The Un-Classroom – Leaving the Formal Setting Behind

Recently I had a chance to really reflect on my  physical classroom and the learning that happens in my classroom. Everything I like about how things are run in the classroom are the things that aren’t “mine” or aren’t a “classroom”. This will likely be the last time this blog post that I refer to it as “my classroom”

The class itself is a group of students, each with a different story, home, journey, and path.  Each one faces a different challenge: be it academic, social, family, and/or systemic. The thing that they all have in common is that they all have the ability to learn and be successful – they just need the tools and supports to do so. For me, the most important aspect is to know that it is my job as the teacher of the room to ensure that this is possible.

When I walked into the  classroom this summer to set up, the room was very traditional and structured as a classroom. There is a whiteboard, chalkboard, SMARTboard, shelves and cupboards, a TV and VCR, a supply closet. There was a teacher’s desk and a file cabinet as well. It was a stuffy and sterile room. This was the first thing that had to go.  I have a strong belief that individual desks create barriers in learning and force students into their own spaces. My first goal was to create a warm and welcoming space that would be conducive to creating and sustaining a community of learners with ties to their community and world. Through out the year, the desks have gone along with many of the chairs and in has come various tables different sizes, shapes and heights, pillows, a couch, comfortable lounge chairs, yoga balls, wobble stools,  and a yoga mat. Each student has choice in what will open it up for what will help them learn.  I have a student desk in the corner by the SMART board for my laptop dock and document camera – though I often squish onto the couch with the students to work alongside with them if they haven’t pulled me into a learning circle they have created on the floor. The students move the furniture around to support their needs as they learn.

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A recent classroom arrangement of the students to facilitate a Socratic Circle on a new classroom schedule

That is just the physical classroom. To quote a student describing our class to our deputy superintendent, “Our class isn’t run the way a normal class is. We do things differently around here”. That is quite true. Paper helps guide the general direction of our learning but our curiosity, exploration and passions ultimately drive our learning forward.  We look for ways to makes sense of what we are learning and why we are learning it. The point is to have an educational journey that meets the individual needs of everyone. One of the things I have tried to pass on to my students is the importance of growth based on reflection, feedback from our community and refinement of skills. We share responsibility for our learning by making the learning student-centered and striving for a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Many students come to school each day and this is their safe place to be. The lives of the students reflect the impact of their reality. The students live with and through mental health challenges, poverty, social exclusion, amongst many other challenges. They may not have supportive families, positive support systems or stable living environments to give them the same opportunities as others may have but each student who comes into the classroom has made the choice to be there that day. My job is to help them gain the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to find success and thrive in our society.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I realize how important it is to have a well rounded and focused support team in place to give these students the greatest chance at success. I am also reminded that despite the fact I am teaching grade 5, these students face increasing challenges as their reality begins to solidify around them. A formal learning environment is not what students need. Students need to see value in themselves before they can see value in their learning. That is what my goal is – to educate the whole child and give them the best support system to allow them to develop the skills and knowledge they require.

In someways, there will always be a degree of formality that is expected of myself and our class – we are in the school system after all. However, if I can minimize the formality and give students the opportunity to show their knowledge, understanding and value of what they are learning in their own way while ensuring they are physically, emotional and mentally safe and comfortable – that is my goal.


Knowing your students is more important than knowing the curriculum

The other day I noticed that many of my students were just not having a great day or there had been a few things that were not going well for them for one reason or another. In my pocket was my chalk marker so knowing it would come off the tables and desks, I decided to bring a little cheer to a few of my students by writing a note to them. That soon turned to the whole class after hitting those students who really could use a little extra love and attention.

While they worked, I would pop by their spot and leave a few words. Instantly the mood of the classroom changed. The kids were excited to see what I would write for them. It made them extremely happy. When a few were rubbed off by accident, they were heartbroken. This evening I went and fixed them up and managed to finish the few I didn’t have a chance to finish since I had to stop and get back to teaching the next lesson after snack break.

Something I didn’t think would really be noticed or that would make some of the kids roll their eyes turned into something huge and meaningful for each of the students. It touched my heart to see how happy they were by something so simple.


Relationships in Education

Lately I have been looking at our curriculum and thinking about the curriculum redesign. This curriculum has barely changed since I was the age of my students. It was outdated at that time and very little has done to bring it to the point that it reflects the relevant skills required of our students today. It is focused on facts that are easily found by a quick google search or can be taught through a youtube video. The rate that our students consume content and media leaves the focus on skills and understanding to the side. A timely tweet from George Couros, our district principal, left me thinking about how inquiry and relationships in the classroom has changed the tone of our learning.

So much of the growth and learning in our classroom has come from the fact we trust each other and have built a community of learning, growth and support. We have laid the foundation for us to develop skills and developed a culture of fearless feedback. The relationships we have forged and work to maintain are the ones that move our learning forward. In order to learn, the students must be happy and healthy first. This comes in many ways but for a lot of students, they are with me for the most important hours of their day. It is my job to facilitate their growth as citizens in our society.

My job is not to teach content but create experiences and facilitate opportunities for them. I am there to serve their social-emotional needs as much as I am there to fulfill their educational needs. What’s best for kids needs to be the focus of my decisions as I grow as practitioner. My job is not a job so much as a dedication to making the world a better place for kids.