Connect the Dots

I really need to shower more often – not because of the summer heat but because that is where my insights seem to wait for me. This morning’s thoughts revolved around connections.

I thought about how cool it might be to operate in a Humanities Department rather than the more narrow History Department. I am still pretty attached to my discipline, so I see the Humanities piece as an umbrella, at least for now. Then I started thinking about the identity crisis for History – does it fit best in Humanities or Social Sciences?

While I have always seen natural ties between History and English, with skills and even content in the lens of historical fiction, I am blessed with colleagues who are pushing me to explore the links between History and Science, even History and Math. There is so much potential here, especially in developing more inquiry-based learning for our students. In fact, the summer work that most interested members of my department was work developing “history lab” classes for next year.

On another level, I have spent the past year developing my PLN through mainly electronic but also face-to-face connections. I am really looking forward to continuing that work next year. As an extension to that Professional Development I looked for opportunities to connect my students to others. With the help of Mike Gwaltney, my sophomores connected with his sophomores at Oregon Episcopal School to take the first steps in having our students collaborate on work. We are hoping to develop that more for the upcoming year. I was also able to connect my students with authors and experts through Skype. Creating and using my connections to enhance my students’ experiences and helping them make their own connections is something I hope to keep working on.

While I really love being able to communicate with people all over the US and even the world, there is great power in community connections. Through two of my colleagues, I witnessed the value of having students from Upper and Lower Schools work together, with older students mentoring younger ones. It is a gift to teach at a K-12 school, and I need to keep in mind that some of the best collaborators are just in another building on our campus.

Finally, and most important, as I reflect on the past year, the greatest success stories for me as a teacher were a result of having forged a meaningful connection with the students. It is an ongoing process of getting to know students and their needs, but it is at the heart of what we do as teachers. Students really tap into their potential when they feel connected, with that material and with the teacher. I am reminded that students learn new material by connecting it in some way to something they already know. Daniel Willingham reminded me of that as I make my way through the #sschat summer reading book.

So next year I want to broaden the way I see my discipline and open up my mind and my classroom to all of the possibilities these connections offer. I had been feeling that everything was rather disjointed and random until my shower this morning. That was when I connected the dots to see the full picture.


Space Matters

Inspiration and insight occur in unpredictable places. I took a break from work Memorial Day weekend, so that I could begin the excavation process of unearthing my house from beneath the clutter that had accumulated everywhere this school year. The prospect of spending time in such a disorderly space this summer was really upsetting. I chalked that up to my own issues with clutter. After all, my husband and sons seem remarkably unmoved to clean up. A funny thing happened when we reorganized and cleaned the family room and the boys’ room. My kids began behaving better, and they were more relaxed and happier in the neater space. They told me they liked it so much better this way.

On a somewhat related note, I have been thinking about ways to make my classroom a more comfortable environment. I began this year with two bean bag chairs and a small rug in my room. The bean bags are used a decent amount by students, but they were wearing down so that they really needed to be combined to be comfortable. With some budget money left in May, I decided to buy two video rocker chairs. When I brought them in, students were really happy. Kids would come to class early to get those seats. They maintained focus on the work just as well in those seats as at the tables. In fact, some kids were more focused by having their own space. I also noticed that students were wanting to come into my room to work during free periods.

I have been thinking a lot about space and use of it recently. I asked one class to write on index cards where they work best. They all had favorite spots, and some noted they needed an environment with few distractions, even visual ones. I asked other students what they would like to see me do next in my classroom. Aside from the coffeemaker and mini-fridge suggestions, there was consensus that more comfortable furniture like the video rockers would be welcome. Also, plants and a zen garden were popular ideas.

So, what do I do with this information? At home, I will continue to fight the good fight against clutter. This summer, I will look for things to enhance my classroom environment to make it more inviting and comfortable for students next year. I will eliminate the clutter from my desk in the classroom, so that my own disorder does not inadvertently make my students uncomfortable. I would actually like to get rid of my traditional desk. I rarely use it anyway (hard to use with stuff piled on it; I have gotten used to working in other spaces in the room, ones that do not separate me as much from the students). I even work in the video rockers sometimes. I need to be sure that the room is not overdone with maps and posters. Too bare and it  may fail to inspire, but too busy and it may inhibit focused reflection. My room is not big enough to have too many different types of zones, but I would like to honor the preferences of students as much as I can.

I think that I had to fall to the depths of disorganization myself to know that I needed to change some things. If I had a bigger budget, I would probably do more with the classroom, but even with a small amount of money I think I can make some important changes.

Any suggestions?