Thursday, August 9, 2007

A cooler classroom

Envision your ideal classroom. What do you see? Students working constructively on a project? Feverishly typing an essay? Or are they reading silently, or perhaps engaged in a Socratic seminar discussion about human greed and the desire for power?

Now look closer. One of them is brewing some tea. Another is snacking on a cracker. And wait, are those two kids lying on the floor?! What's that couch doing in here? Hey, that student is using an electronic device to listen to music!!!

While I have never seen him teach, based on this post from Eric Hoefler, I have every reason to believe that everything I wrote in the first paragraph occurred in the classroom he describes on his blog, Sicheii Yazhi. The post is called "Remember Their Bodies," and in it, Hoefler argues that our classrooms, as currently constituted, are less than ideal places to learn. An excerpt:

Remembering, and planning for, students’ bodies is a foundational way to build rapport, trust, and respect in the classroom. When students enter a classroom that has been designed with their bodies in mind, it sends a message that the teacher is concerned with the students as people–not just as students, test scores, or check-marks on an attendance sheet.3 In contrast, a classroom that doesn’t seem concerned with students’ bodies implies that the teacher is not concerned with an aspect of the students’ identity about which they are nearly obsessed.4 Even if these messages don’t register consciously, they still affect how teachers and students relate to each other and can have a profound impact on the learning that does or does not happen in that classroom.

Here are a few things I did as a teacher to be more considerate of my students’ physical needs:

  • Comfort: I had an old couch that I didn’t need any more, so I brought that in and placed it in a corner of the room. I also bought some cheap inflatable “air-cushion” seats and some cheap mats to cover the linoleum floor. (When students met in groups, they would use both.)
  • Options: When students were working individually (reading or writing) or meeting in revision groups, they always had options for where to do that work. They could stay in their desks, or they could use the cushions, mats, or couch and could take the cushions and mats into the hallway to have more space and reduce noise.
  • Breaks: Most educators know that the brain needs pretty regular breaks in order to process the new information it’s gathering. I tried to stop every 15-20 minutes throughout our 85 minute periods to allow students to stretch, walk around, get a drink of water, etc.
  • Refreshments: I kept a water-cooler in my classroom that gave cold and hot water. Students were always welcome to get a cup of water or to make a cup of tea. I also kept a basket full of mints (helpful for group work). Students could bring in additional food or drink to share (we kept a small refrigerator, too.) I had a “Scooby fund” (a Scooby-Doo doll with a pocket in front) for students to contribute change to help cover the expenses. They policed the sharing themselves.
  • Environment: My classroom had no windows, so getting things to grow was difficult. I had two tough little plants that survived “the dungeon” and a few other fake ones. I also used a number of lamps so that I could turn off the glaring fluorescent lights. We put up posters and student artwork on the walls. I played music throughout the day when appropriate, and students could bring in their own selections.

The result was far from perfect, but the students appreciated the effort and enjoyed being in my classroom. I have no doubt that this positively impacted their willingness to learn, and therefore positively impacted their ability to learn.

I also admit that most of what I did above was against the school’s stated policies. Here I can only say: I did what I thought best for my students, and I supported my actions with theory and practical results.

Hoefler, after 9 years on the job, is taking a year off from teaching. He's written that this is due largely to a disconnect between his ideals and the system in which he operates. I know at my school, hats, food, and all electronic devices are banned from the classroom. I don't necessarily agree with the entirety of this policy, but I enforce it because it is my job to do so, and also because a majority of my colleagues seem to support it, and I want to stand behind their collective will, not in front of it.

Brendan Halpin (see earlier post) might call me a wuss or a sellout for doing this, but he's no longer an educator, and it is frankly not surprising. Experienced teachers know that we must pick our battles carefully, and be willing to make concessions. This "team player" approach can then yield benefits when we request a favor or take a stand on something we feel is important.

Anyhow, in case you are wondering, here is where I stand on the unholy trinity of hats, cellphones, and food:

Hats - They should be allowed 100 percent of the time or 0 percent of the time. I am comfortable with either extreme. I don't know if there is any research regarding how student behavior, effort, and attitude are affected by hats, but if there is, I would be in full support of whichever policy had the greatest effect on those qualities. I don't view a hat as a symbol of disrespect. I view a hat as a symbol of identity, and I think we need to consider how we're affecting students' abilities to form identities when we decide if they can or cannot wear hats.

Cell phones and electronic devices - The best policy would be one that instills within the students proper behaviors regarding when and how these devices are used. I don't think cell phones should be allowed in the classroom, but if a student wants to listen to her iPod while quietly working on an assignment, what's the big deal?

Food - I believe that if a student has the ability to discretely eat food in class without being disruptive or causing a mess, then that student should be allowed to eat. If a student shows an inability to do this, then a student should be banned from eating.

I know I learn and study best when I'm in a comfortable environment. While my classroom isn't as progressive as Hoefler's, it does contain numerous plants, a meditation bell, and a Chinese wind gong, among other adornments. While I don't see adding a water cooler or fridge anytime soon, it would be cool to have a couch - or a least a few floor mats I could roll out as an option when students are doing group work.

It's my belief, though, that regardless of my teaching environment, I am only as good as my curriculum - I'm only as good as what I know how to teach. Fortunately, I have all the same classes this year as I did last year, which is a first. This will allow me to really focus on my subject matter, my pedagogy, and my assessments, as these are truly what will determine my (and my students') success in the upcoming year.


Rita said...

I'd love to have a couch and water cooler in my classroom. I'm not allowed to plug in much other than my fan and pencil sharpener, however, because it will blow a circuit. And I don't have enough space for 28 desks, never mind a couch. My kids do move the desks and spread out when they're doing group work, and trustworthy kids are allowed to go down to the courtyard because I can visually check in on them from my window.

But, my room has a nasty odor because a pipe has been leaking rusty water down into the carpet for years. The carpet has to stay down because it is part of asbestos abatement. It's disgusting. And I don't have A/C (my room gets up over 100 degrees in the spring and fall every year -- heaven only knows what it would be like in there this week with 102 temps -- our first contract days are next week). I am partial to my 100-year old original slate chalkboards, though.

BTW, I work in an affluent suburb, not the inner city.

But we had architects in last year planning a gut rehab of the building. We actually got to tell them about our dream classroom. That was fun. I'm not sure the work will be done before I retire (I'm just hoping for a/c), but the idea of a room designed to my specs with group work space, a small quiet room for my ADD and autistic kids to test in, computers (we have two labs for 1400 high school kids), fresh air... well.

EnglishTeacherMe said...

I like the idea of making my students feel comfortable in my classroom (I was told by a previous supervising teacher [regarding a certain homeless student I felt for] that the hour some students spend in her class is really her only opportunity to insure that her students have a positive day). However, I also like the idea of being in the good graces of my administration. While I think water coolers and IPods may be crossing the line (especially for the younger crowd I'm aiming for), I think adding homey touches to the classroom can have nothing but positive effects on student learning. There's nothing worse than being stuck in a cold, white, dungeon of a room. Great post!

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Here in California if kids eat in classrooms, we are sure to be invaded by hordes of ants. Hence, I find the no-eating-in-classrooms rule to have some merit. But I like your approach to "easing up" so that students feel at ease in the learning environment.

DrPezz said...

You know, I've thought about my classroom environment and what rules I will strictly enforce and which I won't (I should probably just create a new post on my page for this), and I discovered that I want to teach personal responsibility above all else. I don't mind cell phones and iPods and hats and so on. I just try to teach the students how to use each responsibly, when they are appropriate and when they are not. Students will make mistakes, and those are my teaching moments. Respect is key.

I definitely butt heads with others in the school over these types of issues, but I feel we need to teach students how to be responsible and that means we must admit they are learning and will err. But, they will improve too.

JK said...

It sounds like although the scooby snacks, hot tea, and stetch breaks every 15 minutes keep the students comfy, doesn't that take a lot of time away from teaching & learning? It sounds like your views are more to the point -- help the students learn to be respectful and responsible -- good luck on the new year!

Mr. B-G said...

drpezz - We had an incident at my school where a teacher was videotaped with a cellphone and then displayed on YouTube. It's actually happened to a number of teachers across the country, and is a trend that will grow unless these devices are either shut off during class or banned. Students also use the phones to cheat on tests via text messages.

As for my personal rules, this year I'm going to keep it simple with "Respect yourself. Respect your classmates. Respect your teacher."

Of course I'll have a list of procedures, and will obviously enforce the student handbook, but I'm thinking the "three respects" are clear and to-the-point.

jk - Thanks for the well-wishes. My school teaches in 55 minute periods, not 85 minute blocks. I create a daily agenda for all my classes that's designed to fill the entire period. Of course, during the period, there are moments of transition time, but they are brief.

In an 85 minute block, as I believe Hoefler taught, one or two stretch breaks can do wonders. Imagine if you had to sit through back-to-back-to-back-to-back 85 minute meetings, five times per week. You'd need breaks too!

californiateacher - I never quite understood fellow teachers who, during my first couple years of teaching, told me to never smile until December.

One of my strengths, I think, is being able to make my students feel comfortable by poking fun at myself and telling bad jokes. I like trying to use humor in the classroom. That's just me.

I also have a lot to teach, and a lot I want students to be able to do. I'm of the mindset that it's possible to have both a learning environment that places students at ease, and a curriculum and expectations that are anything but easy.

It seems I am constantly thinking of ways to challenge and engage my students. It is at times very difficult, but that's really what they deserve.

rita - I hope you get air conditioning in your new digs before you retire!

englishteacherme - Thanks for the compliment. I definitely think it's important to make sure you know what the administration expects, and not to deviate too far. Today I actually picked up a few $7 floor mats that fold up into chairs. It will be interesting to see how the students react. I think the mats are as far as I'll go this year. I don't really have room for a couch, but it would be great to have one for myself after school.

I like to stay at school and work until 4 or 5. A 20-minute nap before I started reading, planning, researching, correcting, etc would be divine. I never finish as much as I'd like, but when I come home, I'm home. Only around grading periods do I really do work at home. This approach helps me (sort of) maintain my sanity and (feebly) attempt to separate my professional and personal lives.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Rita said...

One of my colleagues, who has a larger room than I do, brought in a recliner for himself. He teaches the ACT classes after school, and I think he takes a quick snooze in his chair between sessions.

DrPezz said...

I guess I never really feared being recorded by a phone for a couple reasons. One, we're too busy to play with them. Two, I would notice if my students were off-task since I'm a constant mover in the room.

I just ask my students to turn them off until class ends. If a student has a need to keep it on, we discuss it before class and leave it on vibrate.

BTW, the last time I saw myself on camera I noticed tow things: my hair was gone and I was a bit rounder than I remembered. :)

Miss B said...

This post was fantastic. There are many things similar to those you've listed that I'd like to put in place in my (future) classroom. The kids in my current school are able to have water bottles at their desks (and there is a bubbler in each room), which I think is so necessary.

And I love the of creating a reading nook where kids can spread out and really enjoy books.

GREAT ideas...GREAT post!

Redkudu said...

" Imagine if you had to sit through back-to-back-to-back-to-back 85 minute meetings, five times per week."

I do! Only I don't get to sit at all! :) Just had to throw that in there, for the sake of perspective.

While I love the idea of arranging a classroom with students' bodies in mind (I wish we could get better desks for them in my school), I would be concerned to have some of these things in my classroom. Maybe I'm just a worrier, but the hot water for tea sounds like a lawsuit over an accidental spill-burn waiting to happen.

I also think that in some ways, being overly concerned with elaborate measures toward comfort can detract from making certain the classroom is a place designed to facilitate getting our tasks done - one that is a little more in keeping with what students will see when they enter the workforce. I'm sure that's not the case for the thoughtful teacher, but I've seen some classrooms that were designed to be so "chummy" they were useless as a learning center - decorated to the point of distraction, poorly arranged for the sake of students being able to see the board, etc. Tha's not to say I advocate for straight rows and no nonsense, but in my opinion the first priority should be a streamlined room where procedure and learning can occur effortlessly - that's a type of comfort all its own.

Like Rita, I barely have room for all my desks, much less a couch, but I do arrange them in a U shape (at the cost of some space) to create a more collaborative atmosphere. I also keep a well-stocked student office area, which students are encouraged to use for whatever reason. I often have students come in before school to use this area for other classes even. It's all a balancing act. Each year I think I get it a little more right.