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.

 

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Yes we have fun, but we work hard while we’re at it.

 

Today I was walking through the hall at recess and overhead one of the students saying they wanted to be in my class next year because I have cool furniture and we keep the lights off the majority of the day. The reaction my students had to this comment was pretty awesome.

“Miss A’s class is hard. It looks fun and comfortable on the outside but when you’re in it, she challenges you. We work hard. The couch is pretty cool though.”

That’s what I strive for my class to be – a challenge. It shouldn’t be hard to do, but I expect that my students work hard at their own level. Each activity is carefully designed for students to do at their own level. A student needs to make the choice if they don’t want to succeed in my class because they have the freedom to push themselves beyond where they think they can if they take the chance. The work isn’t the hard part, it’s the acceptance that you can always keep improving that is the hard part. Once they accept that, the results will show they are capable of much more that what most people expect of a 10 year old.