What’s Your Perfect Classroom?

What an amazing, inspiring, day. SO different from my first year teaching, when I walked into my first day of class with absolutely no idea of what to do, where my class and I were going, or what to accomplish. Contrast to my first day when all my students left the class excited to do homework. No joke.

Today my students walked in, and the first thing I had them do was to describe their perfect classroom on a piece of lined paper. “How do you feel?’ “What are you doing?” “How are other people treating you?” I asked. After they had time to reflect for ten minutes, I asked them to turn to their shoulder partner to share what they wrote.

I taught them three things about sharing with a shoulder partner:
1) Make sure everyone is included
2) Make sure you take the words from the paper, put it in your head, then say it out loud
3) Listen to one another, agree, disagree, ask quesitons

By this time, I’m an old pro at giving procedural instructions. I break down the procedure, I invest students in WHY the procedure is important, I model an “Oops”, a situation in which the procedure isn’t correctly followed, and then I check for understanding after each step. They totally nailed shoulder partners.

Then I asked them to do something really hard, to condense what their description of the perfect classroom was into a single word and to write that single word on their post-it note. It’s supposed to be THEIR word, what they feel is most important. Go ahead and try yourself, what word would you have chosen?

After they wrote down the word, I then gave them instructions to, on go, get up, walk around, and see if they can find people with the same or a very similar word. For example, if someone wrote “fun”, they could also find people whose words were “interesting” and “exciting”, if it was “neat”, they could find people who wrote “clean” or “organized”. When they thought that they found all the people they could who had the same or similar words, then they taped their words together onto our big Word Wall. Here’s a Woordle of their words so that it’s easier to read what they wrote.*

Then I held up their Word Wall and said, “Let’s see what you guys say is the Perfect Classroom. Some people wrote ‘fun’. Well, guess what, we are DEFINITELY going to have fun this year, because my goal, as your teacher, is to make this year’s science classroom the perfect classroom. Others wrote ‘peaceful’, we’re going to do that, too. I’m going to snap a picture of your Word Wall, put it on our science website, and throughout this year, we will return to our Word Wall, the one that YOU (plural) made, to see, ‘Are we having fun?’ ‘Are people being respected?’ Hopefully, we can say, ‘Check,’ but if we can’t, then that just means we need to work hard to make sure we’re doing everything that’s on this Word Wall.”

“What do you think? Are you excited?” “Yeah!”

I then explained their homework, which is to take a single sheet of 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, and describe their perfect classroom again, this time using art. I gave them two reasons to do this. The first is, as they worked together and talked to one another, they should have learned more from other people and had their thinking deepend by their teammates’ contributions. The second is, I’ll take their contributions, laminate them, and then put them up on the ceiling to decorate our classroom but also to remind ourselves the entire year, what our perfect classroom was and inspire us to work towards that vision (literally).

I asked the students to rate from the scale of 1-5, 1 being, “I don’t get this, I don’t want to do this,” to 5 being “I’m really excited, this is great!” Immediately, a bunch of 5’s went up in the air. I was also insistent on 100%, so everyone in the class was voting. The one student all day who voted 1, I grabbed after class to ask, “How can I help you so that you go from a 1 to a 5?” He said, “I just don’t understand what to do.” I explained the homework again, and I asked… “Where are you now?” He gave me a big smile and said, “At a five.”

For two of the three classes, I then dropped the kicker, that the *reason* I was asking them to spend so much time to describe their perfect classroom was because the first of two Big Goals this year for them was to be interdependent.

Interdependent is on a maturity continuum that begins with being dependent on others for physical, emotional, and self-affirming support, that progresses to independent, and that finishes with being interdependent, being able to work with others, adding strengths upon strengths, to build relationships, to build, and to create.

I shared with them that being dependent was being like a baby, or being in elementary school, when they had to depend on adults for a lot of things. Now they’re in middle school, we give them a lot of freedom and independence to choose how to spend their time. We don’t tell them exactly what to do all the time, they can earn student jobs, they can choose to talk in the hallway or the cafeteria, but that that freedom comes with responsibility. However, we have one more goal for them, and that is to be interdependent, to work as a team and family.

I connected interdependence with imagining if it were possible for a person, no matter how smart and hard working he or she was, to build the school building, or if it were possible for a person to play pitcher, catcher, and short stop all at the same time.

And, here’s how they know they reached their Big Goal of Interdependence. By the end of the year, they would be able to lead the class from beginning to end. One of their teammates would be teaching, tutoring, others would be making sure things are in the right place. They would have to plan the lessons, teach the lessons, and work together to make their perfect classroom. This also didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have a job to do. This just means that I would have to teach them all the skills they need in order to run the classroom, to really own the class, by the end of the year.

I asked the students to generate a list of Knows and Need to Knows in order to run the classroom by themselves by the end of the year.

Here’s what they came up with in one class:

You can’t read it, but I wanted to show a picture so that you have an idea of what the physical set-up was. I’ll come back tomorrow with what they wrote.

I’m so excited to be recording what happened today, both to reflect, but also to hold myself accountable, because this Big Goal is one for my students AND myself. They will not be successfully interdependent unless I teach them the skills and habits to be so. And, this Big Goal helps filter ALL the work we’re going to do on classroom procedures, routines, as well as teamwork and leadership. My students now know exactly what their goal is by the end of the year, and I think its going to bring them very far in being invested. After all, this isn’t MY classroom, it’s OUR classroom.*


*Some of the feedback I got from the class, was, “I loved being able to share my opinion!” and “I liked moving around and talking to other people.”