In appreciation of what my students – and children – have taught me, I’d like to close with a few suggestions for making all of our classrooms gifting ones.
Fill your classroom – regardless of your grade and subject-area – with as many learning objects as possible. Stuff your room to the gills with sensory tables, toys, art supplies, and whatever tech and accessories (like mini-MIDI keyboards) you can beg, borrow, or steal, and make it a point to give students time to play or negotiate student-directed projects using these resources. Watch the kids. See what they do. Let them teach one another through discovery. Let them teach one another through play. Learn how they learn alone. What makes a successful arts- or project- or tech-infused classroom is not a teacher’s planning; it is, instead, the teacher’s sustained commitment to trust students to learn and to provide them with the opportunity to learn and create what’s valuable to them with diverse media inside and outside the classroom community. Does this mean you sacrifice some curriculum and perhaps eat some test scores? Absolutely. Rightly.
Ditch what doesn’t work. Don’t keep on keeping on with one approach until all students are consequenced enough to comply or be sent from the room on a regular basis. Really embrace failure and try to depersonalize failed lessons. Experiment with stations or other classroom rituals that let you flow between students who are in and out of their own flow. If you can help some kids find a learning passion, you’ll have more time to help the other kids who struggle to find their own. This takes a long time with students who have been conditioned to be teacher-centered. Indeed, teacher-centered might be a stop-gap strategy to keep kids from being frustrated with more independent learning, but teacher-centered can’t be our goal if we really want to reject high-stakes testing and what we say it does to our children, classrooms, and schools.
Let go; let go; let go. Broadening the definition of learning in our classrooms is a scary thing to do. We have to let go of our traditional roles. We have to let go of some of our darling lessons. We have to let go of some content, some scores, and some approval. Finally, around week 2 or 3, when the novelty has worn off, and kids are questioning everything along with you, we have to let go of fear and help kids reach that next milestone that cements their faith in themselves as learners and valuable community members. The fear is the hardest thing to let go of for me. I ran into a colleague this past week, and we talked about our assignments. I encouraged him to go off his pacing guide. He said, “But the man pays my salary.” All I could say was, “Yes, but he pays mine, too.”
Keep the faith. Believe in democracy. Believe in your students and learning. Believe that you are a valuable member of your classroom community. Believe that you will do what’s right for all kids even when compromise, negotiation, and forgiveness feel uncomfortable to you. Believe that there is a better way to approach teaching and learning than the way we school children. There are no billionaires hiring researchers and bloggers to support this. This is our work; it is not yet theirs.
Perhaps idealistic, but at least it is an articulate expression of the core of the Occupy Movement.