Make Your Classroom Extraordinary

A few years ago, immediately after Robin Williams passed away, I wrote a blog post titled “20 Timeless Ways to Make Your Classroom Extraordinary.”  The post was inspired by Williams’ character John Keating from the movie Dead Poets Society, and the quote from the movie where Keating tells his students to seize the day:

“…Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary…”

A couple of years ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to stop blogging for a while and in the process I pulled the old blog from the web.  (In retrospect, not a great idea, but it’s done and I am living with the consequences now…)

I was thinking about that old post today as I think about my friends and colleagues returning to classrooms this month.  I do have access to my original notes for that blog post, so I have decided to republish it here in a slightly different format.

This list of ideas emerges from thinking about strategies that I have used to make my own classroom extraordinary for my students.  All of these can be done without technology and many can be enhanced with a wide variety of technology tools (and many of these can be done even in the online classes if that is currently where you find yourself) — but at the core of this list is an emphasis on relationships, student agency, independence, respect, care, engagement, and support for each individual’s learning process.  

Your students won’t remember the worksheets you handed out or the math problems you made them work to practice their skills.  They probably won’t even remember some of the curriculum content of your class, but they will remember you and how you made them feel in your classroom.

What else would you add to this list?

Begin with Ownership

The extraordinary classroom begins before the students even arrive on campus, and it “takes off” on the first day of class.  

  • Let the students create class “norms” or “ground rules” based on what they need for an ideal learning environment.
  • Let the students help with the arrangement and design of the learning space(s) within the classroom.

Question Everything

  • Listen to student’s questions.  Let student questions guide the learning as often as possible.  “Follow the learner” — think Montessori and Reggio Emilia.
  • When you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, be honest about it.  Say “I really don’t know the answer to that question, but let’s discover/research/learn it together…” and then sit down with them and do discover/research/learn it together.
  • Go off on tangents when you see an opportunity for a powerful learning moment. 
  • Education really is about learning how to think for one’s self (John Keating was right), so help your students learn how to support their opinions with evidence, facts, and solid arguments.  Help students learn how to create stronger questions to guide their own learning.

Think Outside of the Classroom

  • Get outside of the classroom when possible.  Sit outside under a tree for class discussions, or take a discussion walk around the campus with students.
  • Seek out partnerships within the community to extend the learning environment beyond the campus and to bring the community into the campus.

Barbaric Yawps, Creativity, Culture

  • Give students opportunities to sound their barbaric yawp… let them perform, create, sing, dance, improvise, write, and express themselves.
  • Share your interests and your passions with your students.  Let them see who you are outside of “teacher” mode.
  • Be genuinely interested in who your students are and what they are passionate about or interested in.  Ask them about their extracurricular activities.  Attend their performances and athletic events.  This includes events not related to the school such as recreational sports activities operated by local organizations, performances at local festivals (think about students who may be in a local band or dance group), and recitals.
  • If you are planning to display student work, be sure to display the work of each individual student at least once throughout the year.
  • Regardless of your subject matter, find ways to incorporate art, music, and culture into your classroom.
  • Do let them see you smile before mid-year.
  • Know their stories and care about their stories.  Their stories impact how and what they learn in your classroom throughout the year.

Co-Learning & Choice

  • Be a co-learner alongside of your students.
  • Build relationships rather than power structures.
  • Allow flexibility and choice in how students demonstrate learning.
  • Encourage and nurture self-directed discovery in your students.
  • Allow many opportunities for peer learning beyond structured group work or short think-pair-share activities.

Active Learning & Feedback

  • Focus on people over processes and procedures.
  • Focus on effective teaching (or facilitation of learning) over excessive documentation and traditional grading practices. Give your students more than just numerical or letter grades.  Give them substantive, specific, constructive, and actionable feedback that helps them improve their skills and understanding of what they are learning.
  • Remember that we learn to walk by walking.  Make your classroom a place of active learning where students learn to do by doing.

The Inclusive Classroom

  • Make your classroom a space of respect and safety for all students.  Maintain zero tolerance for bullying, shaming, or ostracism of others.
  • Develop community where all voices & ideas are heard and all voices & ideas are respected & valued.

Care of the Self

  • Nurture your own learning.
  • Expand your personal learning network and develop global connections.
  • Give yourself “time outs” when you need them so you can be more present for your students in the limited time that you have with them in the classroom.
  • Have a life outside of the school where you can recharge, refresh, and reignite your passion for everything that matters to you in your life.