Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Space for Everyone

I spent the day in a meeting and rearranging the room.  The meeting was, unexpectedly, quite good.  It felt good to have a plan, to have a process and to work closely with such a great group of my colleagues.  But the best parts of the day, for me, always happen in my classroom.  It felt good to catch up one on one with people I enjoy working with in my own space as they trickled in and out.  And it felt equally good to sit in the silence and take the space into consideration.

Sitting in various spots around the room gives one a very different view of the space.  The major pieces of furniture are in place in my room, so today was my time to make sure that the little physical space details start to come together. Moving around the room and spending quiet time just sitting and taking in the environment from the various locations gave rise to some major changes from a child's perspective.  But minor changes from an actual doing aspect.

For instance, looking towards the back window corner from my desk it appeared I had this great space created at the "carpet" area.  For those of you who are not teachers, the carpet area is sacred learning space.  A space where the whole class can come together and learn in unity away from their individual spaces.  It's a pretty intimate (read tight) space.  One that has to be set up to be conducive to a group of people being able to focus on their learning, while also trying not to bump into the person next to them.  From my desk, it looked big, it looked possible.  It even looked inviting, from my desk.  From the carpet, it looked dark; the easel and teaching area were backlit from the windows.  Think teacher and chart paper/lessons completely in shadow.  From the carpet area it looked cramped and tiny.  The room was blocked off from view by a big bookshelf on wheels.  There was nothing inviting or big about it at all!

After spending 1 minute sitting at the back of the carpet and realizing the effect from the student's view, I flipped it.  I put the teaching space on the opposite side, I got rid of the bookshelf that blocked off part of the room, I lined comfortable chairs around the outer edge.  The whole room looks different.  It even improved the look and feel from my desk area.  I love these moments.  The ones that have such an aha! emphasis at the end.

We get so caught up in what our own perspective is that we forget at times to think about how the children experience it.

This is true in many of our interactions with kids.  A reality worthy of taking a moment to sit back and reflect on~ from a different spot in the room.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tea Running

I certainly never intended to make my hot tea a ritual for the students. It happened organically. I drink a lot of tea during the school year. I have a very specific travel mug for my tea. I keep boxes of my favorite tea in my desk drawer so that it smells delicious even in the summer, long after the boxes have been removed. When I am cold I hold my tea mug as I teach. When it has been a particularly trying day, I hold my tea mug as I teach. Sometimes the tea drinking is secondary to the tea ritual. The smell, the feel of the mug in my hand, the simple ritual of pouring the hot water over the tea, watching the water dance with the bleeding tea. Taking a moment to remember to pick up my tea, relax and then respond rather than hastily react to a particular situation.

Strangely, the kids caught on. "Oh, Ms. Mitchell has her tea, someone is pushing her limits." "See Ms. Mitchell, even you are cold-- you have your tea!" "Uh! Oh! Ms. Mitchell has her tea..."and then one day, "Ms. Mitchell, can I get your hot water?" This from a child who was often the impetus for me latching onto my tea mug in anticipation of its calming effect.

Two things happened in that moment. The first positive effect was the easiest to recognize: a very trying child left my room happily to get me some hot water from the office. No need to follow up and make sure they got where they were going. No need to buzz the office to let them know a child needed to talk with someone. No need to take my lunch and their recess to discuss what to do about their trying behavior. No need to apologize to the neighboring teachers about the angry child making their way down the hallway.

The second positive effect took longer to recognize: a child, trying very hard to find their way, found purpose in my classroom community. I didn't see it immediately because while the first effect was all about my needs, the second effect was all about theirs. It took the kids to teach me that the best lessons in the classroom very rarely center on academics alone.

What started as a student asking to get my tea led to me recognizing that sometimes a student needs to be asked if they'd like to get me some tea. This has certainly led to more than one burnt throat as I chugged my recently brewed tea in order to actually need the child to go get hot water. But if you've ever been in a situation where a child really really needs to get out in order for one of you to not blow, you'd recognize the necessity of a temporary loss of feeling in your mouth and throat.

Teaching those students who most desperately need a break when to ask for it is easier if the purpose of the break leads back to a classroom need. Students who are acting out don't always want to leave, instead they want to know why they should stay. Even more, they yearn to know they are wanted in the room. Sending a disenfranchised child away from you with the express purpose to return is a much better message than to send that same child away with no other purpose than to shape up and then return when they are ready. How many kids being sent out of a classroom knew they "weren't ready to be there" let alone can figure out what it feels like to be "ready to return"?

It has been interesting to note that students who know where they belong, know what they bring to the community and know what they can expect of their teacher and peers rarely ask to get my tea. It's the students on the fringe, the loudly bold, the violently tempestuous, the silently hiding ones that notice when Ms. Mitchell needs her tea and offer to go get it. They trot off with excitement to pour the boiling water from the office pot. Then very carefully, they walk back to the classroom careful not to burn their hands, careful not to spill the water and every so often I notice that they, too, are slowly inhaling the scent of freshly brewing tea and perhaps feeling that much closer to their teacher who relies on that scent to get her through.


It's August and rainy, not actively but the sky is grey and the air hints at a summer storm that blew through last night. The fact is, I like it. My thoughts have returned to work and my first "official" meeting of the school year is just 2 days away. A little cleansing rain and preparation for the changing of the season is good for my psyche.

Change invigorates me. Oh, I like my routines and normalcy, but I thrive on the subtle changes that occur within that realm. Teaching fits me perfectly--I get to continue to do the "same" things each year but each day is completely different from the prior. Children flit into my life in mid-course of their own lives and dance out 9 months later forever changed but still changing. I, too, am forever affected by what they have given and taken from me.

I have been spending much of my time reflecting on the classroom dynamics of years' past in preparation of the class that will meet me in a few weeks. This is both good and bad. The nightmares certainly reflect my biggest fears (strangely-and thankfully-none of the horrors that meet me in my sleep have ever actually happened on my watch, but each year the possibility of them happening is so present in my thoughts...). Nightmares are the norm in a teacher's August. I would rather dwell on my greatest hopes for the coming school year.

Thus, I have recently found a desire to reflect to find what it is that brings my classroom community together. I truly believe there is a key student or small group of students that make each year a defining one, where growth for all involved occurs. It's never the best academic student, nor is it the popular child, and often it's not the student who is quietly making their way through the world of social and academic requirements. No, it's the student who lives their life out loud, in many cases a bit too loud for the community. It's also the student who attempts to hide behind a mask of silence or even absence.

In any classroom these students exist. But in the best classrooms these children EXIST: they are seen, heard and responded to in a way that allows them to find acceptance. I'm not just speaking of acceptance within the classroom community, however important that is. More importantly they find what it is they bring that is unique and accept the greatness within themselves that they can then share with their peers.

This discovery of being needed, of being helpful, of being an integral part of the whole starts in my classroom with the simple act of getting me my tea.

The Tea Runner is my reflection on the trials, the triumphs, and the day-to-day happenings in a community of children just trying to make sense of themselves, their peers and ultimately-the world.