Thursday, September 3, 2009

Classroom Setup is Not Decorating

Setting up my classroom last year was actually a major anxiety factor. In the school of ed I was shown examples of fantastic classrooms that won awards for being local museums, classrooms where the teacher had painted maps of the U.S. across the entire floor with their students and then shellacked over it, as well as a number of cases where the teachers had built large structures to create "labs of democracy" and simulations for Cold War war rooms and the like. Of course I wanted to have something like these when I set up my own classroom.

I spent a lot of time contemplating how I would set up my classroom. I bounced ideas off colleagues and peers, talked to friends in the field, etc. When I swaggered into my school in the South Bronx I talked about putting rules on the wall that the students discussed and developed during the first few days of school. I talked about constructing a wall in the classroom to replicate the Berlin Wall and divide the classroom when I covered the Cold War. I talked about making a democracy lab, teaching students how to make real decisions about their education. I talked and talked.

I didn't get as far as any of those ideas. Last year my classroom at the beginning of the year was a terrible mess. I mean, it was clean and all, but it looked like some people tried to make the walls "look neat" and then tossed 36 desks in all helter-skelter, partially because there was not enough room for them. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but much of what I put on the walls remained unchanged for the year and was not utilized at all by students. The desks were in no apparent order other than a failed attempt to put them in "collaborative groups." I can count on one hand the number of times my students attempted real group work last year.

Something that I did that is generally a very good idea (talking to veterans and asking for advice), but turned out to be pretty detrimental, was that I relied on our English teacher at the time for suggestions on how to set up our room. I judged as a new teacher that not stepping on toes, setting the room up generally how I'd like and making a few concessions to an older teacher with experience would help set me up for a solid start.

This "veteran" certainly talked as well. At the beginning of the year he claimed to have taught in South Central L.A. He claimed that he'd worked with a very similar population. At the end of the first two weeks of school he'd changed that statement to having taught "near" South Central L.A. and by the end of the third week he'd left the state.

I don't want to pass the buck to that teacher. I was just as responsible for not foreseeing the major problems that would happen as a result of a messy classroom. What I thought was that I wanted a lab for democracy, one in which students could take the problem of needing rules and order and come up with some pretty good ideas about what they needed out of a teacher. That is not how it turned out at all.

Basically the problem was that I was inexperienced with the urban population. I was relying on my success teaching with a pretty progressive agenda- one given to me on a platter at the school of ed. What I didn't know was that the students in this setting take liberties and any extra room given them and use them to rip new teachers apart. The term "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" doesn't exactly cover it. This is by no means majority of students, but enough to destroy the educational process and sometimes a classroom.

What I would suggest to a new teacher coming from a different background is to make sure the following things are true:
  • Desks and furniture need to look very orderly.
  • Rules need to be clearly posted.
  • Have a bulletin board for student work.
  • Have a bulletin board for materials related to the unit of study.
  • Add a couple small personal touches.
Start small in this setting. You need to learn about the students first before you put up anything major or crazy. Things need to be highly-structured and simple. If the setting feels like one in which the students will be able to do what they like, they will. Allowing for some generalization, the ones that are problematic are because they do not have any kind of structured home life. Sometimes if these students do get a lack of structure at school too, a place where they expect structure, they react poorly. That was something I certainly I knew nothing about...

This year I'm branching out a bit more, making things more organized and utility-oriented where possible. Part of this includes the fact that I'm going to concentrate more on immigration, as many of my students are immigrants and many more have parents that are. To make the fact that everyone in the U.S. is an immigrant or a descendant of one, I'm going to cover entire ceiling tiles with flags from the various countries represented by our students and by major contributors to the population of the U.S. in the past (Germany, Ireland, Italy, etc.). I hope to get a few of those "crazy progressive" ideas into the classroom as well when my students are ready for them.

There's a lot to be said about setting up a classroom. Any pointers?

Today's Wine: I went with a colleague to the Bronx's Little Italy- Arthur Avenue. We went to a place called Dominick's where there is no menu for wine or food. We were given a few options, picked something to east and drink and were told how much to pay at the end. The wine was something made in Italy specifically for the restaurant. It was a pretty good Merlot.

1 comment:

  1. There is a teaching book on American Simulations that has fantastic activities for students to understand facets of American History. It doesn't take setting up a room either. I even used it when teaching 5th grade American History.