Be the change, being a teacher, classroom setup, our classroom

On Flexible Seating

Our classroom, room 235D, is an open door classroom.  Anyone is allowed in to see us learn together at any time.  Our classroom is nothing fancy.  We have tables covered in whiteboard paper, that has seen better days.  We have chairs.  We have yoga balls.  We have ratty old beanbags that are definitely on their last leg.  A few pillows of varying sizes.  And we have books, many, many books.

That’s what you might see, but if you stayed awhile, you may notice something else; freedom.  Shared control.  Freedom to sit where we would like.  Freedom to choose who we work with.  Freedom to move the furniture around.  A sense of shared control over our shared space so that we all can feel comfortable together.  It is nothing much but is ours and you would think that the students would realize just how unfancy it is.  And yet, every year when I ask my students how I could change our classroom, the answers are similar, “It’s fine, Mrs. Ripp. Perhaps a few more pillows. We like it the way it is…”

While I have a milelong wish list of furniture I wish we could get, I find comfort in their answer.  The room is working for us, as well as it can.  The control that they have over what the room looks like is working for them.  The flexible seating that has been a part of our learning for years, works for us.

And I see it spread across the globe; the push for more innovative seating.  For yoga balls and wiggle chairs, pillows, and getting rid of desks.  On Pinterest I drool over classrooms I will never be able to recreate, and yet, I wonder; how often does the furniture actually match the teaching?  How often does the furniture match the educational philosophy that needs to be in place for this to truly be flexible?

Because the reality is that while many districts are gladly spending money on new furniture in order to promote innovation, the educational philosophy in many of those same districts is not changing. The students are still sitting through a scripted curriculum, where teachers have limited choice in how to teach and the students are expected to learn through the same process.

This is the problem in education; we so gladly throw money at new educational initiatives that look great, but then do little to think about our thinking.  And yet, our educational philosophy is what really determines the experience that everyone has within our schools, not the fancy new chairs.  Buying new furniture is easy, changing the way we educate is not, and then we wonder why the furniture ends up being used in the exact same way as the furniture was before.

So I wonder; what good is flexible seating if we don’t also have flexible thinking?

One of the central questions of our year together is for my students to explore how they learn best.  This includes the room manipulation and where in the classroom they need to be to access the learning.  They cannot do this if I am constantly telling them where to sit, how to sit, and also with whom to sit by.  There has to be room for experimentation, bad decisions, and reflection on what works best for them.

So before we invest more of our already limited funds into newfangled furniture, let’s look at what flexible seating should really encompass, here are a few questions to help.

Can the kids move the furniture?

Flexible seating should be flexible both in function but also in where it is used.  If students need to explore how they learn best then deciding where to sit is just as important, if not more so, than what to sit on.   Do they need to move tables into a corner so they can think or will being in the middle of the classroom work better for them?  Will they learn best sitting on the floor in the front or pacing in the back?  Where in the classroom can they access the learning best?

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Do they always need permission?

When permission is tied into flexible seating, we often tend to say “no” to the same kids; the kids who may have made poor decisions in the past.  And while there certainly can be different guidelines at times for some kids, they need to, at some point, go back to having the same blanket permission as everyone else.  Schools are meant to be safe places for kids to experiment with learning, to try new things, to learn about who they are and what they need.  If we constantly limit that for some kids, think of what will happen to their self-advocacy and also their sense of belonging.

Is it choice for all or just for some?

Are kids earning their way into the flexible seating or is it an automatic yes to all?  While there are times I have doubt about some of the choices my students are making, I will tell them to prove it to me.  If they do, then great, if they don’t, then we discuss further.  We have to be careful that flexible seating choices do not become one more way to segregate the kids.  After all, it is often some of my most challenging learners that benefit the most from having a different way to work in the classroom, but we won’t know that if they don’t get a chance to choose.

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Does it encourage new ways of working?

I have seen beautiful classrooms with lots of flexible seating where students work through traditional lessons; teacher-centered, and one process for all.  Where is the innovation in that?  One of the things I love the most is how my students move around the classroom and try new configurations when needed.  Not at all times by any means, but when they need to.  They know they have the tools at hand to move their group onto the floor or a table in the team area.  They know they can make the furniture support their learning rather than work around its limitation. They know to use each other as writing peers, reading partners, or project collaborators because they know that with their choices in seating also comes the choice in who to work with most of the time.  They think about how to work, rather than always look to me to make all of the decisions, thus growing their independence and once again their knowledge of how they learn best.

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Is there choice throughout?

Flexible seating should truly just be the outward indicator of the choice-driven learning that should be happening.  We operate under the five tenets of choice at all times, meaning that I try to give my students as much control and power over how they learn, what they learn, who they learn it with, and how they are assessed.  This is what matters most to me.  Not the yoga balls, not the pillows, not how they can move things around, but that the students feel like they have a shared power and responsibility for what happens in our classroom.  It is a work in progress every single year, yet, at the end of the year, I am always amazed at how far we have come.

So as a new year begins, it is time for us to really reflect on the educational innovation we are pursuing.  If we are looking at adding more flexible seating to our schools, are we also having the educational discussions that need to go with it?  Are we asking ourselves how this will change the way we teach?  The way our students learn?  Are we asking ourselves how this will be better?  Or is it just an outward show of supposed innovation that does not really change the educational experience our students have?

The choice is ours; it is not enough to have great new furniture if we don’t also have new ideas.

PS:  If you are wondering what the research says, here are a few great articles to get you started.  One that discusses the need for our classrooms to match the type of learning experiences we would like to have, so once more focusing on intentionality within our environment.  And another that is a conglomeration of research that discusses the need for students to feel empowered within our classrooms.  And here is another that while lengthy discusses how the way we have students sit can help them learn deeper depending on the activity they are engaged in.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

being a teacher, books, classroom setup, Literacy, Reading

On the Need for Classroom Libraries for All Ages

It took me 3 seconds to decide that I was going to move my entire classroom library into my 7th grade classroom.  Coming from 5th grade I wasn’t quite sure what the use of a classroom library would be on my new adventure, after all, we would only have 45 minutes together, but I couldn’t leave my books behind.  I couldn’t leave them in boxes.  Even if we didn’t need the books as a class, I needed them.  My books were home to me and when you change schools, when you change districts, when you change grade levels, you need all of the pieces of home you can find.

My husband carried every single box of books into my classroom.  There were more than 100 and they took up an entire wall as I waited for my bookshelves to arrive.  He didn’t mind too much, he has realized a long time ago that I my obsession with books is part of who I am.  As I opened each box and shelved the books in their new home, I couldn’t help but wonder if any child would ever read them?  If dust would soon become their second skin rather than the hands of children.  Was there any point in my meticulous placement of books?

On the first day as a 7th grade teacher, I was not sure how the students would react to the books.  After all, in elementary school, most kids expected a classroom library.  Most kids were used to the access.  So I waited and soon enough the comments came.

“Are these all of your books?”

“Have you read them all?”

“How many books do you have?”

“Can we read them?”

Slowly, students began to ask more pointed questions.

“How do I check this one out?”

“Can I read this one?”

“Did you read this book, I have wanted to read it…”

It turns out my worry was unfounded.  It turns out that middle schoolers in all of their bravado love classroom libraries as much as younger kids.  That middle schoolers get as much use out of a classroom library if we let them.  That they needs books now just as much as they needed them then.

In the past 2 years as a 7th grade teacher our classroom library has only grown.  Teaching more than 100 students quickly made me realize just how many books I need to keep all readers invested and engaged with their reading.  In fact, I started with the research on classroom library sizes and knew that while these were great starting points, that was exactly it, a start.  When you teach that many students with reading abilities ranging from 2nd to 12th grade, interests spanning all topics, you need way more than you think, because middle schoolers can be fickle, so the message that my classroom library sends is; there is always another book waiting, there is always another chance at falling in love or remaining in love with reading.

And it is not because we do not have a school library, we have a beautiful one, one that is filled with incredible books and staffed with incredible people.  But when the students are with me, during our 45 minutes of instruction every day, they also need books right at their fingertips.  As Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne have said even a school library right across the hall from you is too far away for many students.  And it is true, even a beautiful, well-stocked school library is too far away when a child needs a book right then.  Because our students need to be enticed by another book the moment they finish or abandon their current one.  They need books as a way to create community as they share their love (or dislike) of them with others.  They need books to hand to their friends, to their teachers.  They need books that will inspire them to read more.  To discover who they are as a readers and who they want to become.   They need to be able to go into our library and come out with something that speaks to them.  Not just because the teacher tells them they have to read or the assignment requires them to.

I asked a child last year if our classroom library made a difference and his answer was simple yet powerful.  “It made the biggest difference because the books were right there, so I read them.”  And that is what I see every single day in our classroom, books being read because they are right there and there is no option to not read them.

 

As we increase the demand on students to read for knowledge rather than pleasure, we see their love of reading decline.  Students have less time and less choice as they go through their years of schooling.  So is it any wonder that by the time students graduate high school, 33% of them will never read another book?  Having a classroom library in our middle and high school classrooms is therefore not a frivolous thrill, it is a vital necessity to create passionate reading environments.  Having a classroom library should not be an investment we only make for our younger students, but should be one we make for all students, no matter their age.  And it is not too late to start right now.  We start by buying one book, then another, and we build our collection day by day.  We book talk and we hand books to students.  We create displays that entice, we create time to read, but first we have to have the books and access to them for all the kids we teach.

Our collection now probably holds more than 1,000 books and I know that I still do not have enough.  After all, there are still students that search our shelves and come up empty-handed, but at least they had books to browse, at least they had books to try. I continue to add whenever I can, knowing that one day I will run out of walls pace and bookshelf space, but that when that day comes it will be a day of celebration because perhaps we now have a book for every interest, for every reader, for every child we teach.

For more ideas on creating a classroom library and knowing books to purchase, go here.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

being a teacher, being me, books, classroom setup, Literacy, Passion, Reading

If My Classroom Library Was For Me

image from icanread
image from icanread

If my classroom library was for me there would be no dog books.  Well, almost no dog books because Rain Reign deserves to be there.  There would be no sports books, except for maybe Stupid Fast.  There would be no books with mermaids, unicorns, or any kind of princess, except for the feisty ones.  If my classroom library was for me, I would have only books that I know would fit all of my readers, that no one would ever object to or question.  I would take the easy way, after all, who needs more worries in their life?

There would be shelves and shelves of dystopian science fiction mixed with a little bit of love.  There would be historical fiction but mostly the more recent stuff.  Realistic fiction would be a major section, but fantasy would be reserved for the stuff that makes sense, after all, who needs books about dragons?

But it is not.

Our classroom library is filled with dog books.  With books about kings and queens, footballs, and dragons.  It is filled with books about men who went to war and never came back, and women who conquered the world.  It is filled with science, with history, and even with joke books because who doesn’t need a good laugh now and then.

Our classroom library is not just for me.  It serves more than 120 students and some may have similar tastes as me, but  most of them don’t.  So when I choose whether a book deserves a spot in our library, I cannot just think of myself.  I cannot be afraid to place books in it that scare me.  I cannot be afraid of what others may think if I know that a book is needed.  I cannot use myself as a measuring stick.  If I did, our library would not be for the students.

So when we purchase books.  When we decide what to display.  What to book talk.  What to remove, keep this in mind; our classroom libraries are meant to be homes to all readers.  Not just the ones that are like ourselves.  Not just the ones who have seemingly quiet lives filled with normal things like family dinner and soccer.  Not just the ones who love to read.  Not just the ones who tell us which books to buy and raise their hand when we ask who wants to read it next.

Our classroom libraries are for all kids that enter our classroom.  Especially for the ones who are lost, who have not found that book, or that story that made them believe that they are a reader, that their life matters.  We must have books that allow all children to feel that way.  To feel like there is not something wrong with them.  It is no longer a matter of just having diverse book, it is about having the right books for all those kids that come to us and wonder whether they are ok and then displaying them.  Whether they are normal.  The books speak for us, so make sure they speak loudly.  Make sure that in your classroom children can find that book that will make the biggest difference.  Make sure you do not stand in the way.  Make sure fear of what others may think does not stop you from helping a child.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

being me, classroom setup, new year

Why My Classroom Has No Theme

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My first year of teaching I remember trying to create a theme for my room.  What would our classroom look like?  What teacher would I be known as?  Would I be the ocean teacher?  The movie teacher?  The zombie teacher (too scary)?  I asked my mentor finally for help and what she told me stuck with me throughout the years; don’t worry about a theme, worry about the kids.

And so I did.  And I never did get a theme.  Every year I thought that this would be the year that I would finally decorate and pull it together, but it just never happened.  Instead I filled it with books.  I filled it with blank walls.  Empty bulletin boards and room to breathe.  I thought I was a lost cause, the teacher with no theme, until I spoke about it a few weeks ago.  I was wrong, I do have a theme.

My theme is students.  My theme is room to invent.  My theme is books as they threaten to take over every single surface available.  My theme is fun.  My theme is flexible.  My theme is for any child that walks into our room to make this their room.

So I have no polka dots or pastel colors.  I have no chevron stripes (even though I love them).  I have no meaningful borders or fancy sitting areas.  I have furniture we can move and the space to do it.  That doesn’t mean I have a problem with those that spend so much time and so much money concocting a theme for their room.  It simply means that I am on a different path.  One that will never lead to my classroom being featured as something to emulate for its beautiful design.  One where I will always choose to spend my money on books rather than decorations.

Yet I do write this post with a few questions in mind to those who do have a theme.  Please ponder them if you will.  Does your theme allow for students to take over your room?  To leave their very own imprint or will their creativity only be shown in designated areas?  Do students feel like this is their room or does it say your name on the wall?  Does a sign above your door welcome them to your room?  Will boys feel welcome in your room?  Will girls?  Will those who do not agree with your theme still feel welcome?  Does your theme inspire all?  Does your theme and decorating leave room to grow?

If yes; thank you.  Thank you for creating a space that you and all of your students can breathe in, can work in, and can be themselves in.  Thank you for creating a space that allows students to flourish and strengthen themselves.  For creating a space where they feel welcome and that does not overwhelm their senses.  If no, then I have no advice, other than to think about it.  Look through the eyes of your students and see how they might feel.  See how your room may inspire or stifle them.

I posted pictures of my room earlier this summer and not much has changed.  I wait for my students to come in and make our room come alive.  Yet, I feel the guilt tugging at me from year’s prior wondering why my room doesn’t look ready.  Wondering why my room doesn’t look fancy?  Or cute?  Or has a theme so that students will know who I am as a teacher.  I guess they will just have to find out as we grow together, much like I will.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

being me, classroom setup, new year

My Classroom Without Students

I always feel funny posting pictures of my classroom because it is not cute, nor lively, nor exciting.  It is utilitarian, empty without students, and we have space to roam.  Perhaps, though, in its bareness is its beauty.  It is a vessel for learning, waiting for my many students to fill it with personality and life.  The 1 month countdown has begun, another year awaits…

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The front display as they come close to the room, most of the day I teach with an open door unless we get loud.

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This idea is adapted from the fabulous Jillian Heise who does a picture book a day with her 7th and 8th graders.  I don’t know if we will do one every single day but I plan on doing as many as possible, so of course we need a place to showcase them.

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I don’t believe in the power of motivational posters, but this is I believe in, every single day.

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An empty bulletin board waiting to be filled with books.  Every staff member at our school has a yellow “Just Read” poster to show students  that we are a community of readers.

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On the other side of the door is my “Read this summer” poster.  This was updated as of last week.

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This is almost the view from the door, slightly to the left of it.  I have placed tables in pods for now but know that they will be moved however the students see fit when they arrive.  Whatever they need to do with them to make learning accessible works for me.  I love my window so much, most days we leave the light off.  Students flock to sit in the window and read.

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View toward my desk.  It is in the corner on purpose; I don’t want to sit behind it away from students.  I work with students at the small round table when needed or they take it over.  I am just starting to show off all of the new picture books.

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Also up by the front door, my old rocking chair and easel is where we will gather when we have our mini lessons.  There are bean bags for the students to use, as well as carpet squares.  I don’t ask students to sit on the floor unless they want to, what matters is that we can gather as a group and talk.

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 A slightly blurry picture of my non-fiction and graphic novel bookshelves.  I am so excited my school got me these, less excited that I already filled them.

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Probably one of the best things about our classroom; the picture books.  How can you not just want to read them all?

There you have it, a tour of an empty classroom, waiting for the students to make it important.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

being a teacher, classroom setup, Reading

How I Organize My Books

A question I often get asked is how my books are organized in our classroom.  The system is really simple and one that many people use,  so I thought I would share here to help others.  I have used this system in 4th, 5th and 7th grade but have seen younger grades use this as well.  I do not level my classroom library.

I have more than 1,000 books in my library.  I am not sure how many exactly but it keeps growing.  And so my library is an ever growing work in progress.  Book shelves are a mix of what my school graciously purchased for me and ones that I could secrue from family.

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Most of my books are organized in bins, I have found this to be the easiest way for students to find books, as well as it being appealing to them.   Bins are grouped into several categories, some by genres, some by theme, some by author.  Students will suggest new bins as they see fit, for example this year we added a “War” bin and a “Cassandra Clare” bin.  I use clear bins like these because they fit all books and provide students with covers that may entice them.  For larger books, I use this type of bin since they fit my large books and picture books as well.  I also use this size bin as my “Return books here” bin.  The bins have stickers on them (address stickers) with the bin name and the abbreviation below it.  So a bin might say “Realistic Fiction (RF)”  on its sticker.  RF is then also the designation that is put inside of the book underneath my stamp.

Large bins for collections, poetry and others
Small bins for all of my books, I just remove the lids.

Most of my picture books are simply shelved on one bookcase.  Students know that the entire bookcase is dedicated to picture books and put them back as needed.  I have decided not to organize by author as it took too much time to keep up with it.  As long as they have their own separate bookshelf, I have no problem.  All non-fiction texts are also housed on a separate bookshelf and I have slowly started to group those texts together as well.  These are mostly grouped by theme and are a work in progress because I need more bookshelf space.

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Finally, one of the best things I have ever purchased for my library was a stamp!  I purchased this type of stamp 2 years ago and it has been amazing.  No more having to write out labels, no more mess.  Books are stamped on the inside upper right corner as well as on the closed pages of the books (vertically when the book is closed I stamp it for parents to see my name).  I then add then genre or bin abbreviation under the stamp so students know where the book belongs.  This stamp has meant many more books have been returned to me and one of the best $6 I ever spent, plus when the ink runs out you just buy a new inkpad, wahoo.

There you have it, a quick peek into the organization of my library, I hope it was helpful.