Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Story of A Class

A classroom is a living thing; breathing, changing, and growing. It's a singular being made up of the multiple personalities within it. A classroom has an energy, an attitude, an internal ecosystem, and all of those things stem from that which make the thing go- the teachers and students, the learning. Just as the personality of the teacher rubs off on the students, and visa-versa, so does that collective psychic energy rub off on the walls of a classroom. If these walls could talk indeed. Except anyone
who's ever walked into a classroom knows the walls can talk. You can feel what a classroom is like, even without students in it. It's not as effective a read, of course. Trying to determine a classroom's life while there are no students inside it is as effective as trying to determine a person's personality based only on their autopsy. There is a story there, but it's incomplete and lacks context.

Teachers know the story of our classrooms like we know the backs of our hands. Our classrooms often are just as much a part of us as the backs of our hands are. This isn't romanticizing. I'd be hurt if you cut off my finger, but I'd be just as hurt if pipes burst and flooded my room. It's where I live, and it's where my kids live. Learning does not have to take place in a classroom, of course. The world is a classroom, and we should use it as such. But we can't ignore that while the world might be a classroom, my students gather in room 17 and that's where most of the learning physically takes place. It's hippy-dippy to say, but there's a power to that, an energy. It gets into the walls. You can feel it. Most experienced teachers, I'd wager, could walk into a classroom that isn't theirs and at least make a decent guess at the kind of teacher and students who live there. Not a judgement- a scoff and a dismissal (though some would do that too, but they'd do it anyway)- but a psychic reading of the place. Or, if that's too go-hug-a-tree-here's-a-crystal for you, a Sherlock-like deconstruction of the place. The desks are here, the chairs are like that, look at that poster, pile over there, student work here and here, clean, mess, so much cardboard, I wish I had a projector that hung from the ceiling, must be nice.

But there's a problem with that too- It doesn't tell the story of the room. And the story of a room is what makes it come to life. Why are the desks like that? Why are these desks even here? What's happening in this corner? Rows? Groups? Madness? A look at classroom at rest is a snapshot. The teacher and the students are the ones who tell the story of the classroom.

We should be the ones telling our stories. Our rooms should have figurative glass walls (literal glass walls would make it even harder to get my introverts up and talking).We should be sharing how our rooms start, how they change, and why. It's all part of the reflection process, and the growth process. I have an idea that next year there should be a group that reflects on the changes that take place in our classrooms. When we move desks. When we add or remove elements, physical and figurative. And we explain why. We tell the story of our classrooms.

I'm thinking about this now because my classroom currently looks like it hasn't in a long long time. If someone who didn't know me walked into my classroom today they'd get a very different impression of who I am as a teacher than someone who walked into my classroom a month ago. A month ago desks were grouped, sitting at their lowest and highest levels. Normal chairs were nowhere to be seen, only bean bag chairs, wobble stools, and the like. But today my desks are uniform, and in rows. Normal chairs sit behind each desk. It's as traditional as I could make it. Why the change? These snapshots don't line up without the story.

My room is based on freedom, on options. That means that one of the central tenets of my classroom is maturity and responsibility. I need my class to be on board with what we're doing, and I need them to play along and buy in, or it doesn't work. And for years its worked. But this year is different. I've given my kids too much rope, not enough structure. I've found a group that can't handle the looseness with which I teach. I had to adapt for them in ways I don't like. The rows, the chairs, I hate all of it. It's not my class. But we needed a hard reset. We needed everything in the room to become as structured as I could make it so we had a real baseline from which to build. I changed my lessons and our class rules, and I'm looking into feedback/reward systems like gamification that will serve this group best. But without the story of my classroom, I've got graveyard seating and stodgy structure. There's chapters and arcs missing from the story. It's hard to tell that this is the second act.*

But thinking about it like a story is helping me keep it all together. A story means there's a continuum. A forward motion to the room. It's not set in amber. What it is today is not what it will be in April or May. I'm not helpless to the pull of an unseen author either- I am the co-author of the classroom along with my student teacher and our students. No wonder the room has been struggling, it's not easy writing with one other person, let alone thirty-seven. Sometimes a story spins itself, it flows naturally from the storyteller. Sometimes the storyteller has to push it, step in as deus ex machina and change it to keep it within conventions or a format.Some years flow smoother than others, and some require revision and edits.

The story of a classroom isn't an easy one to tell, and it's not a simple one. But it is as much a part of the school year and the learning as anything else. Tell it.

*writing advice I read somewhere- In the first act, get your main character stuck in a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at your main character. In the third act, get your main character out of the tree.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. All the heart emoji for this post. Sharing widely.

  2. Love this post! This is such an important part of the story. Thank you for sharing!