Building Effective Classrooms: The RSI Spiral

I’m going to offer you my best classroom advice, distilled through 20+ years of doing this work, and built on the research, practice, and wisdom of so many others. Simply put, here it is: Relationships. Structure. Instruction. Spiraling, in that order. To build a strong classroom, we begin with relationships, move into structures, and finish with instruction. It looks something like this:

Build Strong Relationships. Make the extra effort to make eye contact, to call students by name, and to learn a couple of facts about their lives outside of school. And offer, as Zaretta Hammond puts it, selective vulnerability. Remember that the students in our care are little people before they are students, and we may never know when they might need some extra evidence that they are seen, heard and loved–and not alone.

Set Up, Teach & Systematize Classroom Structures. Hold morning meeting, every morning. Get the middle and high school kids into advisory.  If you have a way kids always enter your class, use it daily and train the students to run it.  Make sure students know where backpacks, bodies, and materials go for the start of the class. If you have taught the kids that circles are places that hold us together (and I hope you have!), circle them up on the regular. For the youngest ones, morning meeting may be enough.  For older ones, consider leaning into a Council practice. Teach them the norms of well-run circles: to listen and speak from the heart; to say just what needs to be said; to witness back to the circle what they’ve heard; and to work together to move from the primary sources of circle stories into the secondary sources of curriculum. Classrooms with tight structures need fewer rules (which kids love), and less classroom management triage (which everybody loves).

Then Offer Rigorous, Student-Centered Instruction. Plan what you will teach (content objective) and plan how the students will make meaning with that material (language objectives). Spend more of your time getting students to actively engage with skills that will transcend grade, content, and school life (skills like reasoning and using evidence) and less time delivering lectures on specialized content (like a list of exact dates of battles). If it makes sense in your school model, look for a way to turn traditional units into literacy-based PBL. No matter what instructional framework you use, ensure that you have adequate checks for understanding, regular opportunities for student discourse, and a way to ensure all students are accountable for learning (universal accountability). Finally, be sure that your assessment aligns with what you are teaching and what the students are practicing.

When you build a classroom (or take over a classroom), these serve as highly impactful objectives. Start at relationships. Next leverage your newly-made allies, and your sense of humor, to put your structures in place. This bears repeating: teach your structures as if they were your core content until they are mastered. Then, and only then, begin digging deeply into your academic content.

But the real magic of this framework goes beyond classroom set up. It offers a powerful SWOT-like analysis for examining established classrooms when things aren’t working. While you build a classroom from the ground up with relationships, when something is not working, you travel the same path, but in reverse. You begin by checking the quality of your instruction. If that is solid, you next analyze your classroom structures. If the structures are in place, you then you look at your relationship to the class as a whole. The diagram below shows the way the RSI Spiral might play out as you evaluate a classroom scenario. Start at the top, and answer each question in sequence. If at any point, you answer “no” to one of the questions below, STOP.  Stop and repair what’s not working. Then, go back to the beginning of the analysis and start again. Stop at each pain point and do some repair.

If you answer yes to every one of these questions, and there is something still not working, you have to spiral inward from the class as a whole to look at key, individual students in the room. You conduct the same analysis, starting with instruction, with individual students in mind. We need to move into this sort of analysis because even if we have our instruction and structures in place for a class, and even if we have a strong relationship with the class as a whole and most of the individuals in it, there may be certain students for whom what you are doing is not working. The questions we might ask when applying the RSI Spiral to a single student are slightly different, but the heart of them is the same:

  • Instruction:Have I differentiated, accommodated, or modified the material and assessment appropriately to the needs of this student?
  • Structures: Does this student understand the structures that are in place? Do they have a role in those structures? Do they have at least one structure they either like or are really good at? Do they need another, an adjusted, or a different structure to support them, given their learning profile?
  • Relationship: Do I like this student? Seriously. Can I find something about this student to like? Do they know I like them? Do I use this student’s name? Do I give this student precise praise for appropriate action? Do I know anything about this student outside of their school life? Have I ever laughed with this student?

The bottom line is this: relationships get students to want to learn and have a statistically significant impact on whether or not learning takes place. Your structures tell them that it’s safe to learn in your room. Only with these needs met can your instruction flourish.

In addition to those hyperlinked in the text above, consider the following supplemental resources:

  • Craig, Susan E. Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt. Paul H. Brookes Pub., 2008.
  • Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. Corwin Press, 2014.
  • Jensen, Eric.Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. ASCD, 2013
  • Responsive Classroom. The First Six Weeks of School. Center for Responsive Schools, 2015.


Sherre Vernon is a principal coach with Ensemble Learning. You can continue the conversation about effective classrooms with her at To connect with Ensemble Learning to improve instruction and equity at your school, reach out to Ensemble CEO Elise Darwish at

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