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The Holistic Classroom - 5 Tips for Creating a Healthy Learning Environment

My journey with Dance Equations began in 2003 when I entered the world of professional dance. My career was initiated with the opportunity to teach in schools through several inclusion programs. I traveled across Canada and would typically work with about 4 classes in each school. My tour also included work within the school boards offering professional development for teachers. This gave me a unique perspective of schools across the country, additionally, a comparison between teaching methods, school resources, and the general school environment. I had the opportunity to enter some magnificent learning environments and I am forever grateful to the teachers who gave me a warm welcome into their classroom.

I was witness to a lot of change within the education system as well. Classes increased in size, resources became more limited, and space for alternative programs dwindled. With each lesson I created, I made great efforts to focus on providing a holistic experience for both teachers and students, with an aim to alleviate increasing stress.

When I moved to Costa Rica. My husband and I had a unique opportunity to create a small alternative ECO school. We designed a program for 30 students as an experimental passion project. With our own children in mind, we introduced a school structure that would increase the enjoyment of learning.

We were able to fund this project for 4 years. We had the pleasure to work with a talented and award-winning teacher from Atlanta, whose knowledge and enthusiasm helped us design a system, unlike anything we had experienced before. Our school pillars were E.C.O. standing for Earth, Community, and Ocean. The curriculum standards, although based on U.S. standards, were guided by the theme of our pillars. We explored a new standard for assessment and reorganized groups by cognitive ability, not age (which ranged from age 4 to 12), and were divided into three work groups; explorers, architects, and innovators. Within each group we had 3 levels; junior, senior, and master. Ideally, the junior in each level was introduced to curricular concepts, while masters could teach them. There was sometimes a cross-over where the masters of one level worked with the juniors of the next. Generally, the explorers were the youngest among the students and the innovators the older group, but once again there was an integration of ages, especially between students that lingered on the cusp of master and junior, and a student was not necessarily in one group for all subjects. Students were used to moving in and out of different groups. There was no sense of hierarchy among the students, especially since masers were given leadership opportunities and therefore did not assume that groups held any specific grade classification and enjoyed leading other students of all ages. Rather than offering a graded assessment, we had a sliding scale. This line graph demonstrated to the student where they were in relation to the curriculum. Now how “good” or “bad” they were at something, rather, what skills had they mastered within that group and how much more of that journey was ahead of them. With each assessment, they were able to see progress as the dot moved across the line. Not all assessments were written, we relied on verbal assessments as well. It enabled a growth mindset within the school and with each student. We had a very positive school environment with kids who genuinely wanted to be there.

When the project finished and our own children re-entered the public school system, we asked them what they thought about their new school. Their response was; “well it isn’t like school, we sit down and look at the board and write what the teacher writes.” For our children school work was rarely completed at a desk, they gardened each morning, visited the ocean, and learned through projects and play, engaging the senses at all costs. We were by no means experts and often romanced what we could have done with financial support. But it was a taste of what school could be like. This experience has encouraged me to make Dance Equations about creating enjoyment in the classroom in order to enhance learning, to limit “learned helplessness” by allowing children to play, explore, and experience math.

My 5 tips for creating a holistic learning environment are as follows:

1. Community:

Creating a community within the classroom can be difficult. With large classes, personalities can easily clash and add stress to the environment. In my experience routine has helped me set the tone of the work day, especially setting aside time for meditation, community-building activities, and discussion with an emphasis on wellbeing. Rather than discipline, I try to become an ally of my students.

2. Environment:

A clean and organized classroom creates a calm environment. There should be comfortable clean floors and carpets to work on so that desks are used only when necessary. I prefer group tables and learning centers which offer students the freedom to move around, shifting their focus throughout the day, and eliminating the “front” of the classroom. Music is naturally uplifting therefore, playing quiet music during study can instantly change the atmosphere.

3. Movement:

Sitting all day is challenging for anyone. While the teacher gets to move around many students must sit for long periods of time. Children of all ages love to move and socialize, so use their natural instincts to your advantage. Dance Equation is a great place to start because my program never requires a desk and all lessons are done while exploring space.

4. Instruction:

No matter what the curriculum is you can always change your teaching style. If teaching is getting stagnant try something new. It’s comfortable relying on the same mechanisms but a little change may go a long way. Limiting your “teacher talk time” or focusing on project-based learning are easy places to start, there is a lot to explore on this topic, and many resources are available. If you can become a resource for your students and not the dictator of their learning, you’ll become an approachable asset to their education.

5. Support:

This is an important point for me. I believe that the true key to a holistic school environment is offering support to the teacher. This may be out of your hands to implement but talking about your needs in a staff meeting may be the key to a healthy school. Student success is often put on the shoulders of teachers, and I believe this emphasis creates an imbalance. Where there is balance, there is abundance. Ask yourself, what do you need from the administration in order to create a holistic environment? Share these ideas and offer suggestions.

If you’d like to explore working with dance in your classroom, please join the Dance Equations community. I offer weekly questions-and-answer sessions, online courses, and much more. Additionally, you can get a taste of Dance Equations on my YouTube channel. Trying dance may be just what you need to shift the energy in your classroom. Happy holistic teaching.

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