About Lee-Ann Meredith

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu Lee-Ann Meredith is a second grade teacher, author, Department Chairperson and education advocate who has spent the duration of her time in public education at John B. Murphy Elementary School in inner city Chicago. Often characterized as funny, dynamic, and an independent innovator, Lee-Ann cites her idol as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Fluent in a wide range in instructional strategies for the elementary level, Lee-Ann is dedicated to being an advocate for children everywhere by implementing 'cutting edge' strategies to increase student achievement. Some of the issues that she spearhead included: promoting literacy throughout the building, leading community meetings to advocate for full day kindergarten for all students and helping implement the Responsive Classroom strategies throughout the school. In addition to working closely with the curriculum, she also had the honor to supervise (and mentor into teaching positions) numerous student teachers and practicum students from various post-secondary institutions around the Chicago area such as: Erikson Institute, National Louis, DePaul. Northeaster Illinois, Roosevelt, and North Park Universities.

rockpaperscissors“When it is time to walk the dog, my kids do rock-paper-scissors.” This was a Facebook message posted by the mom of three of my former students. Several of her friends commented on how nice it was that they knew how to negotiate and not fight. I just laughed. It is a treat to see that the classroom culture I had worked so hard to build each year was reaching the larger world.

The summer is a perfect time to think about the culture of your classroom. It is a chance to think about what your ideal community of learners looks like. What is it that you want your children to be able to do? Personally, I wanted my students to be independent workers and problem solvers. That allows the teacher, me, to work with small groups or focus on teaching not spending my time dealing with petty disputes or getting out supplies.

These are the things I tried to create in my classroom culture.

1. A sense of ownership. I have always wanted my students to feel as if the room belonged to all of us. I’ve been guilty of saying, “My classroom.” Each time I regret it. It should have been “Our classroom.” The classroom was only mine in the sense that I was who held the responsibility to those above me. In fact, the responsibility belonged to all of us. We cleaned up the messes. (The kids were always better at this than I was.) We built time in transitions to allow time to put things away so “our” classroom was someplace to cherish.

2. A sense of community. Everyone needs to feel they are accepted for who they are to be willing to take risks in trying and tackling new skills. This is one of my core beliefs as a teacher. Is this easy to do? No. It takes work. It means we get to know each other. It means I almost never allow kids to pick partners. I either do it randomly or within ability groupings. I mix it up. Complaining in not allowed and on my group or partner rubrics is always a few points for working together. We take time to share about our lives. Yes, we have personality conflicts and yes, there are difficult kids. What community doesn’t have a few outliers? I work with those children to help them get along more easily. When someone does complain they had better do it to me in private. I cannot ask everyone to like each other but I do require respect towards all.

By the middle of the year, everyone knows their classmates’ strengths. It is amazing to watch the shy student teaching classmates to draw a whale or quirky almost non-verbal kid help someone edit a story.

3. Excitement Teachers know our kids’ lives have never been more filled with technology and instant gratification. To keeps our students engage we need to be not only teachers but entertainers. It is also insanely impossible to try to make every lesson compete with Minecraft. Some non-educators think that planning lessons can be done one year or by someone else and it will work in your room. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Building excitement requires a focus on how to appeal to your class while you lesson plan. To create excitement I used mystery, curiosity, and ingenuity to make my lessons interesting. I let them try to solve problems and anticipate what would come next. It is harder and harder to do in today’s teaching climate but it is even more imperative. While we do those mundane tasks that are sometimes required, I put on music, let groups think of a way to teach the topic to the class, or create a diagram to demonstrate a concept. Yes, it takes longer but mastery comes from exciting ways to learn rather than drill.

I want my students to feel inspired to see themselves as learners and excitement is the tool I use.

4. Down time Expectations are high in school today. The idea of down time seems counterproductive but it is not. The younger the child they less time they are able to sit at a desk and stay focused. Heck! I have a hard time sitting at a desk and staying focused. Down time does not mean a nap but a break. Breaks can include a transition, a few quiet minutes to chat with a neighbor, cleaning up after a project or even having the class shut their eyes and count to one hundred. The idea is to break the intensity levels into smaller bits. I have made my class put their heads down on their desks and put their hands up when they think a minute has passed. They rarely get it right, usually the hands go up after about 20 seconds. When we are done, we can take a deep breath and get back to work.

5. Humor Keep it light. I often had a book of knock-knock jokes on hand or told funny stories. I encourage my students to do the same.  I know a fifth grade teacher who began putting comics from the Sunday up on the Smartboard, every Monday morning. He realized his ELL students did not understand the humor. He actually made part of his classroom culture understanding humor.

If you laugh at yourself for your mistakes, you teach your students it is okay to fail and learn from it. Some of my favorite classroom occurrences involve something funny happening.

6. Problem solving I want my students to solve as many of their own problems as possible. If I am working with a group, I don’t want to be interrupted. Blood and vomit are the only excuses accepted in my room. (A cohort of mine once told me vomit was no excuse in her room, “They know where the trash can is.” She was not serious, I hope.) From the first day, I taught how to get supplies or how to get help if you didn’t understand the assignment. I had a sturdy step stool to hang up finished posters on the clothesline. Disagreements had to be solved quietly without anger.

That brings me back to rock-paper-scissors. Whenever we had to solve a dispute, whether it was who got to read a favorite book, who got to carry the note to the office, or who got in line first, we did rock-paper-scissors. There was no “two out of three tries.” One time only unless there was a tie. Sometimes it started with grimaces on two faces and then ended in laughter as they threw the same thing for several tries. It solved many problems.

It is a rare treat to see part of your classroom culture become part of someone’s bigger picture. Imagine my delight in picturing these now teenagers deciding who walks the dog with a skill they learned in my second grade room. It is a little dream come true.

What do you include in your classroom culture?

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