Friday, September 5, 2014

Classrooms Don't Matter!


Billy Joel once crooned "Wherever where together, that's my home...."  As an itinerant Teacher of the Gifted in multiple buildings, my defined teaching space has been as small as a rolling AV cart on a stage in the cafe-gym-atorium  (go ahead, say it fast -- it's fun!) where I taught under hot stage lights while lunch was being served to 200 elementary school children on the other side of the curtain, to the two beautiful new classrooms assigned to me today.  To some degree, the flexibility required of itinerants creates a bond, and certain bragging rights, that keeps us edgy and fresh with the kids.  

In sixteen years, I've taught in 27 assigned spaces in the district.  And to anyone who has the nesting instinct to move into a classroom in August, and stay there until they retire, I cry foul!

A quick overview of some of my most challenging favorite places in no particular order:

  • The aforementioned rolling cart.  During my early years, I'd teach in whatever classroom wasn't being used during the time I was teaching.   The kids had to learn to follow maps, listen to directions, and find me, if they truly wanted enrichment during that period.  This was a 6 - 8 middle school building, and it helped to define the truly gifted.  It also made for some challenges, as we were required by the district to post our behavior guidelines, the school bullying policy, the menu,  and the newly defined standards posters from the state for both reading and math.  My cart looked like something you'd see at a parade; I had everything but monkeys on a stick and balloons for sale.  The health teacher, the assistant principal, and other friends, would steal my cart and move it, if I parked it in a hallway near a classroom while I ran an errand, pushing my mental stability to the edge.  I decorated it during December with battery operated Christmas lights.  Good times. 
  •  The Grandview Elementary school TV studio.  Two tables, windows with no blinds, and an off-limits glass booth filled with (allegedly) valuable communications equipment.  It was my first year teaching.  I was in the building 2 hours, 2 x a week.  I couldn't decorate, I had to remember to carry chalk with me, because there never was any there.  (Best thing that year was the memorable MARS 2030 project.  Those kids are now adults.  We have a pact to meet in 2030 to see if our future projections (made in 1999) came true.)  I still see these kids, and there are at least six who plan to attend.
  • The CLOFFICE.  During renovations last year at the junior high, Sarah (my partner in gifted crime) and I were assigned to a glass observation room in a computer lab.  It contained 2 built in desks and a lot of shelves.  Oh, and about 3 dozen large boxes of all of our teaching materials stacked for easy access.  The closet office (cloffice) was an interesting place with two teachers sitting on rolling chairs talking to kids scattered on the carpeted floor.  I shudder to think what was living in that carpet.  Adversity is the mother of invention, however, and there is a certain power in having survived the wilderness teaching experience of The Cloffice.
  • The Glass Office.  (and accompanying conference room.)  A tiny office in the old middle school was eventually enlarged thanks to the collaborative mind of Whitney Crouse, who lived/dwelled in the office next door.  Whoever thought we could quote Ronald Reagan and convince our principal to "tear down that wall" between our offices to make a more reasonable, although still small, conference room sized space for small group meetings?  The adjacent hallway with two sets of double doors to the outside gave us our own "Cone of Silence" for smaller groups working on projects, which we could observe while muffling their conversations.  Charity Wheeler and I still talk about that space.  Unicorns were born there.
  • The ARC.  My favorite of all time.  I still miss it.  Behind the old high school building was a cinder block maintenance shed.  At some point in time, the district renovated it for use as the In School Suspension space, complete with its own bathroom.  It was located across the parking lot from the school.  It had a room with a kiln in it that was, according to legend, too dangerous to be in the high school.  (It made perfect sense to herd the best and the brightest into the space with the potentially explosive kiln, right?) It was located right above the softball field, and you knew it was spring when the portapotties were delivered and propped up next to the door to the classroom.  (This was, not so coincidentally, when I started smuggling Febreeze in my bag).  It had a couch, and comfortable chairs.  Administrators virtually never visited -- either because of the weather, or shear lack of memory that we were out there.  On days that it rained, I had to take large rocks from the french drain to the right of the building and place them in the low-lying areas to secure upside down milkcrates for the kids to use a stepping stones to the classroom over the 6 - 8 inches of rushing water that flowed directly in front of the door.  Somewhere I have a picture of a student using those stepping stones.  I'll see if I can find it and post it tonight.

This walk down memory lane was all prompted by the folks at Te@chThought and their prompt for today:

September 5

Post a picture of your classroom, and describe what you see–and what you don’t see that you’d like to.

Despite ending their prompt with a preposition, I still like the Te@chthought folks.  For the purposes today, I have posted a picture taken two days ago.  Desk arrangement was not done by me, but it worked for this activity.  To be honest, I struggle with desk configuration daily, as I teach to periods back to back that have very different needs -- one is strictly independent work, while the other is largely Socratic circles or small group work.  (I often dream of a classroom of chairs like I discovered at UCONN -- picture your typical arm-attached-to-the-chair desk mounted on a snow saucer with rolling casters.  No dragging desks, comfortable, roll where you need to be...)


The board to the right is the front of the room.  There are fewer bulletin boards than I would like.  Our district has banned the use of anything but UHU Putty on our walls, which pretty much only sticks to itself.  (See those thin strips of paper next to the bulletin board on the far side of the room?  Student timelines.  27 of them.  Notice how many have dropped to the floor, thanks to the humidity of Labor Day weekend and the apparent lack of air conditioning during that period.)

Notice, also, that the students in the forefront of the picture are sporting laprobes.  (And, in one case, a fake fur -- but that's Omar, so we just roll with those punches.)  My room is cold.  And when I say that, I should say it as C-O-L-D.  I gave up last year and gathered some blankets and keep them in the closet.  The kids get them when they need them.  

My biggest nemesis in this room is the motion sensors in the opposite corners of the room.  If they don't sense motion, they SHUT OFF THE LIGHTS.  Every 90 seconds.  Somewhere I have a video of my first attempt to thwart this ridiculousness.  (A remote controlled, helium filled shark that could be activated to reactivate the lights.  Sadly, there was a slow leak, and helium is expensive...)  When I find it, I will post it.  

Last year a student, DJ, designed a device to reactivate the lights when they go off -- and as soon as his patent is approved, he'll go into production and make millions from teachers everywhere.  It's tough to be a teacher who sits at a desk in the corner OPPOSITE the motion sensors to work.  The desk is built in, and the teachers in this building have perfected the art of "jazzhands" to turn on the lights while working in that corner when the room is empty.  (For me, it usually involves a leap and jazzhands because my arms aren't long enough...)

Regardless of the location or layout of my classroom, it's what is happening in there that makes it a classroom.  I've shifted from doing "informational" bulletin boards, and have started infusing specific metacognitive strategies into my lessons.  The bulletin board under the flag has outline information for the 16  Habits of Mind.  Last year's large PERSPECTIVE board has been condensed to the smaller board in the front, as a reminder to consider and contribute alternate paths in discussions.  

And Billy Joel was right -- wherever we're together, that's my classroom.