One Bean Bag at a Time: Creating a Student-Centered Classroom
Today was the first grade level team meeting we had for the upcoming school year. Usually those meetings are continuations of policies from last year, with improvements and suggestions peppered throughout on how to make things better for everyone. When the question was asked, “Who wants to supervise the lunch detention room,” I raised my hand and said, “I’ll do break duty every day for the year. I don’t care. I just don’t want to do that.” That triggered a question from one of our administrators: If you don’t want to do it so badly, then how do you think the kids feel about it?
How the kids feel about something is probably one of the most divisive questions you could ask in a school, and the answers are not dependent on age, gender, or any other factors like that. It’s a question of philosophy. You get some who say, “Who cares how the kids feel? They’re here to learn. What about me and how I feel,” while others say, “If the kids don’t feel good about where they are, there’s no way they can learn.” That question often hints at the underlying issue of control and what the teacher’s idea of control is.
Too often, what I’ve found from collaborating in teacher-centered classrooms, the control is shown by telling the students where to sit, when they can go to the bathroom, what utensil they need to write with, how they must research a topic, how to structure an essay, how to add fractions (‘cause there’s only one way, right?), and how to behave. Generally, that teacher believes that if all of those factors are “taken care of,” the students are ready to learn, only to be disappointed that after they’ve stripped the students of any choice and dignity (because how humane is it to ask a student – “do you really have to go the bathroom right now or can it wait?…If it’s an emergency, fine, you can go, but grab the pass.” If a principal did that to a teacher, there’d be a grievance in HR by the end of the day), those students actually didn’t learn the material.
In no way am I innocent of all the above charges. But I’m working every day to grow and be better at what I do.
In a student-centered classroom, in no way does the teacher ever not have control of the classroom, but the teacher is controlling other things besides compliance. It should go without saying that the teacher is always responsible for creating a safe environment for students. In the student-centered classroom, the teacher controls that students are set up to learn. What that actual set up looks like changes for every student. For some, it may be using an iPod to research while another kid uses a laptop. Some may sit in a plastic chair at a table, others may want to sit somewhere on the floor. If learning is happening for both kids and they’re safe, does it matter where they’re sitting?
The teacher has to be flexible enough to give students choices for how they learn and where they learn, but before that can ever happen, the teacher has to give students the right to make choices for themselves, good or bad, and learn from them. Like a colleague of mine, Michael Thornton, who I am lucky to bounce ideas off of says, “Give students the chance and they’ll figure it out.” The only thing they have to figure out in a class where they have an assigned seat, where there is only proper way to sit, and only one path to the correct answer is how much they hate that class.
There’s also plenty of places for kids to write, whether they want to stick with paper or use tables, floors, and windows. Again, shout out to Michael and Ira Socol for the inspiration here. I’ve stolen so much from people like them!
While all the standards kids need to know will still be taught to them this year, the kids are going to take more ownership of the content in ways like creating their own lessons to teach the class, another great thing Michael does. Lecture is dead, but students learning how to research and evaluate both content and mode of presentation is not, and I’m hoping that the information is a) easier for them to understand when it’s coming from one of their peers and b) more relevant and retainable (new word!) because it’s coming from them. Where students sit is another issue I’m not going to stress over this year, as long as we can all see each other. There’ll be times when kids need to be in certain places, but other times when it truly does not matter.
I’ve added a few things to my class, the first year I’ve ever had a room to myself and been able to go HGTV on it. Here are some of the additions (none of which are groundbreaking, but when combined, the class looks and feels really comfortable):
- corner area with rug and pillows
- husband pillows (can use anywhere in class and hall)
- bean bag chairs
- rubber interlocking tile mat (where a teacher desk used to be)
- round tables instead of desks
- a couch in one corner of the class (where file cabinets used to be)
- floor space/huge floor writing space in the back of the class (where another teacher desk used to be)
- blank walls (no posters, which leaves all the room for student work)
When the kids come for the first day, I hope they have suggestions for how to make the space better for them. Here’s a panorama view of the classroom so far. Any feedback or suggestions is greatly appreciated.