Environments of Education

We noticed the green mugs first. The handle was the perfect size for a preschooler’s hand, and adorned on each one was a name. Jack. Grace. Ezra. Colby…

Linnea’s preschool felt instantly inviting and cozy on the tour we took over the summer. Plants were on the window shelves, convenient for young hands to water. Pictures were hung closer to the floor than in most homes. There were nooks and crannies scattered throughout the space encouraging youngs ones to explore.

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I want to go to that school, I told Ben and Linnea in the car as we left. More than myself, I was also thinking of my high school students. The ones who have been in school now for over a decade of their life. Do they feel invited, cozy, welcome in the classrooms and hallways?

The first writing assignment of the school year in my high school English classroom was a literacy autobiography…tell me about your history with reading and writing, I asked. And as I read their memories, I kept thinking of my preschool-aged daughter. I thought of her because most of their memories with school began at her current age. Whoa. I had the epiphany. The epiphany that my little girl will one day in high school.

The high schools I have worked at have white walls, fluorescent lights, and curtainless windows. Not that these are necessarily bad, per se, they just don’t conjure up the same kind of feeling one finds when walking into most preschools. And I believe that students–regardless of their age–want to enjoy  and feel at home in the space in which they are learning.

There have been some positives to the high school learning environments in which I have worked:

-My teaching buddy, Mary, decorates her classroom complete with a Christmas tree, tinsel, and lights for her seniors every year.

-Artwork by students have adorned the walls of both schools’ hallways

-I try to make my classroom bright and inspiring…posters, artwork, student artwork, and pictures and books that matter to me so that student share what matter most to them.  (Although, right now it is in a state of end-of-semester messiness…Christmas break, are you here yet?)

-Following Thanskgiving break this year, students and staff were welcomed with  Christmas, warm, white lights twinkling in all the major hallways, overhead lights turned off.

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-And one of my students likes to surprise her classmates with costumes such as this… (I mean, who doesn’t love unicorns?)

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Ultimately, I hope my daughter will feel at home and happy in every school she attends just as she feels now in her Montessori preschool of only 24 students. Because as a parent and a teacher, I can’t shake the notion that environment matters…perhaps even, most of all.

Scare Tactics

During a recent professional development meeting, I was struck by what the district assessment coordinator said. Her objective was to train all of us teachers as test administrators for the standardized tests coming up. I, however, left that meeting feeling more apprehensive about my role in the testing environment:

“The head assessment person will come out and investigate if anything goes wrong.”

“Be aware. There are consequences.”

“That’s a security breach. That’s not going to be pretty. You will be questioned.”

“Misadministration of the exam can remove your certification as a teacher.”

“It costs $40,000 to replace one test question if one is leaked.”

And my personal favorite:

“It’s not at all stressful. Just make sure you maintain a testing environment and follow all the rules.”

Ironically, as I was grading papers today, I came across this quotation from an anonymous student:

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Students, stereotypes, and not-so-silent reactions

During my first week of teaching this year, a group of male, Caucasian students from 9th Grade English asked to speak to me after class. In hushed tones, they requested to not sit by “them” because, as one articulated, “I want to get good grades this year”. They looked at me as if I should know to whom they were referring, and I did not give them any indicator that was true. My hidden suspicion was correct–they defined “them” as the only five Latino students in our class of twenty.

I have not been confronted by such a blatant example of stereotyping before in the classroom. And the saddest part: I don’t think those students realized the true impact of their words.

My previous school’s student population was primarily low-income (as defined by the number of students who received free and reduced lunch) and Latino, in an urban community. Although, I taught students considered to be that of the minority in the U.S., yet they were the majority group in school. My current school is mostly white, rural, with a mix of African American and Latino students, about 35% low-income. And because of the diversity, I am experiencing new challenges while teaching.

After the encounter with the students in English 9 (and a conference with each student involved to debrief the initial conversation), I have been hyper alert to any communication or actions reflecting prejudices. What I wasn’t prepared for was how some of my students actually played into those stereotypes.

Some of the anecdotes provided may be examples of stereotypes being exerted into the classroom. While others, may simply show how reactions play a role in education. Either way, I am emotionally spent from a day committed to staying as calm, present, and non-reactive as possible…sometimes successfully, and other times, not so much.

Anecdote 1: My tardy policy is to close the door when class begins. Late students must wait outside the door, silently and patiently, until I can come out and conference with them about why they are late. My reasoning behind this is two-fold: 1. I don’t want them to disrupt the class when they walk in whenever they show up, and 2. I want to know why they are late (especially at beginning of the year), so we can problem-solve the issue. As a side effect, I also want them to know that I care about their learning time enough to have that one-on-one conversation about them missing instruction.

So, when I asked one female student, “Why are you late?” this morning, I was emotionally shocked when she raised her voice and got defensive. I felt my energy rising also as a defense mechanism.

“I was eating breakfast because I was late, I said!” So I had to keep asking, “But why were you late to begin with?” And she kept getting more and more upset without actually answering my question. At one point even saying, “I can just leave and go sit in the office.” I explained I didn’t want her to do that; I just wanted to finish our conversation. Finally, she decided she would just walk in the classroom on her own accord.

I waited by the open door, did not say a word. She could feel me watching, neutral expression on my face (as difficult as that was) to invite her back out to finish the conversation. Finally, she did just that.

“Do you know why I want to know why you are late?” I asked. “Well, no”, she said with a hint of sassy. “Because I care about you, and I want you here in our class.”  Her attitude began to diffuse…After a bit more discussing, she entered the room with a *slightly* pleasant demeanor, sat quietly down at her seat and got to work. She never apologized to me though. And I debated other consequences, but I am going to ride this one out with some hope for a continuation of the positive young lady I briefly met…

Anecdote 2: Me–“Please write down the sample thesis statement on the board for an example.”

Student–“No, I don’t want to.”

He gets up and walks to door with the intention of heading to his special education teacher’s room. I make a small gesture to his seat and, yet, he still walks out the door and down the hallway. I step outside, make eye contact with him as he walks way. He begrudgingly makes his way back to meet me. The patience well is running dry. After our conversation, I still wonder what set him off, so resistant to authority. And I realize, it probably wasn’t me to begin with…

Anecdote 3: Me–“Why are you late?” This student knows the routine. Yet, I was still met with silence as he walks into class on his own. Ignores me. Completely. “Please step outside”, I asked, politely, confidently. No response. Finally he gets up and walks outside, rolling his eyes and sighing along the way.

During our conversation, it is clear he is trying everything to hurt my feelings….He tells me, “You guys are all the same.” He explains he is referring to all teachers. I ask him to not group me with other teachers. “Besides, would you want me to group you with all students?” He ignores my question and says, “I don’t listen to you anyway”. I’m done with the conversation and tell him so with all the calmness I can deliver. One last attempt to get through to him reveals his 30 year-old, cousin was just killed in Ft. Collins. I can’t tell if he is lying or telling me the truth–both could be the case–I chose to believe him, while attempting to practice patience, take a deep breath, and ask him how he is doing. (While still documenting the conference, of course…)

Quotations from students during class: I am disheartened by the tone and choice of words students sometimes choose to use toward teachers. Even though I work hard to set expectations at the beginning of the year, their choice in communication style seems to reveal something more than the learning environment of our class and school. What truly surprises me is that many of them do not think twice about the “you-language” and the demand for attention immediately. Don’t get me wrong–there are many wonderfully rich and respectful conversations throughout the day. Today, however, seemed to be one full of reactions, so these are the ones freshest on my mind. I am hoping it was just an off-day, but I am not so sure.

  • “Excuse me! [Demands my attention with a loud, booming voice while I am addressing the entire class] Why did I lose all my points yesterday? I wasn’t even talking.”
  • “I have a missing grade for my dialectical journal. That doesn’t seem right. My mom doesn’t think that seems right either. Can you check that and change it?”
  • “Hey! Weren’t you supposed to read to us?” (Asked across the room while I am attending to other students’ needs)
  • “Do you even know my name?” [Calling me out in front of the whole class] Note: I did pause before saying his name, but to my defense, I teach 160 kids throughout the day, and he was in the last class before school was dismissed.

I question the connection between stereotypes and their reactions. Are they intentionally choosing to act or speak in a certain way to fulfill an expectation? Or are their reactions completely natural? Writing this post seemed to help me sift through the various situations, and ultimately made me realize, that emotions (and stereotypes) do, unfortunately, play a role in education. And I am also tired from such a full day of them.

Maybe we are hitting the dip in the school year. Maybe we are all tired. Maybe technology is changing students’ communication style. Maybe these example are not at all connected.

Whatever it is, I am hoping for a fresh start tomorrow…positive emotions and neutral reactions from all.

 (Note: This was written at the end of the school day yesterday.)

Why are they all so stressed?

In one eight-hour day at school, I had…

-One quiet, male student who revealed in a class discussion that meditation helps get him out of depression, which he has had on and off for a long time.

-One female student who came to me in a flurry asking to go to the nurse because she was having an anxiety attack

-A therapy dog who walked with a student to class and sat down next to the dry erase board. I almost tripped on him during our grammar lesson. The student confidently explained to the class that he helps her through her depression and anxiety.

-One student wearing all black, hid his tired stare behind curls, and explained that he feels like he is living a dream. This world is fake, he asserted. (Wasn’t sure how to respond to that one…)

All of these interactions with students have me worried. What is causing all of the stress? Anxiety? Depression? Are these all simply buzz words? A way to get out of work/class/etc? Or are they founded upon something substantial, and therefore seriously important?

I fear as a teacher I add to the stress. I don’t want to ever give them busy work or make them feel badly about themselves as students. So, I strive to be honest with my feedback and to assign only meaningful homework. But, there’s more to it than that.

In this school, students are required to bring ipads with them everywhere. Type, instead of write; engage them in technology, they say.

So far, what I have seen is students being mostly distracted by the very resources that are supposed to help them. But, when I used the old school method of pen and paper during a recent 4-corners debate about a class novel (“Fahrenheit 451”, ironically), I was observed by my principal/evaluator. She was complementary about my style, pace, lesson…but not my choice of using paper. “Could this be done using their ipads?” She wondered.

I get it. We are supposed to be a paperless school, and technology certainly has its place, but it has got me thinking about whether there is any link between that and the stress level that is so high here.

Maybe not.

Maybe teens have been and always will be this stressed.

But, I hope not.