We had the chance to talk with four teachers from Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) partner school William Shemin Midtown Community School in Bayonne, NJ, about their approach in the classroom, their focus on social and emotional well-being for their students, and their belief in student agency and voice. Here is the first half of our conversation with them.

Tara Soto and Tonya Mele

Share a few thoughts about your classroom environment. What is it like for a student and how did you create it over the course of this school year?

Jason DeAngelo, Grade 8, English language arts (ELA): Our students are made to feel like they belong. They are given the sense that their responses (whether correct or incorrect) are not automatically incorrect as long as they can be justified; as long as they can provide evidence and back up their reasoning, their answer will be considered to be correct. We find that this simple strategy gives students a voice that they sometimes feel they don’t have. It’s okay to be wrong, as long as you try to learn from your mistakes.

Tonya Mele, Grade 6, ELA: Our classroom environment has a positive energy that flows from the students. High expectations are set from Day 1, and students encourage and help each other daily. When students moan and groan that they don’t want to leave my class, I know we had a great day. The classroom environment starts on the first day. Energy, enthusiasm, plus high expectations are established, and I encourage a high level of effort in my class. I maintain the inspiration, and the students maintain the effort and the energy. 

Elizabeth McDermott, Grade 8, math: I believe in the importance of creating a classroom rooted in respect. From the moment students walk into my classroom in September, I consistently reinforce respect toward teachers, students, and ourselves. I strive for my math classroom to be a safe environment where students feel comfortable making mistakes and discussing next steps moving forward.

In your classroom how do you ensure rigor, while also being mindful of students’ social and emotional well-being?

Jason DeAngelo, Grade 8, ELA: Education, in general, has been difficult coming back from the pandemic. In addition, all students come from different backgrounds, social settings, socioeconomic climates, and, most importantly, levels of learning. To ensure rigor in the classroom, we’ve created an environment where all students are welcome. No matter their race, social skills, or socioeconomic background, my students are never made to feel that their voice does not matter. We want them all to have a voice. How they use their voice is entirely up to them. Some do it through writing, some through speaking, and others use their social skills as their platform to shine. Self-reflection is a great way for students to gauge and then take responsibility in their own education. Students will be their best when they are made to feel like they are the best. 

Tara Soto, Grade 6, math: Specific learning activities are leveled and students change their levels as often as needed, per domain. Rubrics for levels are provided. I conference often with them regarding their comfort level and allow students to choose their assessment level per unit.  This choice allows students to build self-esteem and confidence regarding math.

Tonya Mele, Grade 6, ELA: There is a high expectation of rigor but with room to fail. Students know that they can try and try again until they’re successful. Quitting is not an option. They soon realize it’s better to put forth effort the first time than have to repeat an assignment. Still, we all have off days, and I encourage them to be open and honest with me. Their social and emotional well-being must come before academics. If a student does not reach their expectations, I have a conference and together we come up with a solution. Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.”  Sharing this quotation resonates with my students and reminds them that it’s OK to try again.

Elizabeth McDermott, Grade 8, math: I communicate realistic expectations for all students from the first day of school to the last. Students always know what is expected of them, so that there are no surprises in my classroom. They are provided with ample resources to help  them be successful.

Elizabeth McDermott and Jason DeAngelo

Describe your approach to student agency. How do you ensure that students have a voice in your classroom?

Tara Soto, Grade 6, math: My classroom includes five teams with heterogeneous grouping. They have opportunities to give each other feedback and reflect on their day.  I use the reflections to drive my instruction and tweak lessons and activities as needed.  Students conference with me often to review lessons, regrade assignments, and discuss levels. My classroom environment runs on choices and collaboration. Students know that they must take an active role in their learning, and they are polled often so that I can stay in the know of what is working for them and what changes need to be made.  

Tonya Mele, Grade 6, ELA: Since we follow a curriculum, I approach student agency with choice. Students have unlimited access to my class library. There is a wide range of topics to choose from, and I encourage them to read for pleasure and not for an assignment. “Choice” novels do not come with quizzes, essays, or assessments. This is where their true love of reading develops. Students also get a selection of final projects to choose from. They can work with a partner, group, or work alone if they choose. They can develop their own assessment if they would like.

Elizabeth McDermott, Grade 8, math: I ensure each student has a voice by creating a classroom environment where students feel safe and comfortable. Students often work in small groups where they are expected to contribute to learning activities. I make it a point to communicate with all students during my lessons. This could be while the co-teacher and I are circulating between small groups, during direct whole group instruction, or through reflection prompts given at the end of lessons.

Jason DeAngelo, Grade 8, ELA: Students in our classroom are made to feel that their voice matters. The room is divided up into six groups. The group members often change throughout the school year. Each group has a “group leader.” Group leaders know their roles and responsibilities. Some of those roles and responsibilities include keeping classmates on task, dividing up roles within the group, promoting positivity, having a sense of belonging, etc. The students will often promote each other to become the new group leader. It’s a wonderful thing to observe—peer promotion.