The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone is a novel by Stephen King where Johnny Smith, a teacher, wakes up from a coma with a gift to see the past, present, and future. While he can learn secrets and unveil truths, he can also alter the future for people.
This novel came back to me when I grasped for a metaphor for the attention placed on classroom design. Classroom design has been a popular topic on social media and in the education blogosphere this summer. From aesthetically pleasing classroom designs, to clever implementation of wall space for student interaction, to comfortable spaces for reading and writing, some classrooms today look nothing like the Spartan classrooms I remember as an adolescent.
It is like, collectively, educators are slowly waking up from a long, testing-culture-induced, coma.
I have been in this coma. The test is what matters. I teach to the test. The environment is clean and organized. Now, onto the content...
My transforming the physical space of my classroom has been a long, incremental shift...a work in progress because it makes me reflect on how I teach (not just where we learn). Not too many years ago, a student teacher asked me, "Do you mind if I decorate the penitentiary?"
Since then, I continue to work on making my classroom a more comfortable, appealing, and encouraging physical space in which to learn. This includes physical adjustments: more books to my library; new book cases; redesigned layout; new desks. I dispose of objects no longer useful. I haven't been able to settle on one defining layout or appearance. I imagine this may be easier for others, but envisioning what my space can be is challenging for me. I would love to propose a new show (Classroom Redesign) to HGTV and volunteer my classroom as the first complete makeover. Who wants to be second?
When I explore posts on classroom redesign, I notice that the senses of the students are being considered. Certainly, visual appeal is most obvious. However, softening the seating, lighting, and noise alters how students engage in a space. Comfortable chairs are welcoming and suggest we want you to stay here. Teachers have taken to turning off the florescent lights altogether or, at the very least, covering them with filtering fabrics. Some teachers put noise-reducing casters (or tennis balls) on chairs--for ease of movement as well. Many other clever manipulations of classrooms spaces has me compiling a wish list of carpets and fabrics and bean bag chairs.
Yet, when so much attention is placed on the physical conditions of our classrooms, it should also follow that we place as much attention on the emotional conditions of our classrooms. I notice this in my thinking when I redesign the physical space. How does this decision work with or work against the other conditions in my classroom; moreover, do those other conditions also need a makeover?
Our attitudes about reading and writing go a long way toward impacting our students' attitudes about reading and writing. Our physical environment, in a sense, should meet our emotional environment...but one does not necessarily create the other out of thin air. We have to invest in the emotional environment as much as we do the physical environment.
I can be a champion of reading, provide choice and opportunity, but if the classroom space is uncomfortable to be in--physically and emotionally--then deep reading is unlikely. I wonder if when we take our students to the library to read if somewhere deep inside of us a moth of truth is trapped. Deep inside, we know that classroom spaces can be more like a barracks and supply closets than physical and emotional spaces in which to learn...and maybe we fear the truth about our spaces? Maybe we have been in our space for so long--developed habits, accumulated decor, purchased posters--that we haven't taken an objective view as to how our physical space complements our emotional space (or works against it) and vice versa.
I think of the shelf space used in my classroom to store extra text books and classroom sets of novels not in use. I think of the hard, plastic chairs and my lack of seat pads, carpet, or cushions for kids to use when they read or write.
Likewise, I think of assignments without models. Writing instruction focused on form and correction. I think of a preponderance of writing as a transaction (TDAs, DBQs, et al.) and a dearth of writing as expression. We ask students to write to an answer we already know, and neglect asking students to write about things they want to know.
I think of assigned novels and texts without much space for choice. And I think of the kids who labor through that assigned, canned, reading, or who fake their way through it, and who come out on the other side with a satisfactory grade in one hand and an attitude of indifference about reading in the other hand.
I think of the decisions we make and how they directly and indirectly impact our students--growth is more than delivering content or covering curriculum. The conspecifics of our physical and emotional spaces makes academic growth possible in education.
Like the character Johnny Smith, we influence the future of those around us. Our decisions are powerful. Our decisions are gifts. Our collective awakening--and reconsideration of creating an obligate, symbiotic environment of physical and emotional space--will dramatically impact the academic and social growth of our students.