Learning can be fun and noisy and look an awful lot like a game.
On Tuesday morning, in Laura Biagi's fourth-grade class in Chester, two teams were pitted against one another, racing against the clock to name vocabulary words. Although they were defining the words rather than acting them out, they were as engaged as if they were playing charades.
Sitting between the two teams, cheering for both sides, Biagi was encouraging the students with phrases like "Good job!" and "You've got this!" If a student wasn't able to come up with a clue for teammates, she whispered one in their ear.
"They need to know you've got their backs and are on their side," she explained when the class headed out for recess.
Biagi, who has been teaching for the Chester Area School District for seven years, was recently recognized as the district's Teacher of the Year.
Superintendent Heath Larson said Biagi was his first hire when he joined the district -- one he has never regretted.
"Mrs. Biagi creates a dynamic and entertaining classroom environment with her enthusiasm," he said in an email message. "She is a kid magnet who builds strong connections with her students and is dedicated to helping each child find success."
Biagi describes her classroom as organized chaos. Old vinyl records adorn the walls and are suspended from the ceiling. While working, students may sit on desk chairs, but they are more likely to sit on balance balls, in a rocking chair or on the floor -- or maybe not at all, choosing instead to stand by the standing table.
"Nobody wants to sit in a chair all day," Biagi explained. "They are able to move anywhere they want. I don't care if they are laying down as long as they are doing their work."
With the freedom to make those choices, students do choose to engage in their classwork. After working on vocabulary for about 30 minutes, the students pulled out their reading books. Some chose to gather in groups of two or three and read to one another. Others pulled out a whisper phone, PVC pipe fashioned in an elongated "C" to look like the headpiece of a bakelite phone from the 1950s, and read to themselves.
"You can talk softly and hear yourself," Biagi said when asked about the whisper phones.
She uses them in her classroom to encourage students to read out loud. This aids their reading comprehension and their fluency in reading. It also allows the students to work independently so that she can move around the room, checking in with each student or group to see how they are doing.
These one-to-one connections with her students are one of the hallmarks of Biagi's classroom style. She believes this enhances student learning.
"If you build relationships with them, they will work harder for you," she said.
Biagi is a graduate of Dakota State University, where she met her husband Greg. The Iowa native said they both ended up at the university on a whim -- he to play baseball, her to play softball.
"It's crazy how the world works," she said.
The couple has four children, ranging in age from nine months to six years old, and live in Madison where Greg is a salesperson for Rosebud Wood Products. To juggle two careers and four children, Biagi said they have to be organized. However, she admits that she takes her job home with her in the evening.
"Your mind never shuts off when you're a teacher," she said. "I call them `my kids,' not `my students.' You think about them constantly."
Biagi thinks about the students whose home life is difficult. She thinks about ways to present the material so that students are engaged in learning.
"I do games all the time," Biagi said. "I'm not a worksheet teacher. I'm a hands-on-so-it-sticks-with-them teacher. The more they do it themselves, the more they understand."
That is not to say students don't work on writing and similar skills that are reinforced with worksheets. On Tuesday morning, they were learning about theme in reading class. After watching a short video, they completed a worksheet in which they identified the theme and the supporting points. However, that activity transitioned into the more active vocabulary game before settling back into a quieter reading time.
In addition to pacing the day with variety and giving students choices, Biagi incorporates music into her classroom.
"We start our day every day with a song. They have to be in their desks at the end of the song and ready to go," she said.
Biagi introduces them to a variety of music and is always looking for songs that reinforce something they are learning. Sometimes during the day, they just get up and dance a bit when they need to shake out the wiggles.
"They love it. They will request songs -- songs I don't expect them to request," Biagi said.
As a teacher, she also thinks about how to arrange the classroom to facilitate learning and to enhance opportunities to develop socialization skills. She admits that she rearranges frequently. This week the desks abut one another in two clusters with an aisle down the middle. Next week that may change.
"They need to learn how to work together and work with different people," she explained.
While she has philosophies to guide her teaching, Biagi doesn't rely on a specific approach in teaching. Rather, she recognizes that each group of students is unique and she will have to adapt her lessons to help each new class learn.
"We can kind of do what is best for our class," she said, placing her approach to teaching within the context of the district's. "What works this year might not work with next year's class. Every class is different. Every class has different needs. I kind of have to change my style every year."
The challenge of doing this doesn't bother her. Teaching runs in her family -- both of her parents were teachers -- and it's what she wants to do.
"I love working with kids," Biagi said. "To see their growth."