Social, emotional, and academic skills all top priorities at Peabody School

By Ginger Spickler
Kongsouly Jones, Peabody Elementary’s principal of five years, is showing me around my son’s classroom late one Friday afternoon. It’s the last day of the first week of school, a crazy time for students, parents, and educators alike. Although she claims to be exhausted, her energy and enthusiasm are palpable.
She points to the cozy reading nook that kindergarten teacher Olivia Malland has created on the sunny side of the room. Books are organized into perhaps a dozen small bins, each labeled according to subject matter, for example “Bears” or “Cars”, so that students will know where to return their book. Of course most kindergarteners aren’t reading quite yet, so Ms. Malland has also employed a color-coding system that will ensure the neat space stays that way past the first week of school.
Ms. Jones explains that classroom organization is a component of the Responsive Classroom philosophy that Peabody uses to integrate social, emotional, and academic growth in students.
“When you walk into the classroom, it should send out messages to the children immediately. It should say, ‘You belong here. I care about you. You can take risks here. I trust you in this environment’.”
Indeed everything about the space, from the desks and lockers brightly labeled with children’s names, to the low teacher’s desk positioned in the exact spot that will allow Ms. Malland to survey the entire room, says that this classroom is for the children. It is warm and inviting, and I find myself wishing I could audit a class or two here.
A visit upstairs to Courtney Magbee’s fourth grade optional classroom reveals a space that is somewhat more subdued than the colorful kindergarten environment but no less organized. Each “center” is stocked with an ample supply of paper and sharpened pencils so that when students arrive there are no delays in getting to work. This classroom features an interactive whiteboard, called a SMART Board, which is connected to the teacher’s computer. Every Peabody classroom will have one by October.
Ms. Jones is quick to point out that Responsive Classroom, which many teachers at Peabody have been using for years and which the Memphis City School system is rolling out district-wide for grades K-3 this year, is not a program or yet another thing for already-time-crunched teachers to check off a list. It is a philosophy of teaching based on the premise that children learn best when they have both academic and social-emotional skills.
“We use Responsive Classroom because children come from all different types of families. They come with different needs. Until teachers understand students’ social, emotional, and cultural needs, they’re not able to build relationships with those student. Until you have that relationship, children are not going to achieve academically.”
Ms. Malland, Ms. Magbee, and two other Peabody teachers are district trainers in the approach, and Peabody, because of its years of experience in employing the Responsive Classroom philosophy, will likely be a model for other schools in the city school system.
Another component of Responsive Classroom is the morning meeting that is conducted in every Peabody classroom each day. After a period of greeting one another, one or two students take their turn sharing something with the class followed by a Q&A period, both of which allow the students to practice expressing themselves verbally and using critical thinking skills. Morning meeting continues with a short game that reinforces a concept the class is working on and then wraps up with news and announcements shared by the teacher, who has already devised a way to embed specific skills into her presentation. Though it’s only one of the many components of Responsive Classroom, the morning meeting encompasses much of what the approach is about – allowing students to stretch their social, emotional, and academic muscles simultaneously.
Ms. Jones made it clear that, although testing students regularly on the core subjects of reading and math is important for making sure students are progressing, Peabody also works hard to provide a liberal arts education that will create critical thinkers who are true assets to their communities. “In school there needs to be a balance between testing and creating authentic work. We have to find a happy medium between those two things. When you go to work, most jobs require you to do projects, some kind of quality piece – maybe create a schedule, a manual, or a power point. There are many times when we can teach children to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet so they can pass their tests, but if they’re not responsible for their families and their communities then we just created a person who’s out of touch with humanity.”
While Principal Jones and her staff are working hard to create good community members, they can’t do it alone. She already counts the KaBoom! project of 2008, during which the whole Cooper-Young community came together to build a playground for the school and neighborhood, as a highlight of her career. “It just shows what can happen when we all work together,” she said, remembering the exciting day. “But I also like community projects that directly increase student achievement.”
To that end, Ms. Jones listed several needs that community members can help meet:
•    Tutors to work one-on-one with students who are struggling or need more of a challenge
•    Demonstrations of expertise for career day in March – everything from engineers to artists
•    Travelers who can show pictures and talk about their journeys to the countries Peabody students are studying through their international studies curriculum
Contact Jenifer Eoff at eoffjeniferc@mcsk12.net to volunteer your time and knowledge.
The Peabody PTA will also be kicking off a project soon to upgrade the library in celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary. Watch for details on how you can partner with the Peabody community in this important undertaking!
For more information on Responsive Classroom, visit responsiveclassroom.org.

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