Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Environment

In keeping with the theme of my blog I feel compelled to write about my students' learning environment.
There are some things I can't control about my classroom: physical size or number of students, but I can control what goes into the classroom, how it's arranged, and how tidy it stays.

This year we have had 31 students and 2 teachers in our classroom. As much as I like to keep a classroom environment flexible and adaptive, the students I had this year in Kindergarten seemed to require tomato cages or a trellis.  This year countless toys and books were broken or mistreated, furniture scrawled on with markers, pencils broken purposefully, crayons constantly snapped in half. It was frustrating to see this behavior, but I think I was also channeling a lot of the frustration my students were feeling about not having spaces to grow, be themselves, have quiet OR social activities, and to have more choices... to just be kids and breathe!  As am I cleaning the room and packing things away for summer, I am thinking about next fall already.

While I look forward to spending time outside this summer and doing light landscaping, I see in my backyard that plants always do better when they have their own space and aren't being taken over by weeds. I want the students to have spaces where they can explore through a variety of sensory activities, rather than constantly working with writing implements at their tables.  I want them to have room to stretch out, feel comfortable, and get their own needed time in the sun.
This year we simply didn't have a lot of room for much else. I want to weed out unnecessary furniture and get rid of filing cabinets and go as paperless as possible. This is a tall order for a teacher, as any teacher tends to be a packrat "just in case we might use it in the future."  I see so many inspiring pictures of other teachers' classrooms, through their blogs and want very much to be there, but I seem to not have been born with the organizational gene. Just like I have taught myself to like foods I didn't have a taste for (olives, anyone?) I am trying to teach myself to find a place for everything, and if it doesn't have a place, it isn't needed. I think part of me finds purpose in disarray. When things are disheveled I can look around and know where everything is. It's visually stimulating. My brain doesn't seem to handle calm well, which maybe is a good trait to have for a Kindergarten teacher.

But my classroom has to function for my students, not for me. I want to give them all their space.  Today in a visual survey of my room I estimated that "teacher only" areas account for at least 30% of the space.  This simply isn't right. Students deserve and require that space to have optimal experiences in Kindergarten. They need sand tables, listening centers, computers, dramatic play areas, construction areas, art areas and quiet reading areas, all of which was nearly denied to my students this year because of my inability to provide the space, organization, expectations, and framework for them to do these activities in. I want to whittle my teacher areas to having my desk with the computer on it and utilizing my guided reading table as a seating area for students when they all need to be working at their tables (like during math time).   Spaces that can be multi-purpose need to be, and centers areas that students will use daily need to remain set-up and organized for student use.

Although I am wholly responsible for my classroom environment, one obstacle I am find in teaching is that more and more of our Kindergarten curriculum is becoming "sit and get," which is antithetical to the way in which the majority of Kindergarteners learn. When we expect 31 young children to all be performing the same task at the same time, it becomes a game of herding cats, or turbo Whack-a-Mole. Of course there are times when we need all of the students to be together, but I believe if students are given more freedom throughout the day, these times of class gathering become more meaningful and less taxing for wiggly kids (and their teacher).

I'm looking to weeding my Kindergarten and having a flower bed ready for my new little sprouts in the fall.  In the meantime Pinterest is going to be my idea shop.  Here are a few gems I found from First Grade Fresh.

Listening Center
Meeting Area with directions, objectives

And more from

Student materials are low, teacher materials are stored using "up" space.

In other environmental news, our school is raising funds for a natural playground.  I hope that we can make this dream a reality for our students, many of whom come from apartments or trailer homes where having their own back yard isn't feasible. There is so much more to play than asphalt, balls, and slides. My favorite thing to do when I was a kid (and probably adult) was sculpt things out of mud and mix in pine needles like straw in a mud hut. I really think kids should be getting dirtier at school.

This is what I hope will take shape in our giant swath of grass. We have the space, let's mix it up!
The above design was created by Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. I feel that our school is very fortunate to be working with this great organization.

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