Thursday, July 19, 2012

With angels as visitors dropping by...

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#Kinderblog2012 Summer Blogging Challenge, Question Numero Deux:

Tell us about one (or two, or a few) of the classrooms you have had over the years. Not the kids, the ROOMS. What have you  loved? What have you hated? How did you FEEL in the space? What did you DO with the space that, looking back, seems ridiculous? Or brilliant? We all spend so much time in our classrooms, we really do develop a relationship with the physical space. Tell us about that (those) relationship(s).

I know, I'm a little behind on this. What can I say - it's summer and it's hard to keep up with RUNNING the challenge AND participating in the challenge AND holding down the lounge chair on my patio with an iced coffee in my hand. Hopefully my story here is worth the wait.

When I finished grad school, my first teaching job was at a teeny weeny private school (known here as That School, not to be confused with This School, where I currently work), in a little town just south of The City. The town was small (24,000 people), the school was small (180 kids, in grades K-12), and the classes were small (maximum 12 kids per class, often fewer). The assignment was to teach a grade one/two split class, and while I know there is all kinds of debate on the merits and pitfalls of split classes, I will just say this: when you only have 10 kids in your class, you can manage damn near anything.

It was the first time that I set up MY OWN classroom - previously, "my" rooms had been already set up, by the program or facility where I was working. They were lovely, friendly, well-equipped and welcoming rooms, but I never felt ownership. About a week before school started, I arrived to check out my space, not even really sure what was involved in "setting up a classroom."

It. Was. Little. LORD, was that classroom little. I am very bad at square footage, but: I currently live in a  700 square foot condo, with a big kitchen and one generously sized bedroom; that classroom was about the size of my current living room. Imagine the smallest space necessary to accommodate 12 children and one teacher. Now cut off about 10 square feet. It was THAT little. It was in a funny place: right at the top of a stairway, with the door in a weird little nook that housed the doorway to the staff bathroom as well as the (only available) storage for my teaching materials. It was a funny shape: sort of a rectangle, with a bite out of it where the door was. There were 4 low, rectangle tables, and a teacher desk and chair.   There were no hooks for the children's coats and bags, only a handmade bank of 12x12 cubbies (1 per child), where they had to store backpacks, lunches, gym shoes, and outdoor clothing. There was no counter, no sink, no cabinets or cupboards or even shelving. I later wrangled 2 more trapezoid tables out of other classrooms, and dug 2 small bookcases out of my personal storage container (which was, conveniently enough, right next door to school). But adding more furniture meant subtracting square footage, and, well.... even 6 year-olds need room to WALK between the tables.

Congratulations, you have now seen THE ENTIRE classroom.*

Setting up the room was like a a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. How to make enough room for me, the kids, their belongings, their learning?  Everything had to be placed with exactly enough space to function, and not an inch more. I figured out precisely how much clearance I needed to be able to sit in my desk chair, and set my desk EXACTLY that far from the wall. The cubbies started EXACTLY where the edge of the door ended. The children HAD to sit or stand with their chairs pushed in because otherwise there was nowhere to walk. The calendar corner was the story corner was the play area was the group work area. We finished all of our art projects on the same day we started because there was NOWHERE TO PUT THEM other than on the wall. Everything we did had to be cleaned up completely before starting the next thing. I was offered a desktop computer for the room, and I declined - space was more precious than technology.

The space affected my pedagogy, to an extent I only realize in retrospect. I couldn't greet the children at the classroom door in the morning because THERE WAS NO ROOM AT THE DOOR IN THE MORNING. I greeted them each, by name, from my desk. The children HAD to do most of their work at their tables, because there just wasn't room anywhere else for them to go. I taught from my desk -- instead of walking around -- a lot, because (say it with me, now) there wasn't really room to walk around. 

And yet... I loved that little room. The only window faced straight east, across rolling green foothills, and I watched the sunrise nearly every day -- on my own in the fall and spring, and with the children in the dark days of winter. We called the table in front of that window "The Imagination Station," and the kids could sit there to draw or read or write or dream when they were done their work. I hung ribbons around the window, and clothes-pinned their artwork to the ribbon. Our story rug was actually an lap-blanket that my grandma had crocheted, just big enough for 10 little bottoms. I kept an electric kettle on my desk, and as the kids wrote in their journals first thing every day, the kettle would whistle softly, while my iPod played Beethoven and the sun rose outside. It sounds idyllic. It was.

The next year, I moved to a (relatively) bigger classroom at That School, and after that, to an (objectively) big room at This School. My room now has a wall of windows, miles of counter space, acres of cabinets, a separate coatroom, a sink and fridge and microwave, room for kids to move and play and have 25 projects on the go at once.  Make no mistake: I do love it, and I appreciate every last square inch of it.

But there was something about that little room (which I later learned was originally intended to be a large office for the Head of School) that keeps hold of my heart. We were cozy in there. We were together. We were safe. We were learning and laughing and holding hands. We were (perhaps more than in any other classroom I have had) a "WE."

*Oh, and the slates? Dollar store treasures! It was a tradition at that school to give the kids a small first-day-of-school gift from their teacher. I used the slates to identify their spots, and the kids took them home at the end of the first week -- because, of course, there was really no place to store them.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

#edcampkinder reflections: But I couldn't stay away, I couldn't fight it.

(Introductory note: #edcampkinder was a live meetup, in Las Vegas, earlier this week, attended by 10 teachers who are frequent fliers on the #kinderchat hashtag. Basically: we chose a destination, a hotel, and we hung out for 3 days. It was an ongoing conversation about What We Do, interspersed with pool-lounging and show-watching and buffet-eating, spread over the hottest 3 days in recent memory. A few of us had met in person before. Most of us hadn't. It was amazing and weird and terrifying and awesome.)

I was telling a friend -- a good friend, who knows me well and shares some of my homebody-introvert tendencies -- about #edcampkinder, and she commented: "I'm impressed you went, especially all by yourself. I don't know if I would be able to do that." Fact: it never occurred to me NOT to go. The timing worked, the cost worked, the destination worked. I went. Not only did I go, I helped plan the thing. I chose the hotel (FYI: there was shade at the pool!).  I encouraged others to go.

With all of this being said, there is no denying: #edcampkinder was, for the most part, a big fat blind date. And, if you know me like my friend does, you know this: I hate dating. HATE. IT. I hate small talk and chit chat and all the things that you do to make it feel okay that you are sharing a meal with a stranger. I hate strangers. In university, I had a roommate who talked all the time about how she LOVED meeting new people. Me? Not so much. I like MY People, but I do not find myself on a constant quest to have more People. It makes sense that my friend was surprised at my trip.

World's biggest blind date? Surprisingly non-awkward!
I do want to be clear, especially to my dear  #edcampkinder and #kinderchat friends who are reading this: I did not, for one moment in all of this, consider you true "strangers." We know each other. We talk nearly every day.  We tweet and e-mail and Facebook and google doc. We collaborate and cooperate and dream and scheme and plan together.  In 140 characters, you can know a surprising lot about a person.

But also: in 140 characters, you know everything and nothing about a person. Ditto for e-mail, Facebook comments, and online chats. Far too many years of online dating and internet-based camp staff hiring have taught me that. Lots of people give good e-mail/Facebook/Twitter. But until you see them, face to face across a hamburger or a latte or a cold Corona, the possibility remains that it is all just smoke and mirrors.

You see, I believe in chemistry, and not just in a romantic setting. I believe that there is something that happens when you are smiling and making faces and raising your eyebrows and pointing your fingers and waving your hands around when you talk to someone LIVE AND IN PERSON. At least, if you are me, you do all of those things when you talk. It's who I am and it's how I am and it surprises some folks when they meet me in person, but there it is: I'm a hand-talker. If that doesn't work for you, we probably can't be friends. Or something.

For all that I hate "getting to know" people, I love KNOWING people, and I love when people KNOW me. I love that spark of "oh, wow, dude, you totally GET me." I love discovering My People. And the very possibility - the still, small, hope of REALLY SEEING and being REALLY SEEN by another person... that's what got me, with all of my weirdoms (or what my #kindertwin, @matt_gomez, generously refers to as my "quirks") on a plane to meet 9 other teachers -- 6 of whom I had never met -- at a mid-range hotel on The Strip, in Vegas, for 3 days. The desert, in July. Dessert (preferably of the frozen variety) in the desert. With strangers.

And what did I find there? People I knew. People who knew me. Spine-tingling moments of "oh, wow, dude, you totally GET me." I REALLY SAW, and was REALLY SEEN. Hand-talkers. Finger wavers. Eyebrow-raisers. Sh*t disturbers. Smartasses. Kind hearts. Generous souls. Shared laughter. Some of it inappropriate. Oh yes, these are My People.

I have a list, on Twitter. A pretty darn short list, called "People I Actually Know." That list is a little longer than it was a week ago.  If you know me, if you REALLY KNOW me, you know: that, all by itself, is a pretty damn big deal.

Thank you, My People.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

But things come slow or not at all

So, yeah, I am running the #kinderchat summer blogging challenge again this year, and, as usual, I am among the last to post my own response. In the name of full disclosure, I started this draft weeks ago, and have been tug-of-warring with it ever since. But first, the question:

What did you learn this past (or, for our southern hemisphere friends, what ARE you learning this current) school year that you couldn't have learned any other year, from any other students or colleagues or administrators or parents? What lessons did this particular year, this particular setting, these particular children bring into your life?

Oh, Lord. THESE children...??? It has been a while since I had a group like this: a group who exhausted me, pushed me, needed me, questioned me, stretched me so much and so frequently. A group with whom I fell so utterly, completely, and hopelessly in love... In fact, I'm pretty sure the last group like this was not a class at all, but a group of teenagers on the side of a mountain high up in northeastern California. But that is another story, and will be told another time.

This group of kids questioned everything. EVERY. DAMN. THING. Why do we have to do this? Why do it this way? Why do we print letters starting at the top? Do I have to draw a bowl for my goldfish? Can I have a book at rest time? Can sit under the table to do my reading? Can I cut it out and THEN colour, or do I have to colour first? Why do I need to colour first? Why do we stand in a line? Why can't I sit on my knees if I can't see? Can I sit on a chair at circle? Why can't *I* choose my spot for lunch? And they didn't accept a simple "yes" or "no" or "because I said so." Why, Mme? Why not, Mme? I can do it that way at home, Mme, why not here? I was tired. Lord, was I tired. I am still tired. I may always be tired. But from that dark, bone-deep-tiredness has come some lightbulbs: moments of clarity that have changed me, my classroom, my teaching. 

So here: this is my list, far from exhaustive, of the things I learned this year, that only these children, these smart, funny, LOUD, quirky, demanding, stubborn, inquisitive, impatient, messy, sticky, and determined (did I mention LOUD?) children could have taught me.

    • Criss-cross-applesauce is overrated.
    • Walking in a perfectly straight line is rarely necessary.
    • Sitting in a chair to work is not a requirement. Kids can work standing up, or laying down, or crouched over, or squatting.
    • The traditional "Today is; Yesterday was; Tomorrow will be..." calendar routine is a waste of 30 minutes. Kindergartners don't conceptualize time that way.
    • I am not willing to expend energy to convince a child to complete anything in a workbook.
    • In most cases, following the steps of an activity in the exact order I demonstrate is unnecessary.
    • In many cases, my demonstration is unnecessary and may be detrimental.
    • Most activities that involve use of a photocopier have no place in my classroom.
    • If a lesson or activity is going to result in 18 perfectly identical completed projects, I probably have no interest in doing it. 
    • Many crafts, no matter how cute, are glorified worksheets.
    • Sitting perfectly still is not a reasonable expectation for anyone, never mind an active five-year-old.
    • Being perfectly silent is not a reasonable expectation for anyone, never mind an active five-year-old.
    • If the children are bored, I am boring.
    • If I am boring, I need to change something.
    • Bored, disengaged children are MY problem to fix.
    • The cure for boredom is engagement, not entertainment.
    • If I am going to ask children to do something, I better be able to explain why it matters.
    • If I am going to ask children to do something, I better BELIEVE why it matters.
    • There is no glory in winning a battle of wills with a five year old.
    • There may, however, be danger in LOSING a battle of wills with a five year old.
    • If I'm going to have a battle of wills with a five year old,  I better choose it carefully, and be prepared to win.
    • Even if it means spending my own lunch break supervising a child who is refusing to put away the train he hurled across the room.
    • No matter how many great transition songs I know, sometimes the best way to handle a difficult transition time is to eliminate it. (Ask me about the beauty of the snack centre.)
    • Respond as if you are assuming the best, even if you have solid grounds to assume the worst. Assuming, and responding as if,  a child has picked up a stray toy with the intention of putting it away creates an entirely different interaction than assuming she has picked it up to sneak it into her backpack.
    • There is always a back-story. The story rarely begins at "He hit me." The question "what happened before that?" is important. The story deserves to be heard.
    • If I want them to be calm, I need to be calm.
    • There is no shame in announcing to a room of kindergartners that "Mme needs a time-out."
    • I teach CHILDREN first. Before the program or the curriculum or the philosophy, my job is to TEACH. CHILDREN.
Important work happens, without a workbook, a photocopier, a chair or even a teacher demonstration.
It surprises me now, reading this list. These are all things that I thought I knew, or that it seems I should have known, long before these kids came along.  Many are things I thought I understood.

So maybe, what these kids taught this teacher is that we all, always, need teachers. It was an honour, a blessing, and a privilege, to be their student.