Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A letter to my classroom visitors

Starting this year, teacher evaluations will involve folks from outside our building. I am blessed with a great principal who encourages innovative ways to get students involved, and I have been teaching long enough now that folks in the building know about the leprechaun, the giant hissing cockroaches and millipedes, and the collection of stuffed toy bunnies to allay test anxiety (though a better solution might be to toss the tests).

All in the name of education, of course.

Some days my class flows like a Beethovian symphony, with the occasional dissonant notes only highlighting the beauty of flow in the room. Other days, however, resemble the Keystone Kops meeting Pickles and Peppers:

To minimize confusion, and to cover my ass, I have written a letter to my classroom visitors.

Here it is, verbatim:

Dear Room B362 Visitor,

There are several areas of the room that students may visit just about any time except during assessments, each with its own purpose and peculiarities.

Play Station:
This activity (lab table in the back) is changed about once a week—students can go up one at a time for up to 5 minutes to play with a science education manipulative. Students are encouraged to write  about their experience in the notebook  at the station.

Perpetual pencil pot:
Students who need a pencil may grab one from the small pencil pot attached to the front bulletin board. While some people fear this may feed a student’s “laziness,” I must confess that even in my 6th decade I occasionally find myself stranded at meetings without a pencil.

Big Green “What We Want to Know” Box:
This box sits on the back shelf and serves as a place where students can ask pretty much any science question they care to ask. While many questions can be answered in class, sometimes students’ ideas wander away from the topic at hand. When that happen, the students can put their questions in the box.

Madagascar hissing cockroaches station:
Yes, they’re big, and can be loud, but they’re clean and harmless. Students may spend a few minutes now and then holding a cockroach.

Period notebook boxes
The color-coded boxes are where the students keep their in-class science notebook, used for recording observations and for recording “Do Nows.”  The boxes also have folders for each student for returned work.

20th century whiteboards:
These are showerboards cut to size to be used during interactive problem-solving sessions. The kids know where to find them, so if I say “get out the boards!”  you will see kids wander about getting boards and markers.

Liam the Leprechaun:
No, he does not exist—but try to “prove” he doesn’t. You can’t! And that’s the point. Yearlong exercise demonstrates what science can, and cannot, do when faced with charlatans.

I'm not saying chaos is good in a classroom--it's usually not.
I am saying, though, that dead silence is at least as bad, unless your goal is obedience.

And we already have too much of that....


Mary Ann Reilly said...

Makes me a bit sad that you even have to write the letter. Nonetheless, the letter is informative and might even help the uninitiated who trample into your teaching and learning. They will of course need to be able to understand, not merely read and these days that might just be a bit too much to expect. #sigh

I love the leprechaun. Reminds me of a book of poems about proofs I so enjoyed--the name I can't recall.

Mary Ann

Jenny said...

How often do your students wander to the various stations? Some clearly are more pragmatic (perpetual pencil pot and whiteboards) but the others that are more free form. Do they get used daily? Less frequently? Are some more popular than others?

doyle said...

Dear Mary Ann,

Makes me sad, too--if the evaluator is someone who knows something about kids and learning, and I trust most will, I should be OK.

OTOH, I still get some flak from colleagues about the perpetual pencil pot (as though its a gateway drug to a lifetime lack of personal responsibility.

At this point, I cannot worry too much about any of this--I am trying to teach in spans of weeks, even months, and a snapshot taken in less than an hour will have wide variations I cannot control without compromising my overall effectiveness as a teacher.

(The leprechaun may be the most important thing many of my children grasp--science cannot disprove something that does not exist in the natural world. There's a place for leprechauns and unicorns and tinfoil hats--just not in cience class.)

Dear Jenny,

Some classes use just about all stations daily, others barely use it at all. I work mostly with sophomores, and it seems to be largely dependent on what the "cool kids" choose to do. In jusrt about every class I have one or two kids that just need to get up, and this gives them an excuse.

After the novelty wears off in the first few weeks, I'm pleasantly surprised at how responsible 15 year old humans can be when given the choice.

Jenny said...

I'm not surprised at all that they are responsible about it. My experience with elementary kids is that the great majority will rise to what ever challenge or expectation we set for them. The danger is when we create structures based solely on those few who won't.

I'm also not surprised that the cool kids set the tone here. I was lucky enough in high school to be in a year in which most of the cool kids were also the smart ones. I would have loved to be in your class with them.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

The danger is when we create structures based solely on those few who won't.

Amen. I've gotten much better at that.

Most of the cool kids here are smart--a lot of them are not good students, but it takes a certain awareness to be cool. Alas, too many of the truly smart kids crash and burn by the time they get to mid-adolescence.

I'm working on that....

Unknown said...

I love the leprechaun. I did something similar with my kids. I told them that there was a band of fairies that lived in the supply cabinet and that they hate glitter pens, because medieval monks used to use fairy blood for glitter pens when they got tired of the same old black ink. We would attribute strange coincidences to the band of fairies throughout the year and then talk about confirmation bias.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Fairies are real--mead fairies work their magic long after the yeast have done the hard work, taking mediocre melomel and making it divine.

Christoper said...

This is great!