Saturday, January 29, 2011

Centre of Attention

A while back, I had a chance to work with some teachers with whom I did not usually work.  I noticed something that they did that back then that  I recently recognized as interesting.  The students would all be working on something independently, and these teachers would request a student to do something as if the class had been watching us all along.  I've done it too: the class is reading silently or working on something, an idea comes into my head, and I yell across the classroom for Bob to come over so I can ask him something. It is on the scheme of things no big deal, but it is something that I am going to try not to do anymore.  Why?  After all, it it my job to get kids to do something, and be the leader of the classroom?

Yeah, that's exactly why I'm going to try not to disturb the my students' learning with interactions that don't concern the entire class.  I expect the same thing of my students, (Hey you guys!  Can you keep it down?  I'm trying to work with Bob and I can't hear him, and he's right beside me), so why do I do such a bad job of modeling that expectation? 

I guess it is about roles.  I saw myself as the centre of attention in the classroom, and that I was the conduit of all learning in the classroom.  And that is exactly what my behaviour said in the classroom.  It was okay for me to interrupt the entire class even though I only needed to talk to one or two people because I was in control of everyone's learning.

I don't see myself in such a rigid and broad role anymore.  My students and their peers are taking responsibility for their own learning, and something as small as interrupting them unnecessarily works against that.  Don't get me wrong; I still do full group lessons where I am directing everyone.  There are appropriate times for this method of instruction.  But if I want my students to be more independent because I want my students to be constant learners (while at school or out of school), then I better begin to simulate situations and model habits that work toward self-regulation.  Blurting out unimportant information is not a step in the right direction.

Now what about people who come into my class and interrupt?  I guess it depends on why they do it and how often.  My focus will be on the students.  I won't interrupt them if possible and the other interruptions will reflect the interruptions of everyday life.  But I will try to lessen my own intrusions.

Big Writing Workshop
For the last couple of weeks, I've paired up with another class, and we do Writing Workshop in my class. 
Here are some things I've learned from the process so far:
  • It is really interesting to see how 46 kids and two to five adults all fit in my room.  Amazingly, we all fit because of the way kids spread out.  Some kids sit at desks, tables and the risers.  Quite a few stand at art easels and vertical bulletin boards to write.  Some work on the back counters to write or use the computers.
  • It works best when NO ONE speaks above a whisper.  Yeah, this includes the adults.  How do I get this kind of cooperation?  First, I have to learn to talk less, even at the beginning during the mini-lessons.  Now that we have students interested in writing, the teachers seem to do their best instruction with individuals or small groups that meet once everyone else is working on their own writing.  Second, you make sure everyone knows what they are doing before the work begins.  Everyone has their spots and materials.  Everyone knows the expectations.  Everyone has a task (drafting a new story, editing an old one, working with a teacher, reading to get ideas, etc.).  Third, you give them interesting and manageable things to do.  The latest exciting trend is writing in comic book format (email me if you want some of my really basic templates).  Fourth, you build in breaks.  You allow students to talk, to stretch, to share, to get a drink after a 20 minute block of near silent work time. 
  • Kids love choice.  Students pick where they write, how they write, and what they write.  It is great to walk around the room and see a girl on a riser, writing a song about a flower or a boy on the back counter, creating a comic book about what he knows about beavers.  I love reading and writing stories, but I always question the wisdom of having kids write stories almost exclusively when probably none of them will be authors when they are adults.  Do I want them to have the experience with great narratives?  You bet I do, but not to the exclusion of all the other important genres.  Another important thing to note is not all kids are comfortable with choice.  Sometimes the teacher has to pare down the choices, or even at the beginning, make choices for students until they are able to make them on their own.
The Real Centre of Attention
The reason I went off on this sidebar on the big writing workshop sessions is to underscore this idea of the Centre of Attention.   If someone came into my room during these times, you wouldn't even notice the adults.  You'd be impressed by children scattered across the floor and every nook and cranny in my classroom engaged in some aspect of writing (not me, the teachers filling kids' heads).  And the reason why it works is because everyone, kids and adults, have bought in to the expectations of what we are doing and how we do it.  The extension of this is kids can do writing anywhere.  In fact, students request to take their writing workshop folders outside during recess times.  Though my intention for recess is for them to get exercise and run around, how could I possible turn down a request like that?  Kids have bought into the what and the how of writing, but it is sustainable because of the why: writing is what we do, and it is FUN.  Shouldn't that be the centre of attention in classrooms?  Kids learning.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blog About Blogs

Blogs are funny things.  I never kept a blog before because I couldn't bother to read other people's blogs, so why should I write one that no one would read.  But then I realized that if I kept a blog as it was originally meant (as a weB LOG that I could enter information to use for my own sake), then it might prove useful.

But then something strange happened.  I found out that other people were reading my blog.  I didn't mean to keep it a secret, (after all, it is googleable).  When I found out other people were reading my blog, it changed the way I wrote my blog because I wasn't just writing it for me, I was writing it for an audience.  I briefly had delusions of grandeur until I asked for my audience to write me a reply to let me know who they were and how they found my blog, anything.  I got a grand total of 2 responses (and I already knew that both of those people had seen my blog).  Though that was humbling, I still kept in the back of my mind that I had an audience.  A silent, unresponsive audience, but an audience all the same.

And then a couple of months later, I was looking at the control settings for this blog called the dashboard, and for the first time, I saw a tab called, "stats."  I clicked on it and came to realize that hundreds of people had viewed my blog!  I was freaked out.  It was a little ticklish when I found out that a handful of people has viewed my blog, but when I found out that hundreds from around the world were checking out what I had to say,  I suddenly felt like I had to say something.  So if you notice a change in the style or content, it is probably due to my weird discovery.

But another discovery changed all of that.  I saw that my audience in Russia was starting to rise.  I thought that was really great that people in a different culture with a different language were curious about what little ol' me was going on about.  I was curious though, about how they came to find my blog.  Within the stats tab, I found another section called "Traffic Sources."  It shows the referring webpages that presumably people clicked on to get to my blog, and the types of Google searches that people performed to get to my blog.  When I backtracked the Russian ones, I found out that some of the words in my blog must translate into something to do with tractor parts.  Those savvy Russians weren't looking for me at all!  They were looking for ways to fix their machinery and got me instead.  Sorry comrades.

So now whenever, I see audience hits from non-English speaking countries I try not to be so deluded.  However, even the English speaking ones are not necessarily looking for tips from me.  In fact, a lot of the referring pages were from auto-trolling webscanners looking for dead and dying pages to retread pages or solicit money making scams.  Vultures.

Sigh.  So I guess I'm back to writing for myself.  And my two other sometimes viewers (neither of which is my mom, thank you very much).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Apple Way, sigh.

Steve Jobs is a brilliant, brilliant man.My latest source of inspiration has been the Apple store: clean lines, uncluttered shelves.  The focus is on the product and the customer. There is no separation between you and the products, nor you and the salespeople.  This creates a very intimate experience with the product.  Go ahead, touch it,  try it.  This is how it is going to look when you take it home.  And me, Joe Applesalesguy, I'm here to help you with that experience. 

When I figured that marketing strategy out as I stood there, it made me look even deeper.  There is no cash register, and only one real counter (where the "Geniuses" hang out to help you with big troubleshooting).  The salespeople walk around with handheld credit card machines, so you almost never see any money exchange hands (kind of like a nice, intimate drug deal).  They use bright, but flat lighting, and no colour on the walls.  The tables are made of a nice, wooden veneer.  The effect of this is, when there are no people in the store, the store looks like an art gallery with the products neatly on display for you to behold.  And when people are in the store, they breathe life into the store, into the products because the only real colour and movement in the store is created when (clothed) people walk in the store. 

Compare this to any big box electronic retailer and the comparison is striking.  Big boxstores are ugly, cluttered, and induce heart-palpitating sensory overload.  It's like they want to impress you with the amount of stock they have, and want to whip you into a buying frenzy.  The first things you see are the cash registers and then the clutter.  The exact opposite is true for the Apple Store: there are no apparent cash registers, and the only place that verges on clutter is the back part where they hang a few accessories, but they are well out of the main focus of the store.

The parallels for education are apparent.  If the third teacher is the environment (after the paid professional and the peers), then I want the third teacher to be more like the Apple Store than the Big Box.  I want an environment that is an invitation to explore and to stay awhile.  I want an environment that soothes and inspires.  I want an environment that says, "I'm here to help you."  But the problem is that classrooms, like the Big Boxes, have environments that are designed to get you in and get you out; environments that excite but in a fleeting and surface way; environments that say, "I'm not here for you, I'm here for me."

So how did this Apple experience manifest itself in my classroom?
I rearranged everything because of that experience.  I mentioned before that over the Christmas holiday I moved everything.  Between the concept of the "feature wall" and the Apple experience, I had to reorganize my focus.  I now have a clean counter at the back that over looks my window, and I moved the clutter of the classroom library out of direct sight lines. 

My next plan was to change the colour of my walls.  I'd like to paint them because the walls are the same colour as baby vomit, but painting is really hard to do in my situation.  I'm not supposed to paint the walls myself because of union concerns, and it would be expensive for the school if I had them painted, plus I don't own the room so if I happen to change rooms the next teacher would be stuck with my design aesthetic (which is impeccable, but a matter of taste).  So I was going to put up this white fire retardant paper.  I've been meaning to put it up for a month, but luckily my wife talked me out of it.   She visited my class last week, and when I mentioned how much I hated the wall colour, she said that she didn't even notice it.  She did, however, notice my nice big window with the uncluttered view.  (Okay so my plan actually worked).

The other Apple Store manifestation is on that same back counter.  When kids are writing, I set up 3 laptops back there so they can stand and write on them.  The kids can get inspired by looking out the window, and they themselves become featured pieces of art as they stand by the back counter, a focal point of the room, and can also be viewed from passersby from the outside.

Now, I just have to let my students know they are welcome to stay, explore, and be inspired.  And that I am there to help them and share in that experience.  And no money will change hands.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

And Now, Back to Classroom Design...

A Change of Space
At the beginning of last year, I changed classrooms, and moved into a classroom that was almost identical in configuration but with slight differences.  The new classroom faces a different direction, has less shelving, and is further away from the office.  Of these three things, you would think the new direction would have the least impact, the lack of shelving would be a detriment and the proximity to the office could go either way.  That's what I thought and I was wrong. 

A Change in Direction
I went from a class that faced south to one that faces north.  I have really noticed a big drop in the amount of natural light I get.  I now have this great view of the mountains, but on an hour by hour impact, I'd take the exposure to light.  I don't sit and gaze out the window, so the view, though nice, does not impact me as much.  My room seems gloomier without the natural light.  I'm not a big fan of fluorescent light, so I don't have it going full blast very often, but without it, my class is on the dim side.  I supplemented the light with these big Ikea paper lanterns which were cheap and nice looking.  But because they are made out of paper, I did not want to use normal light bulbs because they get so hot, so ironically I have to use compact fluorescents, but I found some that have a yellow tinge to them to give off a more warm (in feeling, not temperature), friendly glow.  I have four of these lanterns in my class.  I also have a few free standing lamps, so it creates nice pockets of light.

A Change of Storage
Less shelving means less space to store things which can create panic in teachers (we teachers love our stuff).  I actually found it more liberating because it meant I had to get rid of some things which I do not use on a regular basis.  I took all of the textbooks I rarely use back to the book room.  I can always get them when I need them, and so far that has been never.  I got rid of a table that I kept piling junk on and never used.  I got rid of the math manipulatives that I don't need regularly and kept a few that I might need on the fly.  Having less shelving gives me more access to walls (for displays, reading nooks, ukuleles, etc.), and  more room.  But the biggest advantage of not having as much shelving is flexibility.  The walls and the space are not predetermined areas.  I can choose how they will be used.  I like that.

A Change in Proximity
The move away from the office I thought was going to be bad.  I am really forgetful and always forget things in the office.  But so far, it has not been a big deal.  I am getting a little more organized, I am sending kids to get forgotten things from the office (which they love doing), and I feel much more connected with the rest of the school.  Before, I only had one class near me, and now I have three others of varying grades.  When you stand in my doorway, you can hear a lot of interesting things going on.  I am learning a lot from my fellow teachers. 

Net Result?  I Need a Change!
So if the move was so good then why did my new classroom feel so cramped?
I was really disappointed by November with the configuration of my classroom.  I felt I had way less space and everything felt cluttery.  And I could not put my finger on why.

Well, at least not until  a student, T, asked me why I had my cool blue lights on the back wall instead of the front wall.  I told her that when my mom decorates, she always thinks about the Feature Wall, which is first wall that people see when they enter a room.  The Feature Wall should have impact because it sets the mood of the whole space.  T thought this was a great idea and understood why the cool blue lights were there. 

But she got ME (re)thinking about the Feature Wall.  I stood in the doorway and looked at the first wall I saw which was indeed the far wall with the cool blue lights.  The lights made sense, and the window on that wall was nice with the nice view, but your eyes were drawn lower to the sole shelving in the room.  On top of the shelving was my classroom library.  I had originally placed it there strategically because of the Feature Wall: I wanted people to get the message that this was a Reading Place (also because this was the ONLY shelving, it really was the only place for a classroom library). 

I love books, but when books are different sizes and placed at eye level in front of a window, they look terrible!  But where else could I put the books?   I wanted them so that they were easy to access for my students, but the window wall was the only place with shelving in the room.  As you may know by now, I'm not adverse to building things, but I was not relishing the idea of creating a large bookshelf.  And if I did, where was the shelving going to go?  The next wall has my sink and cloakroom area, so no go for books.  The third wall did not have much, but it is the wall directly facing the window, so people outside would look across and see the same mess as before, so no go.  The fourth wall had potential, but my Smartboard was there and that wall was the focus of my class during formal instruction time.  But I realized I disliked the way that wall was set up.  But if I moved my Smartboard, I was going to have to reconfigure my entire classroom (again!).   But (I know, 3 buts) I remembered the dissatisfaction I was feeling with my current configuration, so after much thought, I decided to have my Smartboard moved and then rejig the classroom. 

Rejigging the classroom turned out to be no big deal.  I don't have that much on the walls, and the risers are a snap to move so reconfiguring my classroom took little time.  Ah, the benefit of Spartan flexibility. 

Feature Wall Redux
The new configuration is SO much better.  It looks better, but more importantly, it works better.  Kids are closer together during instructional time.  The first thing you see on the far wall is a nice open counter top that has a few plants on it.  The students face you so you see their angelic faces as you enter.  Parents sometimes watch lessons from outside and can see the Smartboard, and they don't distract their children because they mostly face away from the window.  By moving the risers closer to the new front, I have room for a reading nook, a counter to be used for stand-up writing and working on one of 3 laptops, a place for an art easel, a wet area, and a table area. 

It has all of the elements I like: clean lines, flow, and flexibility.   Again, a big change as a result of a small prompt, a question.  Thanks T and Mom.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

7. Find Truth, Beauty, Humour, or Joy in Everything You Do.

Ah, the last one (of my list of Essential Things to Teach).

This is my favourite, and it seems to bookend nicely with the first one: Make Things Better.  It would make for a nice t-shirt.  "Make Things Better" on one side and "Find Truth, Beauty, Humour, or Joy in Everything You Do" on the other. 

The main message here and with all of these Essentials, is to Learn.  We learn from everything, we learn all the time, and we learn from everyone.  It does not end.  Everything is a learning situation, but it is up to us, the learners, what we walk away with. 

How do we teach kids to think this way?  We model.  We think out loud.  We wonder.  We ask questions.  We probe.  We get stuck.  We think (out loud) a bit more.  [We do have to temper the "think alouds."  Someone wise told me, thinking aloud is okay in small doses, but not too much.  It's like telling someone about a dream you had.  My dreams are fascinating to me.  Yours?  Not so much]. 

By constantly modelling wonder, we are also showing students that active, engaged minds are never bored.  And we are using our brains at all times because we view every experience as a lesson, not just the times when the teacher is talking. 

If you do end up making your own list of essential things in education, please keep a few things in mind:
-Keep the list to under 10 items.
-The list should not change (because these are essential items), but it more than likely will.  (My list changes constantly.  In fact, it changed quite a few times in the writing of these blog posts.)  As you teach things about the list and reflect, you'll start to change and modify things.  Go ahead.  It is YOUR list.  You are the one who has to teach it and live (with) it.
-Keep your list as simple as possible.  This is especially true if you are going to refer to the list with young children.  You probably wouldn't say, "Locate, Store, and Retrieve Information," but you might say, "Find out new things and be able to share them." 

If I was to get my list down to the kernel of the ideas, (the essentials of the essentials), and one word for each item, it would be this list (one for each finger):
1. Better (thumb)
It seems appropriate that Make Things Better is in the thumbs up position.  Very positive.  This part includes: solving problems, being creative, making the world better.  Job one.
2. Me (index finger)
The me finger is the one that does a lot of the work.  This part includes anything to do with me: take care of myself, know myself, be myself, etc.
3. You (big middle finger)
I'll avoid the obvious crass joke here about finger placement.  But I like the symbolism of holding up those three fingers.  It's like a little crowd: Betterment, Me, and You.  We'll work together to make things better.  The big guy represents all other people: I get along with others, I work with others, I share, I learn from others, etc.
4. Communicate (ring finger)
This part includes sharing ideas with others, but also expressing myself and managing information.  How do we make things better and get along with others?  Communication.  Ah, lovely overlap.
5. Learn (pinky)
I know it sounds redundant: An essential thing in education is to learn.  Well, duh.  But I think that "Learn" is the best single word to encapsulate "Find Truth, Beauty, Humour, or Joy in Everything You Do."  (I mean the pinky is a small finger). 

It makes for a nice mnemonic mantra:
"We can make things Better if Me and You Communicate and Learn."
Sure it's kitschy and grammatically awkward, but it nicely sums up a lot of what education is to me.  It would be easy for kids to remember too.