Sunday, September 19, 2010

Setting Up a New Classroom: Got Design Ideas? Part II

Decided on a U shape for the Benefit of Kids' Presentations

Way back in July, when I was pondering the task of setting up my new classroom, I reached out via Twitter to my amazing network of educators around the world and asked for help. On the Voicethread and in written comments here, many insightful "tweeps" gave me input on how to set up the room.

Here are some pictures that show my room as it is right now, along with the rationale for my set-up.
Our  "Best Writing" Display and Small Group Table
 As you can see from the pictures, I ended up using a "U-Shape" configuration. When I tried to put desks in groups of four, it was difficult for me to imagine how students could focus on the person talking if they couldn't see that person's face.  Before anyone thinks that my rationale for this desk arrangement is so I can be the "Sage on the Stage," rest assured that this is not the reason for my decision! Although it can be tricky to refocus conversation and keep kids following their own rule of "One person talks at a time," this configuration supports my goal for students to be active listeners and "question askers" when they present to each other.  This configuration also allows us to come to the carpet for discussions; I am working on getting some cushions or small mats so that the scratchy carpet isn't a problem.

  When my students work in small groups and with partners, they have options to work around the room and even just outside the room where there are picnic tables. They aren't sitting in this U-shape configuration for a good portion of the day, but when they are  it is very helpful that each student can always look at the person who is talking.

The purple stability balls are working out very well! I got the idea from someone on Twitter; sorry I can't remember who, but they mentioned a Minnesota study where kids actually focused and performed better on classwork when using the balls.  Each day, four students have the option of using the ball as their chairs. They love the movement and tilting that the ball allows; of course when the bouncing is a distraction for me or other students, they lose their ball privilege. So far, no one has lost their ball!
The Cabinets Store our Four Computer Workstations and Make Great Display Space!

Finally, in the far corner, which you can almost see in the picture below,  I moved one of the bookcases from the opposite end of the room, to make a nice reading area. With four beanbags there, and limited space, you can imagine that the beanbags often migrate to the big space in front of our desks during our D.E.A.R. time!
The window ledge is a great space for supplies and display space for projects. Our "Me Wordles" hang on the windows.
Once again, I send a heartfelt thanks for all who commented and supported me in my big transition to a new school and new grade level. Do you have any comments or questions now? Please share in the comment box below!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Power of Spontaneity

Call it spontaneity, or capitalizing on the power of novelty in awakening the brain, I am realizing more each day that seizing and creating playful moments in the classroom builds a positive classroom environment where everyone learns.

Many times these opportunities arise, yet often we use excuses that prevent us from seizing the moment. We cite time constraints and adhering to schedules as reasons to rigidly "stick to the plans."  Here's an example of when I jumped right in anyway, knowing that it would take a couple of minutes out of our busy schedule.

Yesterday, just after morning recess, my students were getting ready for a vocabulary quiz. As they noisily went about putting their desk items away and putting up their privacy screens, I exclaimed: "Ooh! I have a great idea!"  Heads peeked above the colored cardboard screens as the room fell silent. "What, what?" several exclaimed in unison. I suddenly had all eyes on me, awaiting my announcement. "Michael!" ( not his real name), " Would you grab the camera and take pictures of us looking nervous about our quiz?" I knew that my students would love "hamming it up" for the camera, as they come alive when they get to play act. I had serendipitously discovered this as they had played vocabulary charades for 10 minutes at the end of the prior day. "These will be awesome for our blog this week," Michael shared. After Michael took a few shots, which only took about a minute or two, I told the students to take a deep breath, smile, and think a happy thought, which was easy after the giggles from the posing. We had previously talked about how our facial expressions can impact our feelings and that at times we can help counter negative feelings by changing our thoughts and facial expressions.   As the room fell quiet again, the students took their vocabulary quizzes.

Of course, I can't be sure that my spontaneous photo tactic was the reason for the 100% score on all of the quizzes. What I observe is this: students are awake, enthuiastic, and engaged in class. When we lighten the mood with humor and fun, we create a safe and enticing classroom environment. Within this positive space, where the challenges of test stress are acknowledged and dealt with, we can then encourage and empower students to do the tough work of critical thinking and risk-taking. They will work hard, not because they have to, but because they want to and believe they can.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Learning Curve

I've been a bit busy in the past month since I started work at my new school on August 9th. As my days rapidly fly by and I go without writing for yet another day, I find myself longing for the release of expressing myself here, sharing ideas with others. Twitter, which kept me learning for a good part of the summer, has been an occasional place to check in and briefly engage in a few thoughtful discussions with other educators.

The path of learning I have been climbing has been intense. Learning a new school culture, new curriculum, mapping program, and grade level has me wondering how kids feel when changes bombard them all at once. This preoccupation with "figuring things out" probably makes me appear unfocused or inattentive to others. I wonder if we judge kids this way when they have lots on their minds: new learning, new teacher, changes at home, new friends. What can we do to help ease transitions like the one I am experiencing?

Here are some ideas I've had to help both my students and I in times of great change and transition:

  • Keep routines stable: Much as I have been wanting to stay up later to finish work, I have, for the most part, retained my bedtime routines. I have also been preparing my lunch each morning and try to include healthy sources of protein to keep me going!
  • Get plenty of exercise to boost mood and reduce anxiety: I have been not as consistent as I had hoped but I am working on getting 3-4 workouts minimum each week.
  • Make to-do lists: prioritize to-do's so that I don't feel overwhelmed by all of the ideas in my head!
  • Connect with friends and family as much as reasonably possible. Let them know it's a busy time and plan/schedule a time to call and catch up.
  • Use humor to lighten the mood and build positive emotions. Research by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill Pep Lab confirms that inducing positive emotions helps us function better cognitively.
  • Have reasonable expectations: some things just take time. No one is super-human.
So, what do you think of this idea? Do you think that when kids are on a deep learning curve that we sometimes mistake their deep consuming learning for inattention? How do we help them or ourselves when life throws us multiple new opportunities to learn and grow?