Classroom of the Week | Student collaboration, choice add up to success in Allendale classroom

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PITTSFIELD — "Joy has the floor," Anne-Mary Riello told her fifth-grade class Thursday morning.

Dressed in a light pink shirt with a rose printed on the upper-left corner with the words "Be You," Joy Davis stood up and thoroughly explained how to arrive to the answer of an addition problem with decimals and how to round up to the nearest hundredth.

Riello then asked the pupils at Allendale Elementary School whether they agreed or disagreed. Her classmates gave Davis a thumbs-up.

"This class is really good at participating in work," said fifth-grader Martin Boua.

Students regularly raise their hands to be called on to talk about solving a math problem or to try spelling out a new vocabulary word.

"It's really fun sharing with the whole class," Joy said. "If you get something wrong, they won't laugh at you. And, when you get it right, it feels good when people notice you for getting something right."

For example, before Joy gave her answer, the other kids simultaneously swirled their fingers in the air before pointing them in her direction, saying, "Ooh, track her!" She had everyone's full attention.

After a student speaks to share an answer or idea in her class, Riello prompts the entire group to thank the speaker. And when the whole group works well, she instructs her pupils to point at themselves and say, "I'm a genius!"

Such positive affirmations are spoken often, and are posted all over Riello's classroom walls.

This year, the group has been practicing "accountable talk," thoughtful phrases they can use to clearly prompt, agree, disagree, clarify and add on to a classroom discussion. These phrases include, "I see it differently because ...," and, "I'd like more information about ...," and, "Do you have a different idea?"

"In this classroom, rock-paper-scissors-shoot solves anything," said Martin, referring to the popular hand game commonly used to decide order in a group in a lighthearted way.

"We have worked so much on our collaborations and accountable talk," Riello said. "I feel like they're OK with their peers giving them criticism, because they do it in a respectful way."

Vanna Maffuccio, a reading specialist at the school, nominated Riello's group as a "Classroom of the Week."

Maffuccio writes: "Ms. Riello teaches beyond the curriculum by integrating technology, offering flexible seating, and bringing programs to life at our school. She is a technology guru bringing lessons to life in an engaging, innovative fashion. Pinterest can't hold a candle to her classroom."

Indeed, Riello's room is full of light and color, Chromebooks, as well as a well-kept pet guinea pig. Sometimes they use online programs, other times, they play learning games and move about the room. The latter is Riello's way of giving kids an outlet for their energy, she said.

To create an upbeat environment, there is a deep turquoise-and-white throw rug creating a seating area surrounded by gray pop-up sofas, tables and chairs. Students can choose to sit at desks in the middle of the room, or at high-top cafe tables with chairs at the back.

Martin said the traditional metal chairs "used to make my back hurt after sitting for three hours, and I would get cramps." He said the alternative seating "is very comfortable, for sure. It helps me feel more relaxed and focused."

Throughout the day, books and materials might get scattered — it's something which the very organized Riello is not entirely a fan of — but at the end of the day, "they clean it and put it away, and that's 100 percent them. They keep each other accountable," the teacher said.

Adriana Ramos and Annabelle Amichia agreed. They are best friends and also choose to sit together at times in class, which could potentially be a setup for distraction.

"When we're outside of school, we do what we want, talk and text each other all the time. But we bring our full attention in school," Adriana said.

Principal Brenda Kelley affirmed that she has seen behavioral issues dissipate in the room since the start of the school year.

Kelley said she has seen more students striving for scholarship as well, throughout the school, especially since Riello helped charter a branch of the National Elementary Honor Society at Allendale a few years back. Report cards come out Friday, and Kelley says there will be several more new inductees over the previous year.

Fifth-grader Tanner Speth said he has been particularly successful in spelling this year becaus, "I've been practicing at home."

Said Maffuccio, who lauds Allendale's achievements schoolwide: "I truly believe we have the best teachers in the world in our city, and the last thing that statement is is an exaggeration."


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