At Home in the Classroom
“This classroom feels like a prison!”
The first time I heard I student say that, I agreed with him. We were trapped inside grayish white walls made of solid brick forced to sit in uncomfortable desks placed in rows for over 90 minutes. The air was filled with a tangy blend of armpit and chicken biscuits. My students heard the same thing repeated daily and altered slightly for the situation: “don’t, stop, and that's not allowed.” I went home daily exhausted and ready to give up. I was doing what I was supposed to do. I made rules, stuck to them, and attempted to teach the material, but no one was buying it. As the last day of finals came and went, I was relieved that the struggle was over, but I was fearful of the year to come.
My first step was to realize that I am not, at my core, a disciplinarian. I tried to force my students to accept my rule over the classroom and failed miserably. My heart is to love my students and gain their trust and respect through holding high expectations, but also realizing that there could be a deeper reason why a certain student felt the need to sass me in front of the entire class and handling that situation with patience and understanding. I wanted to communicate this to my students from day one, but we all know that there isn’t so much power in telling as there is in showing.
It started with my bulletin board, as it does with most teachers. I began my teaching career in a failing school and improving test scores was at the top of everyone’s agenda. Therefore, I cut out sparkly stars and started posting my top scores to motivate my students. As it turned out, my top four or five readers got all the praise, and the majority of my students probably felt discouraged by my good intentions. Discouraged, I tried to think about what would make all of my students feel valued in my classroom, and I was reminded of my college years.
While attending Covenant College, I lived in the same dorm, on the same floor all four years. Dorm rooms can also feel a lot like prison cells, so senior year my roommate and I brought in curtains, coffeemakers, and quilts to make our room as “homey” as possible. We noticed that the freshmen on our hall would walk past our room, stop, and run in to plop down on one of our beds to spill all of their first-year woes. Just as our dorm room was a place where complete strangers wanted to be, I wanted my classroom to have that same appeal.
The walls are still gray, but at least they are now mostly hidden behind brightly colored posters, literary quotations, stringed lights and my version of a word wall in the form of a triangle banner. For now, the desks are still uncomfortable, but at least the desks are in groups so that the students can learn what it means to work with others and get along with people who are different from you. Talking is encouraged, and when the task is meaningful, distraction is not as tempting. Student work of all types covers my bulletin board, and there is a Harry Potter-themed reading nook in the back corner, complete with a miniature Hedwig the owl and an especially revolting Scabbers the rat. Students that I don’t even know come into my room because of the inviting smell of apples and cinnamon, and students from semesters-past swing by during their morning commute to class to chat about Harry Potter or agonize over PreAP Biology.
We have a unique opportunity as teachers to communicate many things to our students, and what better way than through our very classrooms we invite them into every day. My goal is to eventually remove all of the desks from my classroom, and have centers made up of tables for writing, camping chairs to extend my reading nook, podiums for discussion, and a technology center for research. This will be a process, but it is something I believe will not only engage students but transform their opinions about learning.