Tuesday, June 17, 2008


So I've been thrown into the water without a life jacket.

A year ago, if you would have told me that I'd be teaching a class of 6-9 year olds in a Yurt in the middle of the country and picking blackberries during recess, I'm pretty sure I would have laughed. This is me, the girl who doesn't converse with anyone below the age of 14 because they're not smart enough to talk about interesting things yet. And here I am, telling these kids to clap when I read out a word that begins with "s." Good. Lord.

Things I've learned/started working out in my mind so far:
1) Kids need physical space to match psychological space. The school-Yurt doesn't have desks and the kids have to squish around a low table, sitting or kneeling on the floor. Consequently it's a lot harder to separate subjects from each other, and especially playtime from work time. There is a picnic table which is too big for them to sit at comfortably, but I make them sit there for reading lessons because I think it's important for them to have a place that's just for reading. But they do everything else at the round table, and it's hard to distinguish between what's work (requiring quiet and discipline, where they can't just get up without permission) and play (where they can talk quietly (ha! quietly.) and get up without permission).

Solution: long, low tables with adjustable height so that we can have a school table that's comfortable separate from a play table. Enough space on the school table where they're not crowded, so I can enforce rules about keeping their eyes on their own papers, which I haven't even tried to introduce yet because of the crowed space and circular small table.

2) Related to #1, circular spaces are not psychologically conducive to school. Square spaces are. (The second observation comes from my own memory; the first from direct observation over the past two weeks.) In circular spaces nothing is oriented in a particular direction, there's no front of the classroom, and therefore there's really no way to direct motion or guide it to appropriate places. You can't even make kids line up - how can they make a straight line with their bodies when all the lines around them are curved?

Solution: blue painters' tape on the floor, sectioning off parts of the room. One square will be the "lessons" part, one square will be the "free time" part, one square will be the "story time" part, and maybe there will be one more, but I haven't decided what that will be. Even though there won't be physical barriers between sections of the room, I'm hoping that having the floor sectioned off will provide psychological boundaries to help the kids understand that it's not playtime all the time, and also to discourage running.

3) I need a blackboard. Oh my dear sweet Lord, do I need a blackboard.

Stay tuned for more Adventures in the World of Making Up Teaching Methods as I Go Along and Pretending I Knew What I Was Doing All the Time.


sarah e. said...

First of all-- Wow and congratulations on being a teacher! When did this happen??

I think that all of your proposed solutions sound like very good ones, but I can't say that I know all that much about the psychological side of education at all. I bet Genevieve can tell you loads more than I ever could!

Some of the main things that I took away from my preschool job:
1) Singing is great not only for recreation but also for adding routine and structure to a day (such as a good morning song, good-bye song, etc.) but maybe that was more appropriate for the 4 year olds rather than ages 6-9. Also, singing in general is only fun when the tune is familiar or easy to learn. (My preschool curriculum often involved brand new "educational" songs with too many words and weird tunes. Not fun at all, especially when the kids can't read yet so they have to learn songs by listening and repeating.)

2) What you say about needing separate spaces for separate activities was DEFINITELY true in my experience. Kudos to you for seeing that so quickly! Also, depending on the group of kids you have, it may also help to stick to a set routine for the different lessons/subjects. Kids like surprises as a treat (e.g. "Okay, today instead of math we're going to go outside and hunt for bugs!") but I think that in general they feel more secure knowing what to expect next.

/End Monster Comment. I can't wait to hear/read more about your adventures in teaching!!! :D

Rosie X said...

I agree about the psychological spaces in teaching. One of the education professors at our alma mater, JM, is always urging us to think of non-traditional ways to organize the classroom (called "classroom management" in the textbooks). The traditional organization pattern is to have the students all directed toward a common focal point. Since Dewey and the progressives in education, it has been vogue to have no single focal point for teacher-directed lessons. It's supposed to get the students in the mindset that their education is a process of discovery within themselves, a unique, personal construction of knowledge-- rather than a transmission.

Now, practicallyl, I had trouble impletementing all these lofty ideas when I was student teaching. I had my best success when I met with small groups and had independent activities for the other students to work with. For whole-class lessons, I arranged the groups of desks where they faced each other but were also angled toward the center of the room.

Also-- the best tip I have ever been given-- when students MUST face a single focal point of directed instruction, it helps if the teacher can get up and move around at least every 5 minutes to refocus their attention.

Mary Catherine said...

Thanks for the input!

Rosie, the point about working with a small group while the other ones do individual activities is a good one. My wonderful elementary school had separate stations in the back a la Montessori, but not quite that elaborate, where we could go do things if we were finished with an assignment that everybody else was still working on. It was established and understood that we had to be silent while we were working, so as not to distract the other students.

I don't have separate stations yet, or really anything for them to work on, since most of them can't read, but I could put books back there with pictures for them to look through, and a few art things that are ok for them to take out without supervision - things that won't make a big mess, and such. The past couple of days I've been telling them that if they're finished with an assignment early they can play with play-dough or just hang out and wait for everybody else to be done, and sometimes they play and sometimes they hang out, but they're getting better at staying quiet.