Room for Reflection: Learning Environments

“Accomplished English language arts teachers carefully and intentionally design and manage all aspects of the learning environment, from the physical space and the physical resources within it, to the movement of people and objects, the personal relationships within the environment, and the emotional climate created by the interaction of all these elements.”  National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, ELA-AYA

I am not going to lie. Seeing the ubiquitous social media posts of teachers’ Pinterest-ready, HGTV-inspired uber-classrooms this August, I felt a mild wave of panic. I had moved classrooms, after inheriting materials from over a half-dozen teachers over the past three years, and having collected what my Mexican-American students and I lovingly refer to as my cochinero at several points around my room. I think cochinero literally means pig-sty?

Anyway, my room was still stacked with boxes I needed to sort through, even after hours and hours of moving, sorting and discarding, and with lots of help from several people. I requested extra storage for our program’s book sets in an office, and, heart-wrenchingly, actually tossed five boxes of torn 1980’s chapter books and science encyclopedias. While I thought they were kind of cool from a retro-kitsch perspective, they were not what my English Learners would pull off the shelves, what with the freckled red-head fourth-graders on the cover or faded black-and-white photos of distant volcanoes and tightly-packed text. Most of them would never have sold at a thrift-shop. They needed to go. I hope someone claimed them from the hallway. But I digress.  Suffice it to say that as I saw Facebook swell with photos of enviable classrooms, I felt, to be honest, envious.

I am actually pretty excited about this school year. Our junior high school is implementing a team-based bell-less schedule for students and a host of social-emotional education programs and practices. We have managed to incorporate the required language acquisition courses for our English Learners, and I am learning tons of strategies for building community and supporting students.  In the face of these new and exciting challenges, why was I dismayed about my room of all things? Many of the experienced teachers involved with the changes were in the same boat as I was because people were busy for weeks in meetings and trainings making this transition, and almost everyone moved rooms.

I posted a photo of my disassembled room in a Facebook group where teachers were asked to post their room transformations, and of course my teacher friends chimed in to encourage me, commiserate, and let me know everything would be okay. However, seeing all the photos posted of beautiful rooms continued to bother me. I knew I shouldn’t compare, but damn social media, on some level it is really difficult not to.

Then I thought, everything about good teaching is in the National Board standards. Maybe if I went and read the standards, I would feel better!  And, bam, the first paragraph of Standard III: Learning Environment (presented at the beginning of this article) put me back into mild panic mode.  I am supposed to be carefully designing and managing all aspects of the learning environment, including the emotional impact it may have, and how it lends itself to personal relationships. All of those maddeningly beautiful rooms– I have to admit if I was in 7th grade and walked into a room like that, it would make me feel that the teacher had passion, and had lovingly prepared for me. I would feel special.

But then I continued to read the standard. I found language about relationships with students, mutual respect, safety, and even the variety of groupings an accomplished teacher uses. All of these are part of the learning environment.

I found language regarding purposeful use of space, and even language acknowledging that the virtual environments we create online must be carefully designed. The standards ask us to address student access to digital environments, and also to engage students with the broader community.

The standard honors the importance of classroom routines, concern for others and the design of discussions. In fact, according to the standard, an accomplished teacher, while commanding respect,  should “respond comfortably to good-natured irreverence aimed in their direction.” This is one of my favorites. The standard asks us to teach students to accept feedback that challenges their work or ideas. It even mentions the importance of creating a support network with colleagues.

By the time I finished reviewing the standard for the learning environment, I felt a bit better. Nowhere did the highest standards in the land say my posters had to be laminated, or even new. Nobody said I needed different art on the wall than last year. Nowhere could I find where the standard mandated alternative seating. Whew! I did not have to hot-glue felt to jute twine and hand-paint the names of all of my students.  

I could breathe a sigh of relief… or at least get to work with what I have. But then I re-read that first sentence again. It did help me reflect on the purpose of a great learning environment: To help students learn and grow. Carefully designing and managing all aspects of the learning environment is still a daunting task, and one with great payoff for our students.  The standards, though, helped me broaden my scope and feel that I was not hopelessly behind on everything just because my room was not finished.

I am curious to know how others are dealing with classroom preparation and learning environments in an age of Pinterest, low budgets and digital platforms. What are your thoughts?



Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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