Let’s go back in time. 365 days, to be exact. One year ago, I had just put the finishing touches on my Kindergarten classroom and was ready for back to school. The shelves were stocked with markers, crayons, paper, glue, scissors, sparkles, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, rocks, leaves, twigs, feathers, books, clipboards, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and more math manipulative than you could ever imagine. My teaching partner and I stepped back and took it all in – remarking on how beautiful and inviting it looked.
…and then came the kids.
Needless to say, the plethora of materials set out on the very first day of school was nothing short of overwhelming to them. While the students surely had an enjoyable time, what followed was more or less dumping everything together and my teaching partner and myself wondering why they weren’t using the materials in the way we had imagined.
Flash forward now, to this year’s classroom setup. It’s the same space, same furniture, a slightly tweaked layout, a teacher reflecting on his practice, and because of that, significantly less materials.
My teaching partner and I realized pretty quickly last year that perhaps we had gone overboard with the materials in September and honestly, I’m not that ashamed to admit that. It came from a good place, and at the time we truly thought it was what our students needed. Through the experience, we’ve learned otherwise. I wrote in my last entry about the need to reflect on your teaching philosophy, and I want to extend that to reflecting on your learning space. As I happily snapped pictures last year of my fully stocked shelves (I’m not kidding – I’m talking 15 jars of different math maniplatives!) I was proud. And I still am proud! I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to say that as a third year teacher I thought that was a good way to start September. As a fourth year teacher, I’ve learned otherwise, but I remind myself that teaching is a journey and trying something and learning from it is better than not trying at all. I’ve long been a believer that teachers can always continue learning about their craft. Whether you’re a newer teacher like me, or have been teaching for years and years, the learning should never stop. Way back in the first year of my undergrad I took a course called “Reflective Practitioners” and it’s a term that has stuck with me since. Teachers do more than teach. We research new strategies, implement them, and then most importantly, step back, reflect, and analyze the effectiveness of what we’ve done. I could have kept my overcrowded and overwhelming shelves of 2013 to myself, but I’m not afraid to say that it was a lesson I had to learn. There’s a great power in reframing mistakes as learning opportunities, and in the end it makes you a better educator.
Which leads me to my mantra for the 2014-2015 school year…say it with me now: “LESS IS MORE”.
Yesterday, I stood back and took in my classroom setup. Words that came to mind were “streamlined”, “sparse”, and “open”. Rather than give into the voice in the back of my head saying “It’s too empty, put more things out!” I’m going to stick with this and see how it goes. It’s not super easy – there is an undeniable urge to put more things on the shelves, to add more tables and chairs, etc. – but I’m trying things differently this year. After all, the space right now only has me in it. In less than a week 35 little bodies will enter that space and fill it up with their laughter, their wonders, their learning, and their creativity. It's their room as much as it is mine, and I want them to help decide what goes on the shelves and when. Right now at each learning center are a FEW purposeful yet open-ended materials that will invite students to explore the type of learning that can happen in each area. It’s only the first week, after all. Yes, as the year progresses I will bring out more and more materials and fill those shelves up, but not until my students are ready. When I do, community discussions will occur regarding how to best take care of these newer materials, and the students will brainstorm creative ways to use them in our learning. In Early Childhood Education, we have to remember that before they can master putting lids back on markers and sweeping up the sparkles they spilled, our students first have to get used to being at school for the first time ever. That’s huge. Pairing that with also putting away math manipulatives properly when they’ve maybe never even used them before is understandably too much.
So, in conclusion – as teachers, let’s not be ashamed of times when we tried something that didn’t quite work out. That doesn’t make you a bad teacher. In fact, I’d say that acknowledging it and spending time thinking about how to do it better next time makes you a good teacher.
Feel free to comment and share your own experiences with reflecting on your practice. Is there something you did last year that you’ll do differently this year? What things did you have to learn through experience?
And one last time, say it with me (mostly because I benefit from the reminder and still have a slight urge to go back into school and fill up my shelves) – LESS IS MORE!