Starting a new role is exciting. The thrill of doing something new and different is incredibly grounding and sobering.
Taking that next step out of the classroom and stepping back into even more classrooms is a very humbling privilege.
I sat in my ‘office’ for the first time a few days ago and must admit I was feeling quite overwhelmed – in a good way.
“Where do I even begin?”
I felt blank and the urge of panic was creeping in and about to take a hold on me.
I have an inordinate amount of things to do and don’t even know where to start. So, I sat there in that moment to quiet myself and regain some composure.
Anytime Sam and I have ran or lead anything to do with teaching and learning there is still one we’ve always started before pedagogy. The physical space. This is often overlooked yet it sets the tone for everything you do.
Create the space you want to be in, feel, think and do. Let that space reflect and be an extension of who you are and what you want to be about.
I did just that….. moved furniture, emptied old draws, put folders aside, made a list of the things and furniture I would need to make the space show who I am and what I value.
From this point on, I was able to chip away at all the other things. I felt comfortable and there was a sense of calm and peace in the way I approached that endless list which buried me before.
As we all start again a new year, whatever your position or role, start with the physical space first.
What does your space say about you?
What mood do you want to create?
How will others feel when they are in that space?
How does your space allow you to do things even better?
Are students part of your thinking and designing? How?
Now, before you do anything else, think about the space you want to be in. It is just like your bedroom, you spend just as many hours in it, yet you are actually awake. Make it special!
We all know the value of physical space and the benefits it has on learning. Last week my students took things one (maybe two) steps further. I’m not even sure how it started…. one student made a comfortable space with a simple blanket and then others started to do the same. They were building, trading materials and supplies, negotiating, communicating, listening, designing, planning, innovating and on and on. I let it happen.
The result? The mood shifted. The focused increased. The creativity lifted. They were happy! This all happened on a Friday.
Then it was the weekend.
Monday morning came and students had been building, cutting wood, buying screws and tools and brought in things from home like lamps, pillows and toys. It was these touches that made their spaces feel very different. Once again, they took it to another level. And they did this on their own.
This natural and ever evolving process has revealed so many stories. Stories that are intertwined and overlap in the same moment. What they were doing is exactly what we want inquiry to be about. Where students are thinking about learning outside of school. Students are doing things that add to the experience. They take action without an adult instructing or guiding them.
While I am not pointing out the obvious, it made me stop in my tracks. I took a step back and observed what was happening around me. I realized that they are 10. They love to play. They love to hide. They love to escape. They love to pretend. We must never forget who they are at heart. The assessments, the testing, the home learning, the reporting…. Don’t let that stuff over ride you (and your students) and leave the creativity, wonder and imagination behind.
When I left my job in Manchester and moved to Amsterdam, I was an IB novice. Over the next few years, ISA (the International School of Amsterdam) sent me on IB workshops in Vienna, Istanbul, Gothenburg, Barcelona, Geneva, and probably one or two other places I’ve forgotten about.
But it was on a week-long trip to Harvard to participate in Project Zero’s 2002 Summer Institute (http://www.pz.harvard.edu) that I started really getting my head around constructivist ideas about education, and realizing that my own approach needed to change – in ways for which there seemed to be no clear models, at least in my subject area.
My own English teachers in high school were interesting enough, with their literary passions, pet theories and intriguing (to us) private lives. They were OK. Pretty good in fact. When I taught in England for about twenty years, I was probably about as good as they were. I hope so, anyway.
But what I was being exposed to now made me think that wasn’t enough. Nobody was trying to pretend that they had all the answers. But I now had some at least some of the questions. I was being given all kinds of encouragement to think – and rethink – about exactly what I profess to do.
I found myself focusing not so much on how I teach, but on what. Or to be more precise, on what I teach as the essence of how I teach. I’d always put plenty of creativity into my teaching, though without, as I now realize, having any particularly coherent analysis of what I was doing. I thought my job was to inspire, to encourage, to correct. You know – to teach. To expand minds and tighten skills. To get kids reading, and writing better. All of that. And none of that is wrong, of course. But in pursuing these general aims, I have to admit I could be a bit instinctive (ie random!) in my reference points. I brought in texts I cared about, used the reading I’d done and the passions I’d developed.
I’d taught bright kids at top English independent schools – it was fairly easy to be OK in that context, generally a pleasure to share what you knew and cared about. But the constructivist model of learning I was introduced to through the IB and Project Zero constituted a powerful, relevant and grounded theory. It is how we learn. Knowledge cannot be transferred like a digital file; it has to be constructed afresh by every individual mind. In that sense we are all self-taught. To ‘teach’ anybody anything, I had to get involved on that level, and get much more into the perspective of my students. My job was not primarily to tell, or even to share, but to guide – to create compelling inquiries, to find or build spaces for the students to enter. These spaces have to be structured. They have to have foundations. The curriculum is the blueprint for building inquiry space, and in committing to an inquiry model of teaching we have to start with curriculum.
My family and I went on holiday to a secluded villa in the North East of Thailand. On the first day I took my little girls for a walk, they are 2 and 3 years old. I pulled them along and was in a mad rush to go wherever we were going (which was actually nowhere). I urged them to “hurry up” and got irritated if they stopped and I was forced to wait.
I was still in “work mode” or “school mode”.
Poor girls. Luckily, I realized the error of my ways and started letting them set the pace. By the last walk of the holiday I was carving bits of wood with a knife as we strolled along at their speed. They were stopping to draw in the sand, pick things up, touch leaves and flowers, watch butterflies, make observations and ask questions.
I realized that I had “de-schooled” myself. But, what does that say about the person I am when I’m teaching? Am I constantly hurrying my students along? Are they missing out on as many powerful moments and potential inquiries as my kids were on that first walk? Am I walking past my colleagues without saying “hello”? Why am I like that in school? What is it about the “busyness” of schools that makes us such manic people?
It must not continue. The time has come for people who work in schools to start looking at how we use time, and to start using time better. Most of us work in schools that profess to create people who will “create a better and more harmonious world”, but how harmonious are our schools, how mindful are our children, how frantic is the atmosphere?
It’s time to look at time, but we need to have the time to do it. Catch 22, or just another feeble excuse not to make positive change?
Do you have any stories like this?
The move from the old building to this new, renovated building has been a revelation, I’m sure you will all agree. We have all had to rethink the way we set up our classrooms and consider our use of space with creativity and with the kids firmly in mind.
I was inspired to take photos of the Year 2 classrooms when I popped in there this morning as I felt that they were filled with language and visible thinking. Here’s a virtual tour.
Can any of you spot the object that Colleen went and bought for each class?