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!

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