January 02, 2012

New Year, New Focus! Allowing students to pursue their passions.

I had a great conversation with some friends on New Year's Day - which for most of us is a time to reflect a bit, but even more so a time to look ahead and make some plans for the near and distant future. My friend shared a youtube clip with us where the speaker was talking about how to follow your passion, rather than setting goals that you think are "reasonable" (these latter goals are the ones you think you should strive for because of what you think other people would value, but it is not necessarily what you would do if you weren't worried about what others think). I shared with my friends how I had an opportunity - a fork in the road about a decade ago, to pursue an art career with a contact I had in California or to go full on into teaching. Well I guess you know what I chose, but I would have never know then that my choice would lead me to embark on a Master's degree, or even that I would be sharing my ideas through this blog. I remember how many people around me at the time were encouraging me in my artwork and saying, "why don't you go for it!" To be honest  the money was good and I love art (and I was getting better at it); but there was something missing. I didn't have that feeling. It's a spiritual thing for me as well. What I am passionate about, what gives me true joy and drives me, is teaching. I feel that it is what I was born to do. With the new year I began thinking about the changes I want to continue to make in my teaching and how to improve on those things that are going well. The purpose is to enrich the lives of the children I am teaching and the staff I am teaching with. How can I continue to expand the sphere of influence that I have in a positive way that will uplift those around me? 

Over the holiday I took some time to re-plan my classroom space with the end in mind that it would allow for more flexibility in the physical space and create more opportunities for lesson ideas. Here is the design I am playing around with. In this first organization of my classroom space I have attempted to create an area in the middle of the room for students to move around. The projector can be moved out of the centre of the room, but the "movable" smartboard is quite big and cumbersome, and it cuts off the use of the whiteboards behind it (as shown by the red rectangular area).

the "before" floor plan
So I moved the smartboard in front of my desk to eliminate this problem and create more usable board space. This created a new problem of course, which was that I couldn't sit down at my desk and still see the kids. So I thought some more. And this is what I am thinking to do. I will move my desk to the other end of the classroom and the round table will go to the back. In the new floor plan below I have brought in an area rug and some lamps to make the space more comfortable. You might also notice that I gained a student (grey rectangles are desks).

new floor plan
Since the smartboard is on wheels it can be moved out of the way when not in use and then I get my big area down the centre of the room, a truly open concept (as shown in the red rectangle).

the flexible floor plan

Not only I am interested in the design of my classroom, it is also part of the metaphor I use when thinking about the students I work with. I am passionate about making learning fun for them in their journey from the time I see them all the way through to their graduation. I hope to change their perspective on what their role in learning is. I wrote an e-mail to some colleagues a month or so ago which I think is relevant here because it points (metaphorically) to the bigger picture of education. In a way this is part 3 of a series of posts I have been writing about the roles of teachers and students.

"Imagine you are a construction worker, but you have always really felt like an architect. Every day you struggled to get out of bed and go to work. Really you have just been going "through the motions". You grab your toolkit and head out the door. When you show up on the job site you are given your instructions for the day. You will need to read the blueprint plans as usual and is expected of you; however this time you are shocked to find out that you are being given some freedom to do some designing and frame up a few wall that will not only be sound structurally, but will add some flare to this space. You are told that this is a critically important step because the way in which you set up these walls will create a structure and a flow not only for the room but for the entire building. This will connect to what other workers are doing because it will also get things ready for electrical and plumbing (the guts of this new building that - yes, you are building). Although this is an overwhelming task ahead of you, which could create some initial anxiety, the excitement and feeling of adventure takes over and you jump in with both feet. On all the previous work sites you have only ever been asked to follow the plan and repeat the same job over and over. All you ever needed was a hammer because everything was set up for you. Just "hammer" away at those lessons. Every heard of math drills? But now you open up your toolkit and you look with amazement at all the other tools that you have that you were never encouraged to use before. You realize this is going to be a completely new kind of job that is going to require a completely new kind of thinking, and you are probably going to need some help and talk to some other people (which was never encouraged before either). Picking up your level, your measuring tape, your pencil - there is a new feeling that enters your body. You can't wait to get to work. 

Story, narrative, metaphor, imagery...these are all powerful "tools" that through their very use, creates emotional engagement - the key to learning (See Kieran Egan, 1997, 2005). Students are construction workers, but they are not the kind that should be just told to swing their hammers and get really efficient at that. Ask any student who has completed 20 worksheets in a row if they really enjoy what they are doing. What if we gave them opportunities to look into their toolkits and we actually taught them what those tools are and how they could be used. The classroom would look radically different because their might be some students using saws - cutting up knowledge and refitting it, others might be using rulers and pencils - measuring and comparing information, or using drills - looking deeper into concepts or even poking holes in theories. Through all of this, students are encouraged to plan, collaborate and design new projects and share new ideas. Once students become more aware of how their toolkits can be accessed and they are allowed to bring them out, they will start to use them more often and take some risks...as I have done here. They become designers, creating a new vision for themselves as they pass through the education system, they become empowered as learners! It's definitely a more engaging process. Instead of going through the motions, you are now engaged by your emotions! This is what our culture needs, people who have come alive and are passionate about what they are doing! 

Happy New Year!

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