Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Does Your Classroom Say About You?

This week's guest post is by Jessica Raba, the executive director of the Lutheran Schools Association in New York.

When I started teaching a little over a decade ago, I had visions of a functioning classroom that were akin to my own experience. Colorful walls displaying student work, lots of books, nooks and corners in which my students could get lost in said books, small desks with name tags on them facing the front of the room, impeccable teacher-made posters dotting the room, neat writing on the board, beckoning students to come in and learn. Blissful.

Fast forward a few years and my desks were much bigger (I was teaching middle school rather than elementary, as I'd originally intended), the room was colorful, there were books around, I'd created the corners and libraries to the best of my ability, but it wasn't as neat and impeccable as I'd prepared for in my first days of teaching. Fast forward to empty walls at the start of the year, beckoning for student work, desks without nametags, allowing for movement and less about ownership than a tool to help facilitate learning. Not perfect. Not necessarily blissful. But, more in line with a view toward real, messy learning.

Simply put, my vision of education and all the learning and teaching that go with it, had changed. Some years after that second scene, I imagine I'd do things much differently, but one key element would remain the same.

You see, in the years between my first year of teaching and the visions of perfect classrooms, I realized that I needed to shift my thinking, my starting point. I realized that I was beginning with the outward expression of school, rather than with the why of education and learning. I don't choose those words lightly, either. In college, I spent time working at a teacher store a few summers...I would stock shelves and run my fingers over cute bulletin board borders, nametags, posters, everything that I envisioned coming together to make the perfect classroom. I'd be the perfect teacher. Sure, maybe if I were to have my room featured in one of the teacher store catalogs.

But, not if I were to consider the students that would inhabit the desks over the year, and to deeply consider my goals for them.

In talking with a colleague the other day, the subject of classroom environment came up. He had the chance recently to visit a school that he'd never visited before. One of his key observations was the set-up of the classrooms he visited. Rather than rows, he saw desks grouped in clusters, and in place of the neat rooms we see in Hollywood's depictions of HS classrooms, he saw horseshoes that helped ensure that class participation in discussions was front and center. Those teachers' goals for students were pretty clear.

Each year, we have a blank slate in our classrooms, and I wonder if starting with the why of learning might help us to create classroom environments conducive to learning. The difference in the first two anecdotes of this post were that in the first, I set up my classroom and then began planning for learning. In the second, I planned for learning, and my classroom set up came next.

Where do you begin? What does your classroom say about you?

Consider these questions (certainly not an exhaustive list!) as you prepare for future learning, be it this year or in the years to come:

  • What do I hope for my students, this year, and in life?
  • What types of experiences will they need in preparation?
  • How might I set up the learning space such that these experiences are more likely to occur?
I'd love to hear from you -- how do you set up your learning space? Please feel free to share photos and ideas with me on Twitter (@jessicaraba), to get the conversation going!

Monday, April 21, 2014

When You Think You Can't...You Can

Make a list of all of the hurdles you encounter on a daily basis.  List out all of the reasons that you can't do what you were hoping to do.  Read through your list and then watch this.

Hurdles do not have to be hurdles if you really believe in what you're doing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Seat Signals

Seat Signals - In the Classroom

Once again, a simple piece of practical classroom advice taken from the essential Teach Like Champion, this strategy is called "seat signals".

The rationale is this: a student asking to go to the bathroom, or to get out of their seat for any reason can be very disruptive. A student arguing with a teacher who answers "no" to their request to leave can also be highly disruptive. Thus, the solution is fairly simple: a set of hand signals that signify common requests. 

The criteria for said signals must be

  • done from their seats
  • nonverbal
  • do not require verbal answers
  • posted on the wall
Some common ones include: 
  • hand up, two fingers crossed (Can I use the bathroom?)
  • hold pencil up (I need a new pencil)
  • left hand pinching nose (I need a tissue)
  • One finger held up in circular motion (I need to get out of my seat for whatever)
  • frisbee/fishing motions (Would you like to play frisbee and/or go fishing with me?)
Remember that when these things are not done out loud, you not only avoid derailing the momentum of your lesson, but you can also use every minute of your teaching time. Try it out and see what you can learn.