Classroom of the Week: Choices, incentives prompt self-motivated students in this Craneville Elementary classroom

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DALTON — There's a sign on a shelf in Patricia "Pat" Conroy-Shepley's plant- and flower-filled classroom that reads, "Children are like flower buds just waiting to be open."

Among her second graders at Craneville Elementary School are a range of colorful characters, some as simple and bright as buttercups, others as unpredictable yet charming as wildflowers, all bursting with their own thoughts and ideas. Their bodies tend to squirm and they make all sorts of faces in reaction to what they learn, scrunching their noses when they're stumped or wildly waving their arms with wide eyes begging for attention when they have an answer.

Asked about what they like about their class, Rafaella Carino said, "We can all be ourselves."

And despite everyone's unique demeanor, Harper Keay added, "And everybody gets along."

The way Conroy-Shepley sees it, "We become a family. We're here together six hours a day, and they all come to develop their sense of one another. They bring to the table each of their own strengths and they're all accepting."

Parent Angela Avanzato, whose daughter, Payton, is one of the 22 children in the class, said that while Craneville is full of great teachers, "Mrs. Shepley is special. She doesn't simply teach math and reading skills, she impacts the lives of her students and their families. She has come to a basketball game on a Saturday to show her support and encouragement to her students."

Thursday morning's math class included a geometry lesson including vocabulary like "vertices" and "planes," a video and worksheets. When a student picked the incorrect answer, the teacher encouraged him to rethink the answer and try again, saying, "Everybody makes mistakes. We all have to learn from them."

She next led a "teacher vs. students" round of "mystery shapes," similar to the "I Spy" game, in which Conroy-Shepley would describe objects in the classroom in geometric terms and each student had a chance to deduct the answer.

What is a rectangular prism with six faces, 12 edges and eight vertices? It took a student less than 30 seconds to figure, "The tissue box!"

And so the game went, with each student earning a tally point for a correct answer, and their teacher not getting a chance to get a guess in edgewise. She praised the children, not because they correctly guessed the shapes, but because they had mastered all their vocabulary for the lesson and used it in the proper context.

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"You're dazzling every day," she told them.

Conroy-Shepley also offers incentives for her students' positive behaviors and efforts in their school work. They work at desks grouped together and can earn "gems" to put in a good deed jar for their group. When the jars become full, the table's members earn a special occasion, like having a special lunch in the classroom with their teacher and friends or taking a trip to a prize box.

The teacher also has a chart on the wall with the consequences ranging from having a parent contacted at the bottom, to being named a "super student" at the top. Students' names are written on clothes pins that clip on the various signs of the charts so that students have a visual idea of which direction their behaviors are leading them. The majority of students currently hover above "ready to learn" at "making good choices," and are on their way to consistently doing a "great job."

"They keep going up and up," Conroy-Shepley said.

"It makes me happy," Payton LeClair said of the chart.

Second-grader Olivia Kaleta said she likes having choices and incentives in the class, among them having different seating options. Kaleta was one of three students picked at random to have the option to work at a standing desk for the day. Other students share different kinds of cushions, "Wobble Chairs" and yoga ball seating to allow them some movement options at their desks. Some even have stationary bike pedals.

"I have a hard time just sitting in the classroom myself," the teacher said.

In addition to moving their bodies, Conroy-Shepley likes to encourage students to keep their imaginations in motion.

Today, her group is partnering with the school's two other second-grade classrooms to present a "Museum Walk." Parents and school officials are invited to visit the student "authors" who will present "character bags," decorated to represent characters they've recently read about in books. The second graders will present information about the characters, with their own illustrations, and they present a persuasive statement of why other people should read that book.

"I like that we get to make things while we're learning things," student Cherynne Hill said.

Said parent Angela Avanzato, in her nomination of the group as a "Classroom of the Week," "Mrs. Shepley teaches so much more than Common Core, she teaches about life and tries to help our children to become the best versions of themselves in every way."


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