrooms. The end result was onerous construction costs and the belated realization that in noisy schools, walls matter. Then there was Fuzzy Math, the mid-1990s trend that produced such muddled results that 200 distinguished mathematicians and scientists signed a letter denouncing it. In light of these flash-in-the-pan philosophies, skepticism is warranted.

Ms. Berube's class uses movement and song as part of The Responsive Classroom program. Photo by Keri McLeod
Ms. Berube's class uses movement and song as part of The Responsive Classroom program.

What distinguishes The Responsive Classroom from these other educational fads is its decade-long track record in the Island school system. While fad programs follow a predictable pattern, with an initial burst of enthusiasm followed by a precipitous drop in popularity when the program's flaws become evident, The Responsive Classroom has actually gained popularity the longer it's been in practice. The consensus from parents, teachers, and administrators across the Island is that it's been effective in laying the foundation for a stronger, more coherent school system.

Social skills enhance learning

The Responsive Classroom is the flagship program of the Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC) in Greenfield. It was developed by Chip Wood, an educator with a strong belief in the social components of learning as espoused by progressive thinkers Alfred Adler, Rudolph Dreikurs, and Jane Nelsen. Since 1981 it has been used by thousands of teachers in hundreds of schools nationwide, and its popularity is accelerating.

The primary objective of The Responsive Classroom is to use a series of practices and routines to create a structured and affirmative learning environment. It involves the explicit modeling and teaching of critical social skills such as conflict resolution, appropriate apologies for harmful actions, and creative problem solving to find mutually beneficial solutions to interpersonal difficulties. Traditional concepts of disciplinary punishment are replaced with an emphasis on logical consequences for inappropriate behavior. Students are taught to take personal responsibility for their actions in an emotionally safe setting. Rather than present teachers with a cut-and-dryed manual for how to conduct their classrooms, it provides a framework of research-supported practices that allow for a blend of flexibility and consistency throughout the school. (See sidebar page 21).

The first six weeks of the school year are regarded as a critical time for implementing the social curriculum in the classroom. Students are introduced to the academic and behavioral expectations of the classroom, the physical space and learning materials, problem solving strategies, and other behavioral routines that lay the foundation for a positive classroom environment. Community-building activities do not take the place of academic learning, but instead take place alongside it, creating a connection between learning and social development.

Emily deBettencourt and Yannick Gonsalves. Photo by Keri McLeod
Emily deBettencourt (left) and Yannick Gonsalves exchange a morning greeting.

Positive change in Oak Bluffs

The individual responsible for introducing the Responsive Classroom to Martha's Vineyard is Oak Bluffs School Principal Laury Binney, who introduced the program to the school when he assumed the principal position a decade ago. He first became aware of the program 15 years ago when he was principal of a K-6 school in Western Massachusetts and was vexed by the high number of students making repeat visits to detention.

"It seemed to us at the time that no matter what we did with regard to student behavior, the number of kids in detention was always high," he recalls.

After hearing of Chip Wood's social curriculum work at a nearby school in Greenfield, Mr. Binney invited Mr. Wood to run a series of workshops for his staff. As the staff became invested in the program and began implementing the practices, detentions decreased. When he came to the Oak Bluffs School in 1996 the staff was grappling with difficult student behaviors and was open to Responsive Classroom trainings.

Support for The Responsive Classroom runs across all levels of the Island school system. The VACCP (Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project) and Early Childhood Mental Health Grant have both provided The Responsive Classroom workshops for two consecutive years. Superintendent James Wiess is a strong supporter of the Responsive Classroom who helped implement it in his previous district in New Hampshire. He reports that all elementary schools including the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School use at least some components of The Responsive Classroom.

"I'd like to see it implemented in all of the elementary schools on the Island as a vehicle for consistency and a way of improving the culture and climate of our classrooms," he says. "Its strength, I believe, is the way it empowers teachers and students to build a healthy climate of mutual respect and understanding."

Respect, courtesy, safety

Judith O'Donoghue, a director at The Mental Health Project Grant, says she became aware of the Responsive Classroom program while her children attended the Oak Bluffs School.

"The Oak Bluffs School was transformed from an elementary and middle school into a caring community of learners. Through this social curriculum, the tone was set for learning in a culture of respect, caring, courtesy, safety, and warmth."

The Mental Health Project Grant, a federal grant that comes to the Island's public schools through the Massachusetts Department of Education, focuses on children from birth to eight years. It is overseen by a coordinating team of parents, early childhood educators, guidance counselors, and professionals from other agencies that work with young children. After offering an introductory workshop with NEFC consultant Bonnie Bear-Simahk in February, 2005, Ms. O'Donoghue and her colleagues have offered additional Responsive Classroom workshops titled "Further Dialog," "Knowing the Children We Teach," "Circle Time or Circus Time," and "Building Bridges From School to Community".

While The Responsive Classroom was originally designed for elementary students, Ms. O'Donoghue reports that it's appropriate for early learners as well.

"The guiding principles are easily transferred and adapted to pre-schoolers," she says.

Adopting Responsive Classroom practices requires a philosophical reorientation from administrators, teachers, and parents. Within a school, training in new techniques is essential. As a way to circumvent the expense and logistics of importing trainers from the NEFC on a continual basis, Island schools have sent teachers off Island for trainings, which they can then share with their colleagues. To this end, teachers Maria MacKenty (Edgartown School), Robin Smith (Chilmark School), Mary Boyd (West Tisbury School), Ellen Berube (Oak Bluffs School), and guidance counselor Jean Holenko (Oak Bluffs School) have participated in a series of workshops designed to help guide school-wide practice. These trainings have included three week-long workshops, two years of visits, observations, and coaching sessions by NEFC consulting teachers, week-long internships with Responsive Classroom workshop presenters, and an eight-day presenter's seminar. While the commitment is significant, the participating teachers report high levels of satisfaction with the experience.

High marks from teachers

"I was motivated to become a teacher leader because The Responsive Classroom is not a 'program' but an approach to teaching, learning, and life," says Ms. Holenko of the Oak Bluffs School. "It's all-encompassing in terms of social, emotional, and academic learning. How children interact with and are treated by both teachers and peers is what directly affects their achievement."

She believes that The Responsive Classroom philosophy helps create a warm, supportive climate where social and academic goals go hand in hand.

"Students understand it is their job to help take care of themselves, others, their classroom environment, and their work. We understand each other and have fun together. Academic excellence and accountability are difficult to achieve unless there are intrinsic reasons for achieving these goals."

Mary Boyd learned of the Responsive Classroom approach while working at the Oak Bluffs School.

"I was impressed by the social communities that developed in each classroom and the sense of the school as a larger community as well," she says. "To me, Responsive Classroom is a accumulation of best teaching practices. Because it nurtures each member of the community - students, teachers, and parents - it allows for real and substantial growth and learning."

She cites the program's emphasis on explicitly teaching appropriate social skills and says, "So many of the skills we assume children know are skills they have never been exposed to. The process of modeling and practicing wanted behavior rather than waiting to punish unwanted behavior means that teachers are truly teaching rather than acting as referees."

Robin Smith says her Responsive Classroom training has enhanced the effectiveness of her teaching at the Chilmark School. "The Responsive Classroom philosophy is really not a program you buy and implement," she says. "It is acquiring a new mind set which benefits you as an individual and makes you a better teacher all around, thus providing the students with a richer education. I have grown tremendously as an educator from my Responsive Classroom training. I have seen it make an enormous difference in my own teaching and classroom management. The students I teach are much happier, more independent learners, focused, empathetic, cooperative with each other, and challenge themselves."

Edgartown teacher Maria MacKenty cites the benefits of school-wide consistency when implementing the program. When children encounter the Responsive Classroom structure year after year, they don't need to relearn the behavioral expectations of a new classroom each September. A student accustomed to the Time Out rule for misbehavior (first a warning, then a time-out in the classroom, then a time-out across the hall) in third grade will acclimate easily to the same expectations in fourth grade.

"Having a common language and procedure in reference to community building, discipline, and academics builds a cohesive school climate, where kids feel safe wherever they are in the building," she says.

Praise for new approach

Principal Laury Binney reports that students who encounter The Responsive Classroom in kindergarten accept it as a natural part of their educational experience. "When students enter school in kindergarten using this model and then spend subsequent years matriculating through the school system using it, the model and the principles it espouses are profoundly ingrained in both the behavioral makeup of the child as well as the fabric of the school culture itself," Mr. Binney says.

Roxann Kreite, Executive Director of the NEFC, says that when a community like Martha's Vineyard adopts Responsive Classroom district-wide, it synergizes the program's efficacy. "When a community is united in its goals for its students and its vision for accomplishing those goals, we typically see very effective implementation," she reports. "For example, when district level decisions about policies, structures, and curriculum support the approach, it creates a strong context for individual schools and classrooms. The wider the understanding and ownership of the approach, the better the chances of long-term sustainability."

Perhaps the most critical indicator of the Responsive Classroom's success is parental support. While no program ever achieves 100 percent satisfaction, the consensus among parents is that the Responsive Classroom is serving their children well. Leigh Ann Yuen's three children Annie (grade eight), Emma (grade five) and Jack (grade four) attend the Oak Bluffs School. Ms. Yuen reports that her children have benefited from the warm and nurturing environment the Responsive Classroom helps create. "My children have always felt safe and supported," she says.

Ms. Yuen recalls an incident where her son Jack was intimidated by an older student on the bus and the staff helped resolve the problem satisfactorily.

"The teachers were very responsive in helping us work it out. It was nipped in the bud."

Consistent and open parent-teacher dialog, a key tenet of the Responsive Classroom philosophy, helps students, parents, and teachers resolve problems before they conflagrate.

"Personally, I've felt everyone in the school is very accessible and open to dialog about issues," Ms. Yuen says. "The dialog is always welcome, no matter whether it's the same viewpoint of the teachers and administration."

As The Responsive Classroom gains momentum across the Island, its proponents believe its benefits will only deepen and strengthen over time. "If there's anything about the current state of education that we can hold as a maxim, it's that one cannot operate in a vacuum," Mr. Binney says. "Whether you're a student in a classroom, a teacher in a school, or a school in a district, there's great strength in collective action."

Julian Wise, a teaching assistant at the Oak Bluffs School, is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and performing arts.