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.
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.