Monday, May 31, 2010

Lap Desks

Some people were asking me about the lap desks.  They are clear plastic document holders from Daiso ($2 each).  They are about an inch thick.  The clasps are not robust, and several students have snapped them off.  Some have stepped on their lap desks and cracked them or shattered them.  I do not replace them because I want students to take care of them (which may not happen if I just keep giving them new ones).  Some students have replaced them with zippered binders, but most like the light weight and convenience of the doc holders.   

The doc holders/lap desks have proven to be extremely versatile.  They hold pencils and the student planners, but not much more.  I noticed a few students are taking them to the library, and will take work outside and use the lap desks as something hard to write on.  They may even have become a source of pride. One girl takes her lap desk to assemblies where she likes to show it off.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deconstructing the Classroom

The Debate
Last week, my students debated about the importance of different forms of technology at the home, school, and community levels.  The two teams that debated school technology chose paper on one side and the building on the other, as the technologies that are essential to a school.  The debate was really interesting especially when you consider that my students are 7-9 years old.  The paper side explained how difficult it would be to read, write, do art, make displays, and do any work without paper.  The building team pointed out that the structure protects us from the weather, it is a place to keep our belongings, it gives us privacy, and does a good job of keeping us from getting eaten by bears.  All good points, I thought.

The Big Idea
So the big idea was, "What technology is essential to 'school'?"

The Application
As they were debating, I thought to myself, "We could do this."  So the next period, I had students write their names on a piece of paper, and then write which technology would be the easiest to go without at school.  After everyone committed,we put up a t-chart and tabulated the results on the Smartboard.  Interestingly, exactly half the students thought it would be easier to go without paper and the other half thought it was easier to go without the building.  Then we told them that the following Wednesday afternoon, those people who were thought paper was a less necessary technology would go without paper, and the people who thought the building was less important would go without the building. 
The Reaction
The students were shocked!  Well, except for one who figured I would try something like this.  They asked a whole bunch of clarifying questions like, "What if it rains?" (You'll probably get wet, so dress for the weather), "What are we supposed to write on?" (Anything that is not paper or a paper product), "What can we take outside?" (Anything you can carry), "What will we read?" (Anything that is not written on paper), "Can we go to the bathroom?" (Technically no.  For some of you, the bathroom will not exist, and for the rest, you can go, but you are not supposed to used toilet paper or paper towels.  Try to go before the afternoon starts).  We explained that the students would be given a number of regular school tasks to do, and the we gave them time to plan with their teams.  That day we sent home notices that some students would be outside for Wednesday afternoon.
The Experiment
When Wednesday rolled around, you could tell that the students were excited about the experiment.  As luck would have it, there was a light drizzle.  My teaching partner, Shane, and my volunteer, Kalee, went out with the No Building group, while I stayed inside with the No Paper group.  Both sets of students were convinced that their own situation was the easier of the two.  The teachers were not as convinced.
The Tasks
Task 1: Read silently for at least 20 minutes. 
No problem for the outside group, once they set up tarps under some trees and got their umbrellas out.  The No Paper group had a brief discussion and decided to put up a Tall Tale on the Smartboard, gather around and read it, silently and simultaneously.  There were drawbacks: not all of them could read it, they read at different speeds, there was no choice, etc.  But because they were all so committed to the task, NO ONE complained.
Task 2: Write a story that is at least 6 sentences long. 
The No Building group had few problems.  They used their lap desks or binders to write on and Shane provided them with paper.  A few of them forgot their pencils, but others loaned them supplies.
The No Paper group was really diverse.  They used chalkboards, whiteboards, and the computer.  Others wrote directly on their lapdesks with washable markers.  
Task 3: Show 5 different multiplication sentences.
The No Paper group just used the writing materials they used for task 2.
The No Building group was a little more creative.  They used materials from outside: 4 sets of 2 sticks, 5 clover equalled 15 leaves, etc.
Task 4: Draw a coloured picutre of a boat on the ocean in front of some mountains on a sunny day.
The rain started to come down, so the No Building group had trouble keeping their art dry.
The No Paper group did not erase any of their previous work (to prove task completion to the other team), so they were running out of surfaces.  They started writing on the filing cabinet, doors and the cupboard with dry erase pens.  I was impressed with their problem solving skills and ingenuity. 
Task 5: Create a display and a presentation to explain why your technology is so important to schools.
The No Building group had been out in the rain for over an hour, so Shane started to pack things up.
In the No Paper group, three students got this far.  Again, they used dry erase pens and any surface they could find. 
The Debrief
Both teams loved the experience.  They loved the novelty and their own success and ingenuity.  Anita, our Learning Support Teacher, asked them if they enjoyed the experience so much because it was for a short time.  The students replied that they would love to try it again for an entire week.  The students asked the other team questions, and they saw that they saw that buildings and paper are not absolutely necessary to school.  They realized that you could learn without either, but that both certainly make learning more convenient.  I really tried to push the idea that they could take their learning with them wherever they went, but I think the students really got that concept based on their experience. 
The Residual effects
I learned that some students are more resilient and resourceful that I thought.
I learned that some students work extremely well with a series of short, sequential tasks that they can do at their own pace.
I learned that some of my resistant writers work very well on vertical surfaces.  Even today, I posted foolscap paper on the chalkboard and it yielded more writing out of some students than I thought possible.
I learned that when students have task commitment, they will work harder, more harmoniously, more cooperatively, and with more ingenuity than usual.  I think that with the experiment, students really thought they had something to prove and worked to prove it.
I learned that routine is important for creating strong habits, but novelty will yield growth in unexpected areas.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Any reinforcement?

Before I settled on the riser idea (from the visit to the Museum of Anthropology), I went searching for design ideas on the Internet.  I was really surprised how few websites are devoted to classroom design or even variations in educational furniture.

There was one site that was interesting, but it is based on school design, not classroom design.
This site is good if I had a big pile of money and wanted to overhaul an entire building, (but I thought I'd start small first), and some of them look like Schools by Ikea.  However, there are a couple of interesting ideas that are school-based.

I guess I still like my design concept because it does not require huge piles of money or a bulldozer, but I was kind of hoping for some confirmation from other websites about my design.  The closest things I have seen so far are some Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia ideas because they are so exploratory and organically-based.

A Montessori-based classroom from

A Waldorf classroom from  

A Reggio Emilia-based classroom

But as interesting as these classroom ideas were to me, I still found that they did not fit my requirements.  My biggest priorities for my classroom design were:

  • The design should not reinforce the "industrialization" approach of a classroom.

  • It should reflect an exploratory, hands-on approach.

  • It should provide flexibility and allow for choice for my students. 

  • It should be comfortable, innovative, and stylish, with a bit of whimsy.

  • The design should cost as little money as possible.  (Did I mention that I am footing the bill for all of this?)
My staff went out to visit an alternate school in the city (I'm in the suburbs).  I was really hoping to see something really different in terms of classroom design.  I was impressed with some aspect of their school design (geothermal heating, rain barrels, break out walls), and their programs (no letter grades, multi-age groupings, collaborative teaching), but I was a little disappointed in terms of their classroom design.  It just looked like another new school.

There is this great mentor teacher, Penny, who comes to visit our school.  I asked her if she knew of any classrooms with interesting designs, and described what I was looking for.  She told me of a few options, but she said something interesting: "I know we always want to go and see a model of what we are doing.. but what if there wasn't one out there.. what if you were going to be the model.. would that change things for you?" 


I like to think of myself as an innovator (though it really turns out that I just can't follow directions), so, with no reinforcement and no models to follow, my teaching partner and I forged ahead.  In some ways, it was very liberating because we could make things up as we went along and could allow for flexibility. 

Friday, May 07, 2010

More Reactions (from Kids, Parents, and Me).

Yesterday we had Student Led Conferences (where students bring in their parents to show them their work and their progress).  I wondered how parents were going to react to the new look of our classroom.  After all, no desks, some weird looking benches to sit on, and eclectic decorations that fell out of some yoga hut could raise some eyebrows.  I thought that because it was so different from what they were used to, the parents might reject it outright.

When our first wave of parents came in, you could tell that they were really focussed on their child's work and weren't really paying attention to the decor (which, as an educator, you really want).  And then, little by little, parents would walk in and say things to their child like, "Oh, so this is what you were talking about."  From that I could tell that students had indeed talked it up a bit at home. 

On the agenda of things to show their parents, I had students take their parents around the classroom, and also outside to the bulletin board.  Out there, I had a big banner that said "The Big Idea Is: Take Your Learning Wherever You Go," and then an explanation of the reasoning behind the risers and the new look.  (Actually, the text was an edited version of this blog).  I also had reactions from each of the students (including, "Awesome!", "I love the risers." and "I like it, but sometimes I think it is a bit much").  My parents seemed to get the reasoning and told me so.  In my guest book, the comments were all really positive about the conferences and the decor.

The really interesting reactions were from students and their parents who were not part of my classroom.  There was curiosity, astonishment, confusion ("Where are your desks?") and wonder.  A couple of students who used to attend my school (but not my class) who now attend middle school did not like the no desk approach.  "I like having my own place to put my stuff," one boy said.  I replied, "That's interesting.  Especially as you move classrooms throughout the day way more than my students do." We had a good conversation and neither one of us managed to totally convince the other.  I also had parents from the other classes drop by to have a look, parents who I've never talked to before.  Their interest was, well, interesting.  I don't know if I got across the idea that I was trying to "de-industrialize" education, but I got a lot of reaction, mostly positive.

My conclusion is, based on all of these reactions, people who know me, get me, so any weird thing I do is just part and parcel of my experimental, off-beat approach to teaching.  Look at my students' initial reaction: quiet, curiosity, but no wild reaction.  The parents mirrored this reaction especially once they understood the reasoning.  I am hoping that all of this stems from the relationships I have built with my students and their parents.  They know I will try just about anything to help learning.  Some things work, and some things do not, but because some of the successful attempts are really successful or because my heart is in the right place, people are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.  It just reminds me that relationships and trust are so important.  I am also trying to model some positive risk-taking.  If it's not going to hurt anything, and it might effect a positive change, why not try it?

Though this last bit sounds kind of high and mighty, I have to remind myself that a lot of this whole idea is just based on plain fun.  I had fun coming up with the idea.  I had fun designing the risers and the look of the classroom.  I had fun watching everyone's reactions.  I had fun with the students who helped me with assembly and sanding.I had fun problem solving and bashing ideas about with my teaching partner.  And I am having a lot of fun documenting the whole journey here on this blog.

The process has been incredibly fun (not to mention a bit time-consuming), but it gives me another reason to look forward to my time in my classroom.