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, classroom management, classroom setup, MIEExpert15, our classroom, Reading, writing

12 Tips for An Organized Book Loving Classroom

Anyone who enters our classroom immediately notices all of the books we have.  It’s hard not to, they seem to be everywhere.  While I have always believed in having as many books as possible in the classroom, I was not always sure on how to best organize it for optimal student access and interest.  Now, seven years into having a library, there are a few things that have made my life easier.

No check out system

I have tried so many different check out systems, from a catalog system, to student librarians, to an electronic version, and all of them turned out the same; a ton of work for me and I still lost a lot of books.  So a few years ago I abandoned the check out system.  Now students know they can grab any book as long as they promise to return it.  It is amazing to see the look on a students’ face when they hear that.  Yet, I am not sure this is still the best way, I do lose a lot of books but for now replacing books is easier than spending all of that time checking them out.

“Return Your Books Here” Bin

I used to have students shelve the returned books but I always ended up having to remind them and then re-teach them how to get them in the right bin even though everything was marked.  I now have a plastic tub with a “Return your books here” sign taped to it right by all of our bookshelves.  Once a day I take the time myself to shelve all of the returned books because it gives me a way to see what is popular, look for books other students are wanting, and check on the conditions of some of our most beloved books.  It takes me less than five minutes and all the books are in the right bin.

Bins for every genre and then some

I have loved having book bins for many years.  While they cost money and give you less shelf space, it has proven to be the easiest way for us to categorize books.  Bins are grouped by genre and some by popular authors.  Students suggest bins as well as they see a certain collection grow.  Two such examples are our newly formed Cassandra Clare bins and military history bins when students pointed out that we had a collection now.

This Book Belongs to Mrs. Ripp Stamp

This inexpensive stamp purchased from Amazon several years ago has saved me so much time.  All new books get stamped with “This book belongs to Mrs. Ripp.  Please return when finished” on the inside cover and then the genre abbreviation (or author if they are in an author bin) is handwritten below it in black sharpie.  I cannot tell you how many books are left behind in other classrooms around our school and this little inexpensive stamp means they all come back to me.

The Hardcover Post-It

The only exception I have to my no book check out system is that if a student is borrowing a hardcover book, I ask them to give me the book jacket and put their name on it with a post-it.  I then save them all in a bin and ask students for them periodically.  This has saved many hardcover books from disappearing as students see their name and then remember that they probably left in that one place.  It also gives me a way to track a book down if someone else is looking for it.

The Gutter Picture Book Organizer

Someone long ago hung gutters all around my room under the white boards and I could not be more happy.  Gutters make a perfect display rail for any amazing picture books we may have and ensure that all of the new ones get read right away as well.  A very inexpensive way to get more display space indeed.

Beginning of the year book shleves
Beginning of the year book shleves

Printed and Laminated Bookmarks

We use Kylene Beers’ book Notice and Note throughout the year to give us a shared reading language, so it was natural for me to make some printed bookmarks reminding students of the strategies as they read.  Bookmarks are i the same place next to post-its, which some kids prefer to use.  They don’t have to ask for one, they take them as needed, and return them when they don’t if they feel like it.

“Our Favorite Books” Spinning Wire Rack

For a long time I had a wire rack where I placed all of my favorite books on for students to browse.  Yet, it was not being used very much even though it was in a prime location.  After inspiration by Nancie Atwell, I hung a sign above it declaring it a rack for the students to share their favorite books and then took all of my books off.  I told the students its new purpose and have since watched it fill up with their favorite reads.  This spinning rack has now become the first stop whenever they need a new book.

A Separate Book Case (Or Two) For Picture Books

While we have many of our favorite picture books out on display in the classroom (it’s amazing how many time students gravitate toward them in a day when they have a few minutes), I also have an entire book case just designated to picture books.  I used to organize them and group them together and then realized it didn’t make the slightest difference to the students.  They looked through a lot of books anyway whether they were organized or not.  Since I don’t have these in bins, I gave up on organizing them and haven’t looked back since.

The Readers’ Notebook That Doesn’t Leave

I used to ask students to carry their readers’ notebook back and forth for some reason, which meant many days they left it in their locker, or at home, or didn’t know where it was.  I also had to ask them to specifically leave them behind whenever I needed to assess them which meant the pressure was on to get them assessed so I could hand them back.  Now I ask the students to leave all of their readers notebooks in the classroom.  I have a bin for each class, I don’t care what name order they are in and at the start of each class all I have to do is grab the right bin off of my shelf and put it out for the students to grab.  This is also how I do attendance these days, by seeing whose notebook has not been picked up.

Pre-printed Standard Comments Sheets

I assess my students readers notebooks every two weeks and while I often take the time to write in specific comments to them, I have also learned to pre-print address labels stickers with certain broad comments such as “Remember to use text evidence to support your thinking” or “Why do you think the author did this?.”  Not only has it saved me a lot of time when I need to assess 120 readers notebooks, but it also allows me to focus on the comments they really need while covering all bases.  The students do not mind (I have asked them) since they know it allows me to support them more often with my thoughts.

Learning to Let Go

This has been my biggest take away in having a classroom filled with books and readers.  Sometimes you don’t have to have a perfect system for it to feel perfectly fine.  The students make our book loving classroom their own so they change the organization of books, the shelving of them, and even how we read them.  I don’t mind, I just have to let go sometimes and trust the students.

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 expectations, new year, our classroom, Passion

Why Not Treat Them Like They Want to Be In Our Classrooms?

image from icanread

I bartended for many years before and after I became a teacher.  Something about the hours and the people appealed to me and it is even how I met my husband; he was a bouncer and I was behind the bar.  I remember seeing the same people come in weekend after weekend.  Not because they had to.  Not because there was anything special going on.  Not because the drinks were fantastic.  Instead it was because of the people who worked there.  The people who made the place special.  The people who knew you, who knew what you liked, who asked about your family, who made you feel cared about.  They made the experience special.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because in our classrooms we make the difference of whether kids want to show up or not.  We already know they have to be there, but our relationship with them is what can determine whether they want to be a part of our classrooms or not.  It is our attitude, how we greet them, how we treat them, that will make the difference.

So when school starts again, offer them the attention they deserve.  Ask about more than homework or work habits.  About more than what is happening at school.  Look at them when you speak to them.  Seek them out for conversation.  Listen.  Remember. And share yourself.

We know it is about the relationship.  We know a successful education can hinge on personal relationships.  Why not treat the students as if they don’t have to be there but instead want to be there?  Why not treat them like we would our favorite customer?  It’s amazing how much a smile and a few lines of conversation can do, don’t forget that.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  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. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

being a teacher, change, classroom expectations, our classroom

What Dreams Reminds Us Of

Last night I lost control of my class.  It was a dream, of course, it being Sunday today, but I have had this dream before.  The students are older – nothing likethose  older students to be disrespectful.  The classroom is crowded – poor teaching conditions.  The task is simple and yet they don’t understand.  They talk amongst themselves.  They get up and move around to talk.  They are too busy, too bored, to listen to me.

So I raise my voice and I yell at them.  Except in this dream I always start to lose my voice thus leaving me  feeling powerless.  The students proceed with their misbehavior.

They rush into the task I have created, they do it wrong.  I signal for their attention by yelling but I cannot yell over the crowd.  They ignore me and we do not get through what we need to.

They start to answer my questions but they are doing it all wrong and the frustration increases until finally the bell rings; class dismissed. the students are upset, I am ready to quit teaching, and my heart is pounding.

The first time I had this dream I thought it was a reflection of me and it was; how I used to be.  How I used to control my classroom.  Yet this dream is nothing like my now classroom.  The students are the perfect age for me, they are moving around because they learn better that way.  They pay attention when they need to and I barely ever raise my voice.  Instead I wait until I get their attention and then provide them with the task.  But the biggest difference; the task itself.  In the dream the task is meaningless, not tied into anything, and totally controlled by me.  In reality our tasks are building blocks, shaped by the students and with a bigger purpose.

So I wake from  my nightmare shook up but aware that i have changed my reality.  That I no longer thrive on controlling my students but relish the freedom they have in my room.  Relish the community we have built.  relish the learning happening.  My brain may be playing tricks on me but it does serve a reminder of why I changed my classroom philosophy; I did it for the students.

being a teacher, being me, classroom expectations, classroom setup, hidden rules, our classroom, student driven, systems

No Size Fits All – Some Thoughts on Prescribed Systems in the Classroom

I am sometimes asked what system I used in my classroom; which system do you prescribe to to get them to act this way, which system do you believe in for your philosophy.  I always feel like a disappointment when I tell them, “None.”  It is not that I am pioneer within education, or a maverick, but rather that I don’t believe in systems.  A system to me means prescribed, a system means rigidity, rules to follow, and scripts to use.  I tried that for 2 years when I first started teaching and it failed, horrifically and miserably.  My classrooms doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t fit into a book description.   So while some people may say I fall under whatever system they think, I always giggle a little because the truth is much simpler.

I follow the Pernille system.  The one that says to listen to your students, give them a voice, get out of the way, and then change your mind when needed.  The system I use has no book or no guidelines but only common sense and a lot of reflection.  I don’t manage my children, they are not stress I must constrain.  I guide them, they guide me and we trade spots more often than I can count.   I do not read a book to see how I should train my students the first week of school; they are not circus animals getting ready for a performance.  Instead we get to know each other and we laugh a lot because laughter is a key ingredient in my life.   I do not hide the “real” Pernille from my students because I believe education must be authentic to be meaningful.  My students share their emotions and opinions whenever they can.

I know that if I wanted a book-deal or masses of followers I should call my system something, my husband jokes about that all the time.  That way people could refer to it and ask themselves, “Well what would Pernille do?”  And then they would be confused as to why my system wouldn’t work as well for them, because  a system has to be as personal as your classroom.  You borrow, you steal,  you get inspired by others, but in the end your voice and that of your students is the one that needs to  shout the loudest and it needs flexibility and adaption skills.  So trust in yourself, sure read the books, ask the questions and then reflect; what will you do and what will your students do?  Hint:  It requires conversations with your students to create your own system.  Good luck.

our classroom, pictures, school staff, tour

Ten Picture Tour – Plus One

Inspired by three fantastic people Cale Birk @birklearns, Katie Hellerman @TheTeachingGame and Jabiz Raisdana @Intrepid Teacher, I am happy to open up and share 10 pictures + 1 of my school environment.  So this is West Middleton Elementary…

The long hallway that I walk countless times a day.  Our building has been added to  3 times at least, each time it seems, adding another hallway.

As the founder of the Global Read Aloud, we have the Little Prince watching over us and all of the connections we make around the globe.

A very unmessy desk day, usually I have piles of stuff my students want me to watch or read, as well as all their work.  However, I leave a clean desk every single night – sick habit.  Notice my daughter’s picture on the computer, I change it weekly so the kids can see her too.

The school lies off a busy road leading out of Madison but my window looks into the playground area.  I have the most divine sunlight come in and we almost never have all of our artificial lights on in the room.

We are taking part in the Students Rebuild crane folding, I never knew how to fold origami before this and the kids are way better than I am.  It has been amazing to see student leaders emerge in this and the kids get fired up over helping others.

Being a native Dane I was raised on the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen so a big thrill of mine is the annual fairy tale unit I do.  We go all the way back to the gruesome versions and then discuss the moral of the story from back then.  Right now we are reading “The Little Mermaid.”

A special collection of gifts for a care package we are mailing to Mr Foteah’s class in New York City – Matt, no peeking!  

A Venn diagram given to me by my favorite Nolan.  He surprised me with it on our last day together as a split class.  One circle is him, the other is me.  If I ever have a bad day; this is what matters.

Another reference to The Little Prince reminds me every day what my teaching philosophy is; if the kids fail, it is my fault.

They put me in the kindergarten wing, which means I get to look at incredible colorful art every day.

A glimpse at our office run by the amazing Sue.  Our school is fighting bullying and 5th graders have put up slogans all over.

 For other amazing 10 picture tours make sure you check out:
@mmhoward: http://bit.ly/gIjcDg@johnnybevacqua: http://bit.ly/gxJDqH
@birklearns: http://tiny.cc/18o9s@justintarte: http://tiny.cc/kawd1

@thetheachingGame:  http://ow.ly/4vGcW