Creating a Classroom Parking Lot

September 2, 2013 by

You can have all the best well-crafted assessments, lessons, targets, and reporting systems in your school, yet it is the classroom culture that makes or breaks proficiency-based learning. Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 11.20.21 AM One essential aspect of a learner-centered classroom culture is the inclusion of student voice.  A successful competency-based classroom is a place where all members of the community get a say in how things run.  As the teacher you ultimately have the final word, and you are responsible for making sure all other voices (students, parents, support staff, and anybody else) are heard, but you do not get to make all the decisions yourself.  One incredibly useful tool for engaging student voice in the classroom is a “parking lot”.  A successful parking lot not only gives students an easy way to contribute their voice to the classroom community, it also makes the internal dialogue of the classroom community transparent.

Creating A Parking Lot:

Some teachers will set up a blank spot on the wall simply labeled “Parking Lot.”  Other people use a piece of chart paper divided into sections with different purposes, such as questions, positives, changes needed, or ideas.  Design it however you want, just make sure you use it!

The Comments and Questions

Just about anything can be a parking lot question or comment. Here at Mt. Ararat Middle School we use the four different categories explained below. I recommend avoiding the setting of boundaries around the types of questions kids can ask; instead wait and see what happens. Remember, this is about their voice being included.  Student thoughts and questions are important, and we want them to know that their voice is essential to the classroom community.  Setting boundaries without their input can potentially silence a valuable voice. Make any inappropriate use of the parking lot an opportunity to talk about it in the context of your classroom culture with the students.

1. Questions:  Open, closed, yes, no, anything goes.  If it is a question that is most likely on the mind of at least one other person, it belongs on the parking lot. This is even true for questions like “Why do we have to have to learn about photosynthesis?”  If they are wondering about it, it is worth asking and talking about.

2.  Changes:  These are ideas for adjustments to procedures, rules, behavior, classroom set up, schedules, and any other aspect of the classroom community.  I guarantee that your students will come up with a simpler or more efficient way to do something.  Encourage honesty; this is all about them and their learning in the end.

3.  Aha Moments:  One person’s realization about something can spark the realization about something in someone else.  “Light bulb” moments can also be great feedback for you.

4.  Positives:  Giving recognition to individuals, small groups, and even the whole class goes a long way in growing and maintaining a positive classroom culture.  This is also a great place for students to note what they like about how the classroom is operating.

Getting It Going and Keeping It Going:

Plant parking lot notes.  Students may need some “scaffolding” in order to get used to the parking lot, or there may be a dry spell when it seems like nobody is contributing feedback.  Get the ball rolling again by making “fake” notes to put on the parking lot yourself, or give them to a student you trust to play along to post.

Refer students to the parking lot.  Whenever someone asks a question, guide them in the direction of the parking lot.  Say something like “That IS a great question; have you put it on the parking lot yet?”  The first few times say it a little louder and more dramatically than you would in normal conversation.  Do the same for ideas, compliments, and other thoughts.

– Establish a “parking lot task force.”  Entrust a small group of students to be the keepers of the parking lot.  They can post things they hear from their peers and encourage others to post as well.

– Schedule a regular parking lot check in.  How often you have a check in will vary depending on your class.  A good idea is to start off with frequent check ins, then let it settle into a natural rhythm, and make sure they happen no less than once a week at the very least.  Also, make sure the check-ins are a time when students know they are expected to be fully present in the class meeting. If you do any kind of morning meeting, team meeting, or regular recognition/celebration time, a parking lot check in fits right in.

– Every single time you see a note on the parking lot, go get it. A stale sticky sends the message that that particular voice is not important. Read notes quickly and decide then and there if you need to pause the class and address it immediately or if it can wait until your scheduled parking lot check-in.

– Fully validate every note.  This doesn’t mean you have to agree with every note, nor do you have to take the advice of every note.  You do have to acknowledge and consider the idea in the note in front of your students, however.  Read the notes word for word, as best you can, and talk through the ideas with your class.  Listen to the thoughts of at least three or four students before you contribute your thoughts.  Then, listen to a few more students before sharing a decision or final thought.   If you change your mind because of something you heard, say so and explain how, or why, it helped you see the issue in a different light.

About the Author

Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.

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