It’s the Same for Vampires

[Editor's note: I've been extremely fortunate in being able to speak and msg with several pre-service teachers this Fall.  Each and every one of them has helped me better articulate my beliefs and practices.  They certainly are colleagues and a great addition to any PLN.  This post goes out to all pre-service teachers with warm regards, fond memories of Fall 2000, and a standing offer to help.]

Dear Colleague,

6.23.08, by aprilzosia

6.23.08, by aprilzosia

What do you think of when you think of a classroom? What do you see? How are the desks arranged? Where is the work done?  How are people behaving?  Does the room look like your classroom – the one you remember from your youth? Does it look like one from high school or college? Elementary school or middle? Does it look like your favorite teacher’s classroom?  Does it look like the classroom you’re in now while you finish student-teaching?  Does it look like a lab? The band room? A gym?

How do you think classrooms will look in 5 years? In 10? How should they look right now?

When I think of a classroom, I think of rows. I think of the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. I think of the chalkboard and the windows set perpendicular to the students, an irresistible provocation to look away from the board if ever there was one. I think of all these things and fight against them.

For decades there has been no change in the way the American public thinks of the classroom or of what should go on in it. School should be a certain way. Children should be taught as their parents were. A classroom must be orderly to be organized. Unless the work today looks like the work of yesterday, it’s not real work.

Here’s a quick assignment. Go to YouTube, which never lies. Mute your computer (very important step) and watch the first few seconds of this video. Next, watch this video for a few seconds beginning at 3:14. Then move along and watch a few sconds of this video. Finally, check out this video for just a few seconds more.

That’s four decades of popular thought across demographics about what goes on in schools.  If you need more proof, look here and here.  It’s the same for vampires.  How do the set-ups of those classrooms compare to the classroom in your head?

What do those classrooms value? How do their physical spaces constrain students’ possibilities for learning? How do their physical spaces constrain teachers’ possibilities for teaching?

How can you, as an individual teacher, help to change our country’s decades-old view of what school should be, beginning with your classroom?

That’s a tough question for any teacher to answer, but it’s especially important that you ask it of yourself because you are on-deck. Your work will advance new ideas of what school can be or further cement obsolete notions of the same. You will either participate in a paradigm shift or resist it.

Take some time this Spring to reflect on what you know and trust works for kids. Create a vision for yourself of the ideal classroom. Ask for feedback on it from teachers you trust, but don’t be afraid to differ from them. As you interview, be mindful of your vision and find ways to feel out whether or not your prospective administrators will support it. Ask about the kinds of mentoring you will receive as a first-year teacher and the beliefs of your prospective mentors.  Look for support in achieving your vision, not in replacing it.

Set up your first classroom so that it’s default setting allows the kinds of teaching and learning you want to experience on a daily basis. It takes any teacher time to create a new classroom culture. It takes longer to undo one culture and replace it with another after things “settle down.”  You’ll need to make changes once the kids show up, but make those changes based on the feedback students give you.  Share your vision; don’t abandon it.

If you’re interested in technology (and you should be; is anyone out there still texting on paper?), when you’re hired, use F2F social networking to find out how your division filters the Internet and recycles its computers. Find the person who can tell you whether or not you can get the computers sitting in surplus put in your classroom with the understanding that the division will not support them. Find out if you can get Internet connections for them anyway and find unblocked, free, DIY Web apps to replace the expensive software that’s no longer supported on your machines. As long as you can provide a consistent, low ratio of Web-enabled machines to students, you can find the tools you need online for free. Many online tools have great tech support and user forums, as well, which means that you won’t need division staff to mess with malfunctioning programs. In fact, your tech support people will love you and be more likely to help you in the future because a) you’re doing something cool with technology that b) they don’t need to support. Your administrator, too, will point to you as an innovator if you can cobble together a Web-enabled classroom for little or no cost to your school.

You are on-deck, but not in-line to inherit outmoded ideas of what a school or classroom can be. Dream big and count on yourselves and one another to find ways to fulfill those dreams. You’re about to be given an old classroom. Do something new with it.

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