I've spent a lot of time in my classroom the past 4 days. Lots of time opening boxes and figuring out where things will go. I'm the kind of person who has to have the furniture moved into place before I can do much other organizing, so I had to start by considering where I'd put my large group space and the classroom library. Teacher desk was easy--it has to go near the data ports, and I shoved it against the wall so it doesn't take up too much space. One of my kids asked why I didn't have it facing the students' desks, and he seemed surprised to hear that I wouldn't be spending time there when the students were in the room. Made me realize again how much our environment can say about the teaching and learning that goes on in a classroom.
A teacher I trained 2 years ago called and wanted to meet last week to talk about changing how she does some things in her classroom. I was feeling pretty swamped and asked if she minded coming to talk while I unpacked boxes--not very good active listening, I know. But I did apologize to her and made sure that even though there wasn't lots of eye contact, I still was actively engaged in the conversation. It actually worked quite well, and I was struck how my body was physically unpacking the stuff of the classroom, while my mind was unpacking the teaching/learning that would happen there.
As we talked, Mrs. D. and I spent a lot of time discussing why we try to avoid things like packets of paper for kids and what it is the designers of the packets are trying to provide. Again, this is one of those things that can say a lot about what kind of teaching and learning is happening in a classroom. The research on paper packets or workbooks is not favorable--so why might a teacher decide to use them? One reason for the packets we were discussing was to provide practice for high frequency words and spelling words containing phonics patterns. Mrs. D. knows this is important, but also knows that there are other ways to engage kids more actively in this practice.
In training teachers, I use a handout from my training that I think came from Marie Clay via the Reading Recovery guidebook. It talks about 3 ways of remembering and integrating the visual, kinestetic and auditory parts of the brain. Mrs. D. and I talked about how she might have kids practice words in a center where yes, they would write words, but would also use magnetic letters to build them and would be taught to say the words and also say each letter while writing/building. By using laminated papers or white boards, she could even eliminate the need to copy quite so many papers. Her students may also be using cards from the word wall to practice alphabetizing words instead of completing a worksheet. They may look in their writing folders to locate words with a particular pattern or find high frequency words and make sure they are spelled correctly--one way to link the word learning to writing. And because they won't each be working on individual packets, Mrs. D.'s kids will be able to work together, taking advantage of the social aspects of learning and increasing opportunities for oral language centered on learning.
Talking with Mrs. D. got me thinking about what my students will be doing in the classroom and what spaces and routines we'd need for our work together--and what that will say about the teaching and learning going on in our room. After several years of thinking this through with new teachers as they go off to create their own classroom environments, I found it so energizing to be creating a classroom for my own students. Instead of discussing what and why and how and then considering several options for teachers who all have different grade levels, different blank spaces, and different styles, I get to consider this all for myself this year.
I loved having the change this week to not only physically unpack my classroom, but also mentally unpack my teaching decisions. How we organize our space and routines says a lot about our knowledge, beliefs and values about teaching and learning. And yes, I knew that, but having a chance to think and talk about it while actually in the act of creating my own classroom environment really helped me make some purposeful decisions.
I know there is a lot more unpacking to come.