Sunday, June 27, 2010

Do It Yourself? The Why, the How, and the Cost.

Someone asked me for some suggestions about how one might start "revisioning" their own classroom.

The Recipe
Basically, there are 2 parts.
  1. Remove anything that works against whatever vision or atmosphere you are hoping to achieve.
  2. Bring in anything that will enhance your vision.
I know this is brutally simplistic, but sometimes we need some cut and dried guidelines to keep things clear.

What I Cut
When I created The Space, the teachers' lounge, (see Origin blog entry), I cut out anything that reminded us of kids or school, and I brought in anything that was calming (e.g. soft mood lighting, draping fabrics, couches, herb teas and cappuccino, old jazz music playing on the CD player). 
When I started this same process in my classroom, my idea was to make it less industrial looking.  I started by removing anything "schooly": commercial posters, display borders, desks, pocket charts, etc.  That also included removing anything that looked institutional, but that proved difficult or impossible.  For instance, some of the institutional elements included: the ugly wall brackets, the ugly walls themselves, and the life-sucking fluorescent overhead lighting.  So I got rid of the shelf brackets, covered one feature wall with blue borderless paper (though the cloud sponge painting was a mistake I won't repeat), and draped sheer netting along the ceiling to soften the space and the lighting.  I was still stuck with the ugly carpet, the window, the sink, the beige counters, the beige cupboard, the blue doors, the digital clock with built-in p.a. speaker, the cloakroom, and the white drop ceiling.  The rest, as far as I was concerned was mutatable.

I did keep a number of schooly things:
  • tubs for my books (until I can afford wicker baskets).
  • some class-made reading posters.
  • a teacher desk and a filing cabinet (my teaching partner could not live without them, though I will turf them next year.  My desk takes up a lot of space and I never sit there, but do manage to pile up a whole lot of detritus on it).
  • my Smartboard and whiteboard.
  • a few desks (for those students who liked or needed them).
  • a few school tables (you know the ones; metal with coloured enamel top).
  • two trolleys with the pull out tubs (for student supplies, seeing as I removed their desks).
I kept these things out of necessity or because I couldn't find a more organic replacement for them (yet).

What to Bring In
Here are the things I bought: 
  • 3 tall risers and 3 short risers ($100. Built by me and materials from Rona. These were a replacement for the desks, and to me were essential for de-schooling my classroom).
  • sheers.  ($7. Lill by Ikea.  I draped these along the ceiling to diffuse the lights).
  • indoor/outdoor carpet ($30.  Walmart.  These hid the ugly industrial carpet and defined a group area.  I don't recommend this particular carpet because it snagged a lot).
  • drapery panels ($12. Jysk These replaced the 20 year-old drapes that were there).
  • led lights ($6 ebay.  Blue, low energy, and programmable.  They gave a calming, happy feeling).
  • doc holders ($50.  Daiso.  These acted as lapdesks.  Pieces of plywood or clipboards would work well too).
  • frames for each child (Made from $30 of crown molding.  My dad and I actually made these 6 years ago.  They make for an attractive, but authentic way for the students to display work or art.  My students changed what they displayed as often as they wanted).
  • pneumatic shop stool ($25.  Canadian Tire.  A backsaver.  I can wheel around the classroom and be at the student's level.  The stool is small so it takes up little space, and it is pneumatic, so I can be at a number of heights). 
 Here are the things I brought from home:
  • some floor and clamp lamps to replace the overhead lights.
  • cushions to make the risers more comfortable.  Students brought some in too.
  • a wire 45 record rack from a garage sale.  This was used to display books students published.
Here are some things I still need:
  • more cushions.
  • I would love to have more or only organic materials in my classroom, but that may not be practical or financially possible. 
  • some of those reusable shopping bags.  The students could keep their lapdesks in them.  I had bought those cardboard magazine holders so students could keep their reading books in them.  The magazine holders are not terribly robust, but the fabric bags would be tougher.  I think I'll hang them from hooks along the wall so there is easy access to them.  Also, it would be easier for students to take their learning with them wherever they went.
Your Mileage May Vary
Do you need all of these things?  NO!  These were things that fit my vision.  They may not fit yours.  If I was to recommend the essential items for my vision, they would be: the risers and some kind of lapdesks (to be rid of commercial desks) and the sheers (because of soft halo effect it had on the lighting).

What is important is what is important to you.  When you think of your idea or ideal of education, what does that look like in your head?  When you get that concept, then make your classroom a place that reflects your vision.  If you want an active classroom, then create a place that has an open floor plan.  If you want independence, then create a number of different places where students can go.  If you want lots of hands-on, then create large work spaces.  If literacy is your cornerstone, then make your library your focus and have easy access to writing materials.  If you want lots of social interaction, then have meeting spots, couches and a communal space.  If technology is your focus, then get a bunch of power bars.  If you want peace and serenity, you might not want the classroom next to mine.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Who? Where?

Organic Learning
I am inspired by what Ken Robinson said about education that it should be an agricultural model instead of an industrial one.  When did learning get so institutionalized?  No wonder students can't see the connection between school and the outside world.  We've created an isolated micro-world that does not resemble what students see as reality.  I get that schools need certain structures to function because of certain parameters, but when did those structures start taking over the very nature of learning? 

(Apart from the fashion and technology, is this really that different from classrooms today? 
It probably even has the same effect and effectiveness).

Special Tactics and Weapons of Mass Instruction
Don't get me wrong.  I've done all those school things: put kids in rows so they'll stop yacking at each other and pay more attention to me, used grades as carrots and the goal of learning, stepped in and solved kids' problems just so I can get on with my lesson, etc.  And I'll probably use those tactics again in the future.  But that's all they are: tactics, a short term technique to solve a short term problem when I have nothing else to fall back on.  I don't try to base my philosophy or way of teaching on my tactics, but sometimes I wonder.

It's Not WHAT You Know
In Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, he talks about how we ask ourselves about the how and the why  and the what of teaching, but we rarely ask ourselves about the who of teaching.  We have strategies, reasons, and curriculum to help us teach, but we don't really look at what is it about ourselves that makes us teach or teach the way we do.  So when I use power or traditional tactics in my teaching, I now ask myself, am I using these things because that is who I am, or am I using these things in spite of who I am.  Either way, it is not very pleasant for my ego.  Am I so shallow that I have to rely on cheap tactics to manipulate kids into doing what I want them to do?  Or am I falling back on these things because that's all I have and am doing it despite knowing better?  Sometimes it is tough to be mortal.

My intent with the whole transformation in design was to give kids an alternative.  It is not what they think of as school, so hopefully they will have to rethink "school."  But in reality, my present classroom is not a place that reflects my students' reality.  Some of them come from some tough backgrounds, so I did not necessarily want to duplicate that.  Perhaps my classroom is becoming more of a vision of what we'd like our school and world to become: a place of peace, choices, learning, and possibilities.

Palmer and More
Hmmm.  Maybe Palmer is right.  My teaching is more about who I am than I thought and my vision for my classroom says more about me than I thought.  I am creating my own utopia with my students. Whew, talk about ego!  But I don't think there's anything wrong with teaching kids:

You can learn all the time.
You can learn from anyone.
You can learn anywhere.

So I'd like to add to Palmer's treatise that sure we need to ask ourselves about the who of teaching, but also the where of learning.  In my vision of real learning, kids learn from themselves as well as through their experiences.  And if they happen to be learning at school, then the atmosphere that each teacher creates is a reflection of who they are as people.  Hopefully, as Ken Robinson puts it, those teachers are creating the right conditions for learning, just as a farmer creates the right conditions for growing.   

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A great book. A great webcast.

A Timely Discovery
We were down in the States a few weeks ago.  My wife took me to Borders bookstore because she wanted to show me this book that she thought I might be interested in.  It was a weird looking book.  It was black and orange with this stylized stain on the outside.  Without even really looking at the cover, I started leafing through the pages.  At first, I had trouble reading it because the page I turned to had enormous writing that filled the entire page (think 72 point font in orange on a black page).  Sure, I am all for cool design, and maybe I need glasses, but in order to get the page in focus, I had to back up into the next section (Sensuality; I know, odd to put by the Parenting/Educational section.  By the way, never back into the Sensuality section.).

When I settled down and actually started to read the book, I saw what my wife saw in it for me.  It was called The Third Teacher, and it talked about how classroom design is the Third Teacher.  The more I read, the more I liked.  It is written by designers and theorists about how they think education should be, and it is a refreshing change from most educational books I read.  There is very little educationese.  Basically, the book is a series of 79 concepts (like #8: Let the Sunshine In; or #15: Display Learning), each on a page, and then the following pages explain the concept or give examples.

I got as far as #3: Cherish Children's Spaces, and knew I had to have the book.  My wife must have seen the look in my eye and offered to buy it for me as an early Father's Day present.  Bonus!  I picked it up and thought I would read it cover to cover.  And then, I wanted to keep for when I had time to read it with due care and attention.  As it turns out, the book makes for an excellent bathroom read: flip open randomly to a concept page, and then it you have time, continue to read the exploration of that concept.  So my journey through the book has been fairly random.

I've Lost My Palm, but Gained the Touch
The day before I went down to the States, I bought an iPod Touch.  Why?  Because my Palm PDA that I've used for years died suddenly.  I thought I could get away with going without, but as I forgot where I was supposed to be, could not jot notes (that I could successfully find later), could not access the plans I had stored, etc., I realized that because of my failing memory, I could no longer rely on non-electronic means.  They don't even manufacture PDAs, so the next best thing was the iPod Touch.  I used my niece's for a few minutes last Christmas and was not impressed, and I was even less impressed when I bought mine and it wouldn't sync.  The day I got back from the States, I took my iPod to my niece's and was able to get it working.  Talk about Love at Second Sight!

Okay, what does this have to do with education?
One of the things I love about the Touch is how easily it shows YouTube videos, and one of the videos that popped up in iTunes U was the TedTalk by Sir Ken Robinson (Think: Michael Caine has a child with Kenneth Branagh).  I'd seen his talk four years ago about trying to put creativity back in education, and I took it to heart.  His latest TedTalk is about how schools are in need of a drastic transformation from "an industrial model to an agricultural model."  I was so excited when I heard this!  It was the exact idea I am exploring with the transformation of my classroom; I wanted to take the factory-ness out of education and try to create better, more organic conditions for learning.  I just never thought of it in terms of agriculture.     

The next time I opened The Third Teacher (in "the Reading Room"), I found a piece by who else?  Sir Ken Robinson.  It seems like all the planets are lining up.  I wouldn't be surprised now if I saw Ken lined up at the local Starbucks holding The Third Teacher

By the way, once in a while, I even use my iPod to play music.

The Third Teacher website:

Robinson's TedTalk:

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Good Concept, But Not An Original One

Safety in Numbers?
Remember how I asked Penny, the great mentor teacher, to find me some examples of interesting, organic uses of design in the classroom?  She told me, "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 actually thought it would be exciting to be breaking new ground, forging new molds, exploring new horizons...  All that great and self-important stuff.

Even though I wanted to be the root of my own innovation, I kept an eye out for models or literature about classroom design.  Unfortunately, most of what I found really had to do with school design (like  which I can't afford yet, or integrating technology (like  which is not really my interest right now because I want something a little more organic.  However, I did scour every one of the 150-odd sites on the site mentioned and did come across one site that was a little comforting and a little disappointing. 

Like Wearing the Same Dress as the Hostess, It Can Be Nice to See That Someone Has the Same Tastes as You, But Still Disconcerting for All Involved
I found this company called Isis in the UK that makes some interesting educational furniture.  One piece is called the StepSeat.  (Shown below from

Look familiar?
No, I don't think they lifted the idea from me (especially as they seemed to have it first).  And no, I didn't lift it from them (because I really lifted it from the Museum of Anthropology).  Chalk it up to Coldplay having a song that sounds remarkably like a Joe Satriani song from five years ago.  Sometimes the same inspiration hits people from different places at different times.  (See the Popeil PastaMaker and the Canon PaperShredder, Lady Gaga and Madonna, etc.).  So I was comforted to see that someone else thought it was a good idea, but disappointed that I am not the innovator I thought I was. 

Sometimes Cheap and Shoddy Is Better Than Expensive and Well-Made
There are, however, big design differences between Isis's design and mine.  Let me tell you all the ways that my design is far superior to Isis's (and leave the huge design flaws of mine to your imagination). 

  1. Mine is versatile.  I can tip mine over on its side to create different kinds of workspaces. The top deck and the bottom deck of mine are separate so that they can be used for different applications.   My design can be used as multilevel tables.  The StepSeat  is basically one piece and can be used as a seat or as a really wide ladder for getting those cans of soup from the top shelf (en masse).

  2. Mine is easily moved.  Its weight makes it easy to lift and the bottom supports act like skis so that they can be slid all around the classroom.

  3. Mine has enough room on the bottom deck so that the front people don't have to sit on the top people's stinky feet.

  4. Though mine does not have any (built in) storage, the open design has several advantages: low weight, students like to read and lie down under the risers, and students are able to sit in many directions (not just facing forward).  (See the photo below where students are sitting in two directions in three planes).  I would not give these capabilities up to put in storage.  I can also see my kids running head first into the StepSeat's storage doors during an earthquake drill.

  5. I could afford my risers.  Even the ones that were not made from recycled wood probably only cost me $20, (not including the experience of making them, which is priceless).  I doubt I could afford the Isis.

  6. I can take my risers apart again.  If I decide to use less risers or move them, I can unscrew the tops from the supports.  The StepSeat looks like it is staying that way for a while.  I can also fit the parts in my Mazda 3 (which is how I transported them from my home).

  7. Mine looks more organic.  The StepSeat looks like a piece of nice furniture.

Convinced?  Probably not, but I'll sleep better tonight knowing I tried.