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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dear Katie (Vol 1 #3) A Classroom is for Kids, Not Inmates



From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

There are times that I look at the institutions of schools and the word "prison" pops into my mind.  "Stay to the right", "Don't chew gum", etc.  And don't many students see it as that?  They are sentenced to a 13 year prison sentence called public school until college gives them some freedom.

On Back to School Night, I share this with the parents, "I'm not looking for your child to fall in love with History, they may hate History, but my hope is that at the least they say 'I don't mind having to spend 45 minutes of my day in this guy's class'."

My approach has been simple.  One is that I realize I have to go beyond who I am.  Sometimes I'll get silly in the classroom hoping that it will grab their attention or say something provocative that will make kids angry and get them to think.  

Another thing is my classroom decorations.  Once the year begins, I don't have time to think about changing and rearranging what is hanging on the walls of my classroom.  I have a more important job than interior design, getting kids to sharpen their critical thinking skills using the facts of history as evidence.

So what I do is decorate the classroom at the beginning of the year and let it stay that way.  My first few years of teaching I had a theme.  One year I covered the front wall of my room in newspaper, only exposing the chalkboard, with the words, "History Made Every Day."  Another year, I made the chalkboard look like a TV set and wrote "The History Channel".

In recent years I have found the importance of keeping the decorations static from year to year.  It has been almost 10 years since the movie Napoleon Dynamite was popular, and most of my students have no clue of it.  But if they ask, I use it as a teaching tool.  The line on it, "He's Out to Prove, He's Got Nothing to Prove" is an awesome lesson about being yourself so much needed in the social interaction of teens.  The reason to keep some posters and decorations the same is to keep a connection with past students.  It's funny that my high school students from Connecticut in 1997 can share similar "Cullen Stories" with my New Jersey middle school students in 2013.  My students who have moved on to high school will sometimes pop in my classroom and look in and say things like, "Do you still have that Napo... Hey! there's the poster."  

Classroom traditions are a great thing.  When my current students see my previous students remembering fondly those traditions, I think it only benefits me in motivating them to learn in my classroom.

Another reason I have my Napoleon Dynamite, Beatles Yellow Submarine, Giants, Blackhawk posters, a snowman that lights up, as well as my small Evil Kneivel doll hanging from a miniature model of the St Louis Arch in my classroom as well as other things, to make the room a pleasant "hang out" for the middle school students that enter the room. 

You will see quotes all over the classroom.  I have always believed if a student is going to daydream, might as well ponder a good quote instead.  There is one quote for me to ponder in the classroom:

"Obvioulsy, educators want to get the students to think in the class.  But the real goal is to get them to think in the hallways BETWEEN classes."

The other thing you will see in the classroom are pictures of my family and a big map of the cross-country trip your aunt and I took for our honeymoon.  Again, the map can be used as a learning tool as kids ask me about places we went.  The family pictures are just to make kids know I am a real person.  Sometimes they will ask me to share a little of my family life, and they will share a little of their own.  Some people may say, "You're supposed to be teaching, not running an Oprah interview", but my response has always been this

...if you are willing to take a few minutes to interact and get to know the students of your classroom, and they you, you will have them listening to your every word and willing to try their best for the majority of the time you have them.

For too often we make our schools resemble prisons, everything orderly, everyone group think.  The teachers are the guards and the classrooms where they make "license plates".  If you are willing to express yourself in your classroom, then your students will break out and be willing to express themselves as the individuals that they are.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin







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