Developing a Learning Classroom: Moving Beyond Management Through Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor


Nic Cooper & Betty K. Garner

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    Special thanks to Corwin for the opportunity for us to collaborate and share our combined knowledge and experience with teachers. We are grateful for the work of our editors, Jessica Allan and Lana Arndt, the Corwin production team, and the insightful feedback from the Corwin reviewers and colleagues who helped us refine the manuscript. Some of our colleagues who offered valuable feedback and encouragement are Cindy Buehler, Craig Gilroy, Sheila Chapman, Blaine Goodrich, and Dr. Patty Kaufman. We also extend special thanks to all the students, parents, and educators we have worked with, who have enriched our understanding of what it means to develop an effective learning classroom. The late Earnie Larsen, a mentor to Nic earlier in his career, and his work formed a basis for our perspective on the need to understand family of origin to understand oneself.

    Betty also thanks her wonderful husband, Dr. John VanDruff, who provided love and encouragement throughout the writing process, even though he was dealing with chemotherapy for brain cancer. Jane, Nic's wife, has been a rock throughout his career and a constant source of strength and insight. Her support and patience have been a critical factor throughout this process.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance.

    • Jeanne Marie Benoit
    • Seventh-Grade Teacher, American History and Language Arts
    • Putnam Middle School
    • Putnam, CT
    • Julie Duford
    • Fifth-Grade Teacher
    • Polson Middle School
    • Polson, MT
    • Kathy Ferrell
    • Instructional Coach
    • Excelsior Springs Middle School
    • Excelsior Springs, MO
    • Nicole Guyon
    • Resource Teacher
    • Community Preparatory School
    • Providence, RI
    • Susan Harmon
    • Technology Teacher
    • Neodesha Junior/Senior High School
    • Neodesha, KS
    • Barb Keating
    • Educational Consultant, Retired Principal
    • New Westminster, BC, Canada
    • Katina Keener
    • Assistant Principal
    • Peasley Middle School
    • Gloucester, VA
    • Alexis Ludewig
    • ABE Adjunct Instructor
    • Fox Valley Technical College
    • Appleton, WI
    • Jamie Blassingame
    • Licensed Specialist in School Psychology
    • Pearland ISD, Special Programs
    • Pearland, TX
    • Sherry Markel
    • Professor
    • Northern Arizona University
    • College of Education, Department of Teaching and Learning
    • Flagstaff, AZ
    • John Pieper
    • Fifth-Grade Teacher, Read School
    • Oshkosh Area School District
    • Oshkosh, WI
    • Ronda Schelvan
    • Autism Consultant and Special
    • Education Teacher
    • Washougal School District
    • Washougal, WA
    • Debbie Smith
    • Math Coach
    • Lady's Island Elementary School
    • Beaufort, SC
    • Diane P. Smith
    • School Counselor
    • Smethport Area School District
    • Smethport, PA
    • Leslie Standerfer
    • Principal
    • Estrella Foothills High School
    • Goodyear, AZ

    About the Authors

    Nic Cooper, EdD, LPC, LMSW, has thirty-four years of experience in public education as a counselor, alternative education developer, assistant principal, and principal. He spent most of his career at the middle level after beginning as a high school counselor. Prior to his retirement, his middle school was named as one of Michigan's first Schools to Watch in 2006. He also has worked as a substance abuse counselor and a probation officer. After his retirement from public education, he has become a full-time faculty member in the teacher education program at Baker College in Jackson, MI and a part-time leadership coach for the Center for Excellence in Education at Central Michigan University. A certified counselor and social worker, Nic also works part-time as a therapist at Still Waters Counseling in Saline, MI. He is the state director for the Schools to Watch program, a recognition program for exemplary middle schools presented through the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. With Rick McCoy, he is the coauthor of a book for parents of adolescents titled How to Keep Being a Parent When Your Child Stops Being a Child. Nic is a member of the boards for the Michigan Association of Middle School Educators and the Michigan Association of Teacher Educators, as well as a member of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. He presents at state and national conferences on classroom development, healing teaching staffs in conflict, and addressing the needs of at-risk students, among other topics.

    Betty K. Garner, EdD, president of Aesthetic of Lifelong Learning, Inc., is dedicated to helping teachers, parents, and students develop their metability—the interactive dynamic of learning, creating, and changing. In over forty years as an educator, she has served as a classroom teacher, art teacher, psychological examiner, professional learning coach, university instructor, cognitive researcher, and international educational consultant. She has been involved in numerous privately and publicly funded innovative professional development projects that focused on developing learning communities, training teachers in action research, and facilitating teachers' portfolio preparation for National Board Certification. She continues to conduct seminars on her research throughout the United States and Europe. She is author of the popular book Getting to “Got It!”: Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn, which gives teachers tools to help students develop their cognitive structures to more effectively gather, organize, and process information.

  • Appendix A: Introductory Student Survey (Also Available at

    (Print Name) _______ Date _______ Grade/Subject _______

    • What are you good at?
    • What do you wish you were good at?
    • What do you wish was easier in school?
    • What activities are you involved in outside of school?
    • What two words would you use to describe yourself?
    • How do you like to spend your free time?
    • What kind of things do you like to read?
    • What are your favorite TV programs? Movies? Music?
    • What are your favorite video games?
    • What do you want to be (do) when you “grow up”? Why?
    • What do you want your teacher to know about you?

    Appendix B: Advanced Student Survey (Also Available at

    (Print Name) _______ Date _______ Grade/Subject _______

    • What do you wish the teacher would stop doing?
    • What do you wish the teacher would do more?
    • What do you wish you were good at?
    • What kind of things do you like to do at school?
    • What kind of things do you like to do outside of school?
    • What do you like best about yourself?
    • How do you go about figuring things out when you are stuck?
    • Whom do you admire the most and would love to be like? Why?
    • If you had the power and resources to change something, what would it be?
    • If you had three wishes, what would they be?
    • What do you wish you could change about the past? Why?
    • When you dream about the future, what do you see?
    • If I were a new student in your class, what would the other kids tell me about you?
    • What do you wish others knew about you?
    • What three things do you say to yourself most often?

    Appendix C: Sample Socratic Questions: Tools to Stimulate Critical Thinking

    The overall purpose of questioning is to enhance understanding.

    Conceptual Clarification: Basic “Tell Me More” Questions to Go Deeper
    • Help me understand what you mean by …? Give me an example.
    • What essential things do we need to know about this?
    • How can you say that another way?
    Probing Assumptions: Underlying Biases, Assumptions, Beliefs, and Values
    • What do you believe about this issue?
    • Why is this important or relevant to you?
    • What basic assumptions are involved here?
    • What would happen if …?
    Probing Rationale, Reasons, and Evidence: Basic Principles and Motivation
    • Why did you choose this?
    • What evidence do you base this on?
    • What causes this to happen?
    • How can you support your position?
    • Why? (Ask about six times after each response.)
    Questioning Viewpoints and Perspectives (Different Ways of Looking)
    • What are alternative ways of looking at this?
    • What is the difference between … and …? How are they alike?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?
    • How are … and … similar?
    Probing Implications and Consequences
    • What will happen next? Why?
    • Who will be affected by this?
    • How could … be used to …?
    • What are the implications of …?
      • Beware of leading questions that influence responder to desired answer.
      • Avoid close-ended questions that can be answered with yes/no or a single word.
      • Use open-ended questions that encourage reflection without fear of being wrong.
      • Use the wh-questions:
        • What identifies specific details related to an issue.
        • Why identifies reasoning and logical connections of an issue.
        • When identifies elements of time such as duration or specific moment.
        • Where identifies location in space.
        • Who identifes persons involved.
        • How identifies process of doing something.

    Appendix D: Flexible Lesson Design

    Teacher selects content and designs instructional goals and activities.

    • Students experience and explore (sensory input and cognitive engagement):
      • Provide concrete materials for students to touch, see, hear, smell, taste, and interact with. Instead of telling the students what something is like, provide experiences so that they can tell teacher and each other what they notice.
      • Encourage students to notice things and share their curiosity and observations. Students need to “see with their eyes”—the physical characteristics of objects. Students also need to “see with their minds”—the connections and unusual things they notice and have questions about. (How the teacher relates to the students and interacts with them affects how engaged the students will be in the activity.)
    • Students share (bring something to the learning; use cognitive processing):
      • Provide time for students to describe and discuss with each other what they noticed and wondered about.
      • Encourage students to ask questions. (How the teacher reacts to students' questions determines whether or not the students will feel comfortable to ask questions.)
    • Teacher introduces new materials and concepts (expanded processing):
      • Provide connections between student experience and feedback and new information being presented. Pace content and skills so that students can enjoy the challenge of new learning and the satisfaction of understanding.
      • Encourage cognitive, physical, and emotional engagement. Present material in multiple ways to meet needs of individual students. (Teacher competence, enthusiasm, relationship with students, organization, and ability to make information relevant directly affect students' willingness to learn new material.)
    • Students give evidence of learning (output through synthesis and application):
      • Provide time, coaching, and materials for students to demonstrate their understanding of the new concepts. (Teacher's willingness to look for, validate, and build on the students' strengths and let students do the work greatly enhances students' learning.)
      • Encourage continued questioning and learning through research projects (group and individual) related to the new information.
      • Encourage application of new information to life through relevant action to influence change (write letters, fax, call, send e-mail, research Internet, interview, etc.).
      • Encourage creative ways to demonstrate understanding:
        • In writing (written report, journal, letters, editorials)
        • Orally (verbal report, role playing, drama, newscast format, power point, music)
        • Graphically (video, drawing, posters, painting, construction of models)
        • By teaching information to someone else or making up an assessment
        • By using digital formats and multimedia presentations
    • Students and teachers reflect (evaluation of learning experience):
      • Provide opportunity to reflectively respond to question: “What sense did I make of this?”
      • Encourage students to help develop scoring guides to evaluate effectiveness of learning. (How teachers and students collaborate to evaluate learning determines personal investment in continued learning.)
      • Discuss with students: What could we do differently to improve this learning experience?
      • Develop plan of action: What will students do as a result of this learning? How will they continue to use it in everyday life and other subject areas?

    Appendix E: Personal Education Plan (Also Available at

    The personal education plan can be transferred to any easily handled system from electronic to a three-ring binder and note cards. The idea is to focus on getting to know students on a deeper level by seeking to understand them from different perspectives. Lengthy narratives are not necessary. Instead, brief understandable notes that can inform instructional decisions for this student are best to make the task realistic and helpful.

    (Print Name) _______ Date _______ Grade/Subject _______

    Interests: (List the interests that the student volunteers or that you notice from observing and listening.)

    Learning profile: (How does this student learn best? Be sure to get the student's ideas on this as well as what you might notice.)

    Skills: (What skills does the student exhibit or talk about? Also notice those that are not school related. These might provide ideas on how to make this student feel capable.)

    Growth areas: (In what ways does this student need to grow? Think in terms of intellectual, emotional, and social growth.)

    Cultural considerations: (Are there cultural considerations to be understood? These might include ethnic considerations, as well as economic, but also regional.)

    Family considerations: (Are there special family issues that concern you or that will help support this student?)

    Behavioral issues: (What misbehavior arises? What might be the cause?)

    Interventions: (What interventions have you used? Which ones worked? Which ones didn't?)

    School connections: (What friends or adults are connected to this student in school?)

    Community connections: (What groups in the community support this student?)

    Other: (What else do you notice about this student?)


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    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do TheirWork Better.”

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