I have a near-embarrassment of time in my second year of teaching. Things that took me hours last year take minutes now. I am home by 4:30 pm. My inbox is clear. My room is tidy. All the work my students have completed – even the inconsequential – has been graded, commented upon, recorded, and returned. I have changed bulletin boards twice. I actually publish the class newsletter. Every parent in a twelve-mile radius apparently wants to volunteer.
Everything about this seems strange, and foreign.
How do I still have the energy to do anything except collapse at the end of the day? How on earth am I thinking about taking on a practicum student the year after next? How have I cooked real food for dinner every night this week?!
They say this thing about gift horses. So I took stock and realized that the one thing I regret about last year is not organizing my thoughts. I took notes, certainly – reflective and procedural, sometimes on Post-Its, sometimes on receipts, mostly crammed into the online program I adapted to the purpose. But the thing I did not do, and the thing I wanted to, was write narrative. Find the moments and write them down. Find the breath, underneath.
The thing about the second year is: you (and by you I mean I) kind of miss (desperately crave) the constant adrenaline rush of that first time through. There’s nothing quite like hanging on by the very tips of your fingernails, eating nothing but Nature Valley granola bars for days at a time, and being very very careful to sneak the month-old ungraded minor assignments out with the afternoon recycling lest some helpful child “fortunately find” the “important papers” you “accidentally put in the trash.”
Basically, last year was more exciting. So, this week, I overhauled a major section of my class management structure.
It all began with Learn Like a PIRATE. One of the key premises of this book – which, I ought to say, made me rethink my life in approximately 15 minutes – is that students should be leading the classroom. Of course, you say. Students should always be directing learning, working collaboratively, and so on.
But no. This book posits that students should actually be leading the classroom. They should have the power to call for silence. They should have the freedom to engage in activities that meet the required ends for the year. They should work collaboratively with not only “good” partners, but also “bad” ones. They should make a lot of noise.
So on Monday, I gave it a whirl. “I’m posting the transition times for the day up on the board,” I told my class at the beginning of the day. “I’m just finding I can’t be as focused on your learning when I’m watching the clock. Won’t you help me by calling the class’s attention when we have two minutes to transition?”
The first transition was about five minutes late. The second was three. By the end of the day, the students were seamlessly, independently transitioning from one activity to the next.
Today, I added a challenge (mostly for myself). “Someone needs to ring the chime that brings us all together at the beginning of the day,” I said. “How are we going to decide who does it?”
Then, I did the hardest thing a teacher can do. I closed my mouth.
The students started by raising their hands and looking at me. This persisted for about fifteen seconds of confusion. Then, they all started talking at once. This took another fifteen seconds or so. Finally, one student raised his hand, called for silence, and said, “I think we need to take turns so that we can hear each other’s ideas.”
And for twenty minutes, that was exactly what they did.
My students, with no input from me, came up with about ten ideas for how to pick the chime ringer, ranging from rock-paper-scissors to an alphabetical list. Once no new ideas were forthcoming, they voted, deciding that the fairest way was to pick sticks. One of them found the cup and chose the ringer for the day. Another student suggested that we keep track of who had already gone so that everyone got a turn. Yet another remembered that we had large paper in a drawer and went to get a sheet, a pencil, and some tape. They wrote the first selectee’s name on the paper and posted it where it is easily visible from our morning circle.
When I rejoined the circle, it was as if they had forgotten I was there. We finished our morning circle routine. A student called for silence, noted that it was time to transition, and directed us back to our desks. Every student got our their materials and got straight to work.
Later that day, as I stood just outside the classroom door dealing with a normal workday issue, I heard from inside the room an insistent “Give me five! Give me five!” The students quieted. The speaker said, “This is your five minute warning. When you’re done, your materials go away.” The students resumed their low murmur of activity. I felt the little thrill of adrenaline, not from desperate clinging to sanity, but from desperate joy.
And I thought: yes.