|"We cracked down, then we allowed a little more freedom" |
the end of the Romanian dictatorship, 1989
Here are ten things to change at the start:
1. Do NOT welcome kids to a "new school" or a "new grade" - that's your vanity showing through, and it insists that children adapt their learning to you, instead of the educational ecosystem flexing to meet the child. Instead, welcome them to a "continuation of their learning" and of "their life." As I will say over and over here, school is about the children, it is not about the adults - it is about meeting students where they are, not creating hoops for trained monkeys to jump through.
|"Step in, sit there" - Alcatraz, early 1960s|
So say instead, "welcome, come on in, make yourself comfortable." If this space is to be your shared home for the next nine months, would you want to begin any other way?
3. Avoid the "ice breaker" events until you know your students well, and then they aren't needed. "Ice Breaker" games you have designed are - I'll assume unintentionally - designed to humiliate. Whatever they involve, writing, walking, running, reading, speaking may be incredibly difficult for some kids in the room, creating first day failure, first day humiliation, and, inevitably, justified anger.
Whatever age, whatever place, allow students to find their own places of comfort on day one, only then can you actually observe what the children in your room need.
4. Do NOT let your classroom be set up according to what you like - it is NOT your space, but "their's." I hear all the time from teachers, "I like this color," "I want my desk here," "I want to use this space this way," "I don't want kids writing on the floor, it's dirty," "I cannot handle too much noise," "If I don't have desks this way, I can't see." Lots and lots of "I" statements in a profession which is - quite definably - supposed to be about the children.
This moves from the (perhaps) minor, an odd love for motivational posters for example, to the ridiculous (and perhaps dangerous) - I recently saw an elementary classroom where the teacher had completely blocked the only classroom window with a "presidential-sized" desk of her own, and had filled the windowsill with her stuff so no child could possibly get to natural light. I often see middle school classrooms where teachers have covered every window, both to corridors and to the outside. I see school entryways painted in colors chosen because "the principal likes it."
It is NOT your space. It is the students' space and an essential part of education is learning to negotiate the development of shared space - especially in a society of one or two-child families, kids with their own rooms, and homes which separate instead of bringing families together.
|"don't think, just repeat"|
Chaplin in Modern Times
Langer describes what is needed everywhere in education - “the psychology of possibility,” because, “...knowing what is and what can be are not the same things,” and for students, obviously, the "can be" is all important. If it wasn't, they'd be done.
So much that we do in schools to "create habits" works toward what Langer calls "mindlessness." If a child gets off the same bus each day, walks through the same school door, down the same corridor, to the same classroom, and takes the same seat, they have begun their school day by shutting their brain down. The same is true of everything from "homework every night," to memorizing facts - is our goal really the absence of thinking?
Automaticity - mindlessness - is an industrial efficiency concept. Don't think, just repeat. Does that belong in your school?
6. Hypocrisy doesn't work - it tells children that you are a liar and a tyrant. So many children go to schools where every adult eats and drinks while using their computers, but the kids are not allowed to do the same. Many teachers have beverages while kids must wait until "snack time." Many communities tolerate behaviors in adults - and in adult leaders - which would get kids suspended or worse.
This is especially true for the young adolescents who occupy American middle schools, kids who live in the most absurd world where the only sure way they can be treated as an adult is to murder someone, but they are constantly told to "behave like an adult." Either trust kids as the humans they are, or choose to treat them like animals - but understand - they will act as you expect them to act.
7. Do NOT overdecorate with stuff you've bought - let the kids make it their own. Don't fill your classroom with purchased stuff. A great way to begin the year is to make our children into "makers." Let them paint, draw, write, build, sculpt - their passions, their lives, their dreams - and decorate right from the start with what your kids have created.
Now, none of this suggests that we don't learn to negotiate all of this within our own community - "how do I get up and head toward the bathroom?" "how do I move from my chair to standing in the back without bothering people?" "what are my responsibilities if I need to leave the classroom?" - but prohibitions based on whim - or some belief in "church-like" behavior - are simply not tolerable.
9. Don't tell, ask instead. I hate the notion that years in school are nothing more than preparation for some pre-cooked set of expectations for the next year. That's absurd, it tells students that their is no actual goal and that none of us understand why any kid would come to school.
Instead, we must meet students where they are. It is not the job of fifth grade teachers to prep future middle school students, it is the job of sixth grade teachers to meet their new students where they are, and then to help them move forward.
So this year, ask. Open a Google Doc and share the link. Put paper on the floor or wall. Create a TodaysMeet room, and ask your students to tell you what they did last year, and where they want to go this year.
10. Don't do what I've done here - nobody wants to look at negative lists. I recently wandered some school corridors with principals during this summer "quiet time" and in one case we tore down every "No" and behavioral "control" sign in the building, because "no" is a restriction, and a limited one at that - far better to empower possibility than to restrict the few things you can think of.
So frame things in the positive, embrace common sense, and remember, people make rules and put up signs when they have failed - when people in a community do not understand the need to do the right thing.
- Ira Socol