It’s that time of year again, returning teachers. We begrudgingly pack our scant supplies that we hid out of eyesight all break into our vehicle, make the treacherous trek to the school parking lot, and experience a deja vu – esque sensation, asking ourselves: did summer really happen?
We unload boxes into our classroom, scan the scenery and assess the damage. Did the holes get patched up? Did the phallic symbol etched into the wall get repainted? Why is my file cabinet on the other side of the classroom? Gone are the days of yore, spying our first ever classroom through rose-colored glasses full of wonderment – this is where I will change the world. Instead, our cynical lens is critical, less idealized.
We know the hardships and heartbreaks we face, and – yet, we also know the highs alongside the lows, the moment where one child learns something meaningful to take with them into life; the moment where one child cries, and we open our arms to comfort them, teaching them more than just curriculum, but that someone cares; the moment where a child writes you a note on a post-it that says “I ❤ you! Have a good day! :)” the moment where we cry, to our horror, but it humanizes us to them, and they comfort us; the moment where we realize that we can’t help everyone, but we can help someone, and if we can help someone, we do change the world. And so, we come back year after year, we take a deep breath, open our storage cabinets, and get to work transforming a jail cell into a home.
I teach high school – 10th grade – sophomores. I have never taught elementary school, but it always bothered me how sterile some high school classrooms felt when I was a student. My favorite secondary teachers always had classrooms that transported me somewhere else for 56 minutes. There was correlation there for me – a teacher put effort into making her classroom welcoming, which had to mean she cares, right? In a secondary classroom, color, thought, warmth stood out, and my interest was piqued. As a teacher, I’ve made it my goal to be that teacher that made me feel comfortable in her classroom. And, ironically, I teach in one of those self-same classrooms that I did not dread stepping into day-to-day, but that provided me asylum without feeling like an asylum.
Here is a glimpse into the hearth I have warmed for my students:
Covering the walls is critical. The walls are mostly white, which, paired with the harsh lighting, causes the hospital atmosphere. I’m not into decorating my room “thematically,” which might be ironic, considering I’m an English teacher. What is important to me is color, student work, and references to literature they will be reading. This applies to the ceiling as well. I won’t try to take credit for my cool ceiling. My high school teacher, whose room this used to be for many, many years, is responsible for most of these ceiling tiles. I have added a few each year as my own students become inspired by the ghost of students past. (If you’re wondering how this task has anything to do with English class – consider a project where students have an option to represent an important theme and/or symbols on a ceiling tile. Pair the artwork with a written analysis.) Providing the option to blend the arts together is a gift to your artistic students (and often results in a gift to your wall or ceiling in the form of amazing artwork).
Having a well stocked bookshelf is a must in any classroom, not just English. We all have that one student who finishes every assignment early, then twiddles his thumbs, or wants to play on his phone. Offering a plethora of worlds to enter should be commonplace, encouraging students to continue stimulating their mind, rather than their thumbs. I have inherited books from other teachers, my mother-in-law (who is also a teacher), half-priced books (often, they keep boxes of books aside for teachers to take home), the list goes on. Books are easy to come by. This entire library cost me literally no money. Don’t let the idea that it would cost too much money stand in your way. Now, I, personally, do not take the time to organize my bookshelf. (Take a deep breath, type A readers.) I intentionally do not organize the books for 2 reasons.
- I like kids to spend more time seeing all options, rather than looking immediately for J.K. Rowling (not knocking Harry Potter. I am, in fact, a certified Ravenclaw.) I just like to see kids peruse books they may never have heard of, and I frequently have kids check out new books from my library.
- Teenagers are walking tornadoes. If I cared to organize my bookshelf, I would have to re-organize it daily or weekly. Nobody, especially teachers, has time for that mess.
Maintaining a schedule is not only good for the students, but it is great CYA for all teachers. I dedicate an entire board to schedule, both daily, weekly, and monthly. Each day, I write the objective beside the “I can” statement. Each week, I write each day’s topic in the appropriate box. Students can preview the week and quickly figure out “Okay, we are talking about point of view in To Kill a Mockingbird on Tuesday.” If there is a test, I’ll put a star on that day as a visual queue. I also list all due dates in the immediate future under the “I Can” statement. This puts the accountability on the students. There is never reason for Sally to say, “I didn’t know there was a project due.” I don’t even have to use my words. I can just point to the board. I do not miss that board at all. Between the white board and projector screen, I have enough space to use for visuals without the blackboard.
Grouping students is scary, but helpful. Most high school classrooms I stepped foot in had students in rows and, sometimes, I move mine into rows (on test days, for example). However, grouping students is positive for the classroom for several reasons.
- Creating student pods contributes to a positive classroom culture. Students are not isolated from one another, but forced spatially to get to know one another and have conversations. As long as the groups change periodically, students quickly become comfortable within the classroom, and it creates a family atmosphere. This family atmosphere allows for Socratic discussion, avoiding the dreaded crickets teachers tend to hear when asking a question to the class.
- Students learn from each other. Yes, copying is a problem, and no classroom is completely devoid of cheaters. You may think that grouping students will lead to rampant copying and cheating and, in moments, you may be correct. However, the conversations students have with each other seals their learning. Sometimes classmates have experience that contributes to the lesson beyond even the teacher. Having peers to talk to, share experiences with, and learn from is excellent. You will quickly figure out which students can’t be grouped together, of course, but you will also see which students act as peer tutors to others and encourage positive behavior. (Hey, I’ve even had students bring candy to motivate a student in their group who was typically poorly behaved.)
- Providing each pod with their own materials helps classroom management. Any teacher who has had “community” materials is familiar with the woes of project days. The location of these materials quickly becomes a hub of fraternization. Students sneak over to the supplies over and over again as an excuse to get out of their desk and see other friends in the classroom. This also leads to traffic in the classroom, taking time away from the activity as a line to the supplies forms. The classroom quickly becomes chaotic (and not the controlled kind). When each group has their own supplies at hand, it eliminates these issues. They know to find all supplies in the drawers of their storage bin, and they don’t have to move at all. It saves time and entire activities by maintaining the classroom management.
- Some of you may be thinking this is an exceptionally expensive venture, and it really is not. (Hey, I’m on a teacher budget, too.) The storage bins, typically are $10, but before school starts, they go on sale for between $5 and $8. Even assuming they are $5, that quickly becomes $40, which is still, arguably, pricey. I avoided this by purchasing two bins at a time each time I went to Wal Mart during the summer. I broke it up, so I was never spending $40 in one sitting. As for the supplies within each bin, there are multiple ways to save money. You can buy in bulk, then separate the materials. I, however, wait until all supplies are on sale right before school starts. Whole packages of markers are under a dollar. I buy each group one package of markers, crayons, scissors, glue, and notebook paper. I seldom spend more than $20 getting these supplies; it’s all about timing.
Having an entry table is also a great time-saver. Teaching students to collect handouts and journals (or other supplies) as they enter the classroom helps class run smoothly. You don’t have to go group to group handing out readings or worksheets. You don’t have to wait as students collect or take out their journals. (My students’ journals must live in the bins in my classroom, so there is not an “I don’t have mine” excuse.) Creating a routine where students know to grab whatever is on the table along with their journal each day expedites the learning process. It’s also a great place to post relevant information. During the school year, I’ll post schedules and other information on the bulletin board.
Maintaining your own space in the classroom is crucial for teacher sanity. Every teacher needs a corner with a “do not pass” zone, a small space in the world for themselves. I choose not to box myself in with my desks because I don’t spend much time there throughout the day. I try to make it quick and accessible, so I can stop and check my email or take attendance, then get back out there to my students. I also decorate my area with my interests (I am Disney obsessed). This helps humanize me to my students, and they even contribute to my area, whether it’s with a project suited to my taste, a quick drawing, or even a gift from their recent trip to Disney world!
In a short time, this classroom will flood with minds for molding. My recipe for success in the classroom may not suit your tastes, and that’s okay. This is what works for me, what allows me to develop relationships with students that leads to mutual respect and, most importantly, learning. When I first open my cabinets, after the initial feelings of dread, I work fastidiously to create an inviting environment for the future of our world, and, by the end of the day, I can look at my classroom with a smile, knowing that it is ready to accept the next generation. I think to myself, even now, this is where I can change the world.