I’ve always been one of those people who has a tough time really wrapping my head around the new school year until the physical space of our classroom is ready. That may be the residue of years of Augusts in my mom’s fourth grade classroom, watching her think and craft and organize in the most enthusiastic ways. It could be a little of my penchant for tidy spaces. But, most likely, it’s because I know the actual work of teaching is so unpredictable, so kinetic, so messy, that having our classroom space ready gives me a sense of calm.
Space is important. It’s not everything. It doesn’t have to define us (I know so many of you teach in spaces that are difficult to work with), but the way we use the space we have can reflect what we believe about teaching and learning. In fact, it does reflect what we believe. It’s the first message anyone gets about what learning will look like in this classroom. And I know this matters to you. In a recent “Ask Sarah” column, I answered a reader’s question about what an ideal classroom can look like.
Editor’s Note: This blog marks the beginning of a new series at Teaching Channel, Youth Mic. Hear from the real experts: our learners.
I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. You’re at the grocery store or putting gas in your car or stopping to grab coffee from the local barista, and you hear it. Actually, before you hear it, you sense it. A glance, then someone looking more intently, double-checking to see if the recognition is right. Then a smile. And a question.
“Ms. Wessling, is that you? I don’t know if you remember me, but…” Then I break into a smile. “Of course I remember you, Sam. You sat in that desk by the window and you hated Holden Caulfield, and you wrote that amazing poem about your name.” And we talk and catch up and smile and nod and remember and plan and exchange sincerities and feel buoyant with reconnection.
There are lessons we teach and lessons that teach us. It’s especially wonderful when those two maxims intersect.
The request started simply enough: “Sarah, would you be willing to come to our school district and teach our students? We love watching you in your classroom, but our teachers want to see how those lessons would work with our kids.” I jumped. What an opportunity to think about teaching from such a unique vantage point. So, the partnership with Tulare County Schools began and we turned this request into an incredibly unique professional learning opportunity for their teachers.
To the Teaching Channel Community:
Several years ago, soon after I had been named the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, I found myself about to give a speech to a room of 300 educators, every one of them accomplished and many of them my own education heroes. Executive directors and lawmakers, researchers and visionaries, educators and non-profit creators.
As I found my place at a table in the front, I gazed around the room again, my legs suddenly feeling like boulders, and my stomach a tight mess of uncertainty. My own words kept getting louder: “They got the wrong person, Sarah. There is no way you’re supposed to be here.” My throat tightened as the introduction started and I thought, “I can’t do this. I just can’t.” I took a deep breath. Then another. I closed my eyes and grasped for any image that would propel me out of that chair. First, Megan’s face. Then Jennifer’s and Jamie’s. Teacher face after teacher face showed up in that space of fear and uncertainty, and replaced it with reassurance.
As the school year begins with laminating machines firing up, photocopy machines heating up, and all kinds of technology charging up, there’s this question teachers often ask each other in hushed tones: “Is your room ready yet?”
I’m sure you’ve heard every intonation of this question. There’s the energetic-excited-enthusiastic voice, just hoping you’ll ask her so she can tell you about every corner of her space. There’s the voice hoping for camaraderie and absolution in not having started yet. And there’s the common, but understated, “Well, it’s as ready as it’s going to be because the kids are coming tomorrow.” You know she’s exhausted every ounce of creativity and purposefulness with every name plate, every Pinterest organizational idea, every word wall and responsibility chart.
It was about this time last year when I had copies of the Common Core spread out across desks in my classroom. I was determined to see how I could resolve this overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t “hold” all the standards in my head while I was teaching. So, I set out to “skinny” them, and see if making them more manageable would also make them more usable to both me and my students.
Of course, figuring out how to get the Core into six buckets was only part of the challenge. The real challenge was figuring out how to implement this system into the fabric of my teaching.
A year later, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to “live the buckets.” As I get ready to begin another school year, I’m looking to the lessons of last year to guide my foray into Paint Buckets 2.0.
Our last road trip stop in Tampa, Florida, helped us reconnect with the importance of giving students all kinds of space for learning: verbal space to drive discussions, cognitive space to design questions for learning, and physical space to foster collaboration.
With our sense of space broadened, let’s make our way to Flushing International High School in New York, where we’ll meet teacher Jordan Wolf. He’s going to give us some incredible insight about working with English Language Learners. Onward!
You’re invited to join us as we take another special Zaption tour, this time in Jordan’s classroom. We’ll learn more about the ways he meets students where they are in order to build deeper learning experiences. Don’t forget, when you participate in the Zaption tour, you also have the chance to discuss it with teachers from around the country who are road tripping with us!
This interview with Jordan Wolf is part of Sarah’s Summer Road Trip: Uncovering the Secrets of Great Teaching. Engage with the Zaption tour of Jordan’s classroom and ride along on the road trip!
Like many teachers, Jordan Wolf’s path to the classroom was more happenstance than planned. Also, like many teachers, Jordan Wolf knew immediately he had found his passion.
As an environmental consultant, just out of college, Jordan recognized that his love for science and research was being overwhelmed by the politics of his consultancy work. Then, one auspicious day on the New York City subway, he read an advertisement from the NYC Teaching Fellows offering an alternative credentialing system to become a teacher. He signed up, was accepted, went through an intensive two-month initiation program, and started student teaching while finishing his coursework.
Dirty laundry and bug-covered windshields are always sure signs of a road trip well-taken and are certainly part of the experience. For as much as I love planning a trip, I always look forward to the catharsis of unpacking the car and taking stock of the adventure. The snapshots in my mind of great moments, quietly laughing about the imperfect ones, and re-telling favorite stories.
Recently, I’ve embarked on a virtual road trip, visiting classrooms around the country to uncover the secrets of great teaching. This virtual road trip has left me with the desire to keep talking to these amazing teachers, to learn more about their teaching stories, and to have them “unpack” all of those invisible moves in their lessons.
The first leg of our virtual trip across the country to Seattle, Washington gave us special insight into the importance of discourse as part of learning to reason. This time, we’re hitting the road and heading all the way to Tampa, Florida and Thristene Francisco’s 6th grade language arts classroom. Here, we’re not only going to hear amazing student discussion, but we’re also going to learn how this teacher uses student-driven questioning as the foundation of the learning that happens in her classroom. Let’s get those wheels turning and travel on!
You’re invited to join us on a special Zaption tour of Thristene’s classroom, where we will not only take a closer look at her instructional moves, but we’ll also have a chance to learn from other teachers around the country by participating in the discussion feature on the tour. And, I’m telling you, just wait until you hear what kinds of insights these 6th graders are uncovering as they read!