“Stadia II” by Julie Mehretu, 2004
Since I decided to become a teacher, my volunteer work in public elementary schools has shifted from a purely service-oriented focus to a more observant and analytical position. As I enter different classrooms and observe new teachers at work in these spaces they have constructed, one of the first things I almost always do is draw a floor plan of the physical space. When I was a child, I always wanted to be an architect (along with a bus driver, high-rise window washer, and Target employee), until I did an internship in high school and realized how much I hate CAD and the other computer drafting softwares that dominate the field. Drawing floor plans of classrooms by hand sparks my creative and imaginative interest. It also helps me feel present in the space I am in, and draws me towards sensitivity to subtleties and nuances I might have otherwise overlooked. Once I have mapped the physical architecture of the room, I begin to see how this connects to the social architecture of the space—how do children move around this room, and how does the arrangement of furniture and things influence their interactions? This becomes a very telling narrative of the energies within the classroom, and often correlates with the initial organic feelings I sensed when I first entered.
The power of choice in classrooms is a crucial consideration, as children who feel empowered and in control are more likely to be engaged. However, in terms of not assigning seats, I would be weary of the impact this might have on building an inclusive community. Will students simply group with people that are similar to them, re-affirming social distinctions and choosing to become segregated? At the same time, I wonder if this could be an incredibly useful exercise in talking about inclusion; an evolution of “you can’t say you can’t play” to “you can’t say you can’t sit.” What would this look like and feel like in a classroom of young learners? It would be interesting even just as a temporary experiment, to see what would happen if students were allowed to pick their seats throughout the day. I am excited to try out these mini-level social experiments in my own classroom; the metaphor of the classroom as a laboratory will come to life!
One thing I notice every time I walk into a classroom is how cramped everything feels. With twenty to thirty desks squeezed into each of these spaces, there is not much room for anything else, especially not fluid movement. When I was in India volunteering in a school modeled after natural education philosophies, I was struck by how open and free the classroom space felt. There were no desks; everyone sat on the floor with mats. The classroom space was smaller than classrooms I am used to at home, but even with the same number of kids, the space felt so much larger and navigable. Kids could move and play, and their lessons often incorporated kinesthetic activities. Do we really need a desk for every student in every classroom? What would happen if we were to decide we do not want desks in our classrooms? What would the rooms look like and feel like? What could we do with the freed up space? What would be the reaction of other teachers and administrators?
Our lessons and discussions regarding online technologies have led me to expand these concepts of learning environments beyond physical classroom spaces to also see cyber spaces as constructed classrooms and laboratories for learning. Contemporary online resources offer an amazing opportunity to extend the process of learning beyond the school day and to include families in this journey. We can create and use these cyber spaces as tools for teaching and engaging students, children, families, and communities. Much like the environment of a classroom, I believe the structure and design of these cyber spaces is a critical element for successful learning. How can we design these cyber spaces so that they promote positive, deep engagement and authentic, active learning experiences?
“Healing Dance” by Chidi Okoye, 1996
Look up to the moon and sacred mountains
of the sky
Listen to the songs of sacred land
Feel the healing wind of sea
Step into the vibrations of energizing
songs of sun.
Let’s dance beyond rhythm of sorrow
Lift our legs and hands in praise
Dance to the wind of drums for the
rejuvenation of souls.
How people are represented is how they are treated.
How do we represent Others and their world for just purposes?
I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.
If you only know one story, and you’re committed to the idea that the world makes sense if and only if it’s interpreted through the filter of that one story, you’re stuck in a rigid stance with no options for change.
—John Michael Greer
“Composition VII” by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
Last year, I spent many months volunteering in a local first-grade classroom community. Since the start of this school year, I have been consistently working with the same teacher in the same classroom space, among an entirely new group of students. Out of twenty-six current Students, about a dozen are English Language Learners, and ten of them are native Spanish Speakers. About four months ago, their Teacher asked me if I would be willing to teach Spanish lessons to her class. Ever since, I have been planning and leading weekly Spanish Lessons for twenty-six first graders. This has been my first opportunity and experience managing an entire Classroom of young learners. For about twenty minutes every week, all focus within the walls of this space is on me; every eye is facing my direction (well, most eyes.) I am the governing body of the room, the community. This task is much more challenging, terrifying, and fun than I could have ever imagined. How would I even attempt to manage these students without their Teacher’s immediate presence and dependable interventions?
My recent thoughts on the professional practice of teaching have pulled me into a deep self-analysis; a reflective evaluation of these weekly Spanish lessons, isolated from as well as in connection to the experience of guiding a classroom of prisoners (which meets every week approximately two hours after I leave the walls of the elementary school.) As our education courses have progressed this quarter, I have noticed critical adaptations, transformations, and revolutions in the methods, techniques, tools, and strategies I use in planning, implementing, and facilitating a learning process and experience for distinct and diverse learners, both within and between these classrooms (I love run-on sentences, a lot, I really do.) In summary, the ways I have filled these new teaching roles have changed drastically in the past two months. In lesson planning, I have shifted from designating steps from start to finish towards identifying goals, evaluating current positions, and brainstorming creative strategies for connecting the two; a movement towards a fluid methodology of bridge building and cultural carpentry. I have actively reached for imaginative innovation in constructing interdisciplinary and interactive activities rich in interpersonal intensity (is my love of alliteration emerging at this very moment?) I am very very far from my personal goal of nearing these ideals, but I am making incredible strides. This forward movement is motivating and energizing. The honest and (re-)affirming reactions and responses I am receiving are validating and addicting. This is a form of labor I am falling deeply in love with; it draws from my gut a novel hybrid of fury, fear, and joy I have not felt in far too long.
During my class at the prison this week, there was a meeting in the room next door with three English Teachers and over a dozen Students discussing and negotiating (potential) English Curriculum and Pedagogy. After Class, I walked out of the prison with these three English teachers, who were bantering about the importance of “dangling modifiers” and proper use of the semi-colon. This was a raw reminder to me of how much I viscerally reject intense analysis of grammar and syntax. Semantics—the deep meanings embedded within the words and symbols we use and string together—are much more important to me, as long as they can be translated and communicated in a way that I can understand and interpret meaning from. The English language is temporary and transformable, not sacred and static; it evolves in a dynamic and multidirectional relationship with cultural forms and meanings. This is why I find Word Work so important; clarifying the meaning behind these fluid strings of symbols we call words. As I continue writing about my experiences teaching and observing and learning in Classroom spaces, I will simultaneously work to (re-)define and unpack the concepts and symbols I use to represent my thoughts and interactions in these worlds.
In this specific set of Work Work, The UPPERCASE version represents a formal classification, membership, label, role… The lowercase version represents organic, natural, non-institutionalized concepts, roles, positions, experiences...
class (n): a collective group of teachers and learners engaging in shared learning experiences
Class (n): a formally and/or institutionally classified group of learners engaged in shared, formal, and institutionalized learning experiences and/or processes
classroom (n): a space and/or place for teaching and/or learning
Classroom (n): a formally, institutionally, and/or physically designated space and/or place for teaching and/or learning
community (n): a collective group of people who are somehow attached and accountable to each other
Community (n): a physically, geographically, and/or politically demarcated group of people
curriculum (n): a set of lessons and experiences geared towards learning
Curriculum (n): a formal and/or institutionalized set of subjects for study
learn (v): to gain or acquire knowledge and therefore see your world anew
Learn (v): to gain or acquire knowledge that is formally approved, institutionalized, standardized, mandated, or strictly directed
lesson (n): a process and/or moment of teaching and learning
Lesson (n): a formal, planned, institutionalized, and/or politicized process and/or moment of teaching and learning
pedagogy (n): a dynamic set of tools, techniques, and methods for teaching
Pedagogy (n): a formal and/or institutionalized set of strategies for teaching
student (n): a person who is currently learning something from someone or something else
Student (n): a person who is formally, institutionally, and/or politically assigned to the role of “learner”
teach (v): to expose someone or something else to a novel form of knowledge and therefore a new lens with which to explore the world and experiment with meanings
Teach (v): to guide someone towards a formally, institutionally, and/or politically negotiated goal of knowledge and capability
teacher (n): someone who is currently facilitating a moment of learning for someone or something else
Teacher (n): a person who is formally, institutionally, and/or politically assigned to the role of guiding “learners”
word work (n): the unconscious and perpetual process of interpreting symbols and producing meanings from them
Word Work (n): a formal process of defining, unpacking, and playing with concepts, etymologies, and meanings