November 27, 2011

Kittens Take Over: Unexpected Changes

A few months ago I was convinced by my family into getting two pure-bred Ragdoll kittens...and they re-arranged our life. We had to change the layout of our living room to accommodate their litter box and scratch post. Uugh! Not exactly what you want your company to see when they visit, but they're so cute!

"Kiley & Skylar"
"the kittens take over"
They are a few months older now, and we don't have to watch their every move, so we put their litter box and scratch post downstairs and we have our living room back. The only thing is, we had to move the computer desk and "office" stuff from the den downstairs to make room for them. So now the computer area is in our living room. Amazing how one change has a snowball effect. It took me most of the weekend to make all the changes that were necessary, with a trip to Home Depot of course. I think you can probably relate! So what does this have to do with the classroom? I'll get there.

Throughout my teaching career, I have tried to pay attention to how changes to the physical space of my room might create a more warm and inviting space for my students. In reality, all I have done is added an area such as a "reading corner" with a couch, or a small table for "conferencing" with students. As stated in my first post, I have attempted this year to transform my classroom into an island with a meaningful connection to the curriculum. So I am not aiming anymore for just an inviting space; rather I am trying to create a space that encourages thinking and engages students' emotions towards what we are learning. 

This whole-scale theme started last year when my classroom space became a medieval castle of sorts.

"my covered and painted medieval door"

"my covered and painted cupboard"

"students' stained glass art covering our windows all year"

These changes were mostly on the perimeter of my room; nevertheless the light that came through that window did create an unusual myriad of colours that would shine in everyday. This was a pleasant unexpected result. More recently I have begun to think about the physical layout of the floor space in my room. I have been inspired by a few conversations with a number of teachers in my school district who are showing innovation by completely altering the design of their classrooms. One teacher told me about how he removed some of the desks from his classroom and built risers for students to sit on, do their work, and have large class discussions. (you can find his amazing ideas about innovation and design on his blog: "take your learning with you wherever you go", in the "about me" section of my blog). Another teacher told me about how she also moved out all the desks and brought in tables, lawn chairs, and lamps to create a relaxing atmosphere for her students to work in. Well, I am not quite at that point yet of abandoning the students' desks altogether; but I am looking at how I can maximize the floor space in my room to allow for new lessons and activities. I will give examples of how I have been playing with this idea in some future posts, it has been quite exciting for me!

When I started on this journey of using imagination in learning I knew that it would require many changes to my teaching practice, and the thing is that not all of those changes have been self-initiated or necessarily predicted. The components of imaginative work that I see as necessary are: flexibility, vision, and openness to the possibilities that result from some action or change (and this may mean changes to your environment). I had another intriguing conversation with a teacher who told me about a day recently where a chair flipped over in his classroom and the student sat down on the underside of the chair. Then he encouraged more of them to try it out. He mentioned that the students had a blast playing around with the chairs, holding onto the legs. As we spoke, we came up with more ideas of how the basic chair could be rearranged and used to add something different to the school day. It's interesting how one little thing like a chair flipping over can add a shift to the day. 

Then I remembered one of the first lessons that I tried using the "change of context" tool from the Imaginative Education theory. It had a little to do with desks and chairs. I believe that this moment was a turning point in my teaching career because I took a dramatic risk in doing something very different in my classroom, and it has rippled out and caused me to be more adventurous in my lesson designs. For this particular lesson I flipped all the desks and chairs over before the students arrived. We were reading the novel: Escaping the Giant Wave. In the story a young brother and sister are stranded after an earthquake that causes a tsunami disaster at the hotel where they are vacationing on the Oregon Coast.

"disaster strikes the classroom"
"a survival situation"

I had the students connect with the feelings and thoughts that the main characters were having by creating an "experience" for them as they had to "act" quickly to escape the oncoming wave(s). They had to find whatever they could and start making their survival lists. A student started putting his desk back and I said, "You don't have time for that, we need to act quickly."

"students completing their survival lists"
"student example of a mini shelter"

Following this the students created their own shelters and we read some more of our class novel. This took most of the day, but these are the kinds of lessons my students remember and talk about with me when they return to say "hi" years later. You might even say they "flipped" over this lesson:)

This week my chalkboards were changed over to whiteboards. When I arrived I was shocked to see them and I proceeded to spend a lot time in the morning thinking about how I might make more use of this in my class since I rarely used the old chalkboards. I moved some desks, and my smartboard screen and projector ended up on the other end of the room, and so on. I put both into use immediately that day and the students were very excited. I had a few students showing their math examples of base ten numbers up to millions on the whiteboard up front, I had students demonstrating what a million cube might look like in the middle of the room, and I was projecting images of Guinness Book of World Records "collections" on the screen at the other end (as it related to our lesson). This was really cool I thought, but even so, at the end of the day I noticed how stark-white the boards were and how this changed something about the "feel" of my room. I must do something about this, I'm just not sure yet. It will undoubtedly involve some fabric and further island decoration.

Some changes to the physical space of the classroom are anticipated and others are not. Whether we make these changes or we are responding to ones that "happen to us", all the outcomes can not possibly be predicted. It is our response to these changes that matters. This is the joy of teaching if we are open to it. I hope that I will continue to find ways to make learning fun for my students, and I wonder what other kinds of changes might be ahead, planned and unplanned, and what this might lead to for my teaching?

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