Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Power of Simplifying

I have learned that there is power in simplifying, especially in the classroom. Less really does equal more. The past three years I have been working hard to make my classroom a place where my students can focus, work together, and enjoy a joyful work space.

These are a few ways I have simplified the classroom:

Each season I go back over my classroom and make decisions about what stays and goes. If my students are not using something or I have not touched it in that year, it goes. This helps me focus on what is most useful in running a smooth classroom. When I clean out, I either donate to another teacher, give to Goodwill, or let it go to the trashcan. I have found by letting go of the things my students and I don’t use on a regular basis has helped my classroom look bigger, cleaner, and be a place where the students are proud to work.

This purging has included my classroom desk. I now put my computer on top of a bookshelf so I have it for my Mimio and projector each day.  Getting rid of my teacher desk gave my students so much more space and has given me the opportunity to reflect on what is most important in the classroom. When I need to work, I just move my computer to one of the work spaces in the room. This helps push me to stay focused on the students, my real purpose.

This seasonal purging was very challenging at first, but the more I have practiced, the better I have become at letting things go and focusing on what matters most in teaching. It has also helped me with thinking about upcoming purchases. My spending has become reasonable and I don’t feel guilty when buying something I know I truly need for my students.

There is a sense of peace that comes with letting go.

Community Supplies
In my classroom, I have a shelf where all the daily supplies are laid out in baskets or bins. The students use these supplies whenever needed. My students all have a book bin where they keep their reading books and anything special to them such as their own scissors, school store pencils, etc. but for the most part, we all use the community supplies. I also have a tub on each main table with pencils, crayons, and markers. I have found using community supplies has been a huge time saver in students working and in clean up. Since everything we use is shared, students seem more careful in putting everything away. In our room, everything is accessible to the students. This includes cabinets, shelves, and drawers. My theory is that if I make everything in the room accessible to them that they will become more independent.  Each year this has become more true, by January my students know the room like the back of their hand and they love getting everything out themselves and they really do clean up with a sense of pride.

 In the beginning of the year community supplies is a challenge for many of my students and at times students argue, take things from each other, and even take more than they need, but after a few weeks of modeling, teaching, and role play the students take turns, share, use please and thank you, and even get supplies out for other students. The community supplies have been a huge help in empowering my students to take more ownership in their classroom and being a better community member.

Work Spaces
When I set up the room each year, I think of our classroom in work spaces. Changing how I set up the room has benefited my students greatly. They now have work spaces all over the room where they can choose to work throughout the day. These spaces include different types of tables floor & standing, working on the class stage, working outside in the hall, using different seats, and using our floor mats with clipboards. Allowing my students to choose anywhere to work instead of a designated area has helped my students become extremely motivated. They know that if an area is not working or someone is distracting them they can to move. They also know at any time I have the right to move them, but this is a rare occurrence especially after the first month of school. 

Having my students choose their place to work has helped my students focus, therefore getting more work done. Looking at my class during work time, I see happy kids who are happily working.

Experiences over Things
In the past, I felt it was very important to have all the latest and greatest, whether this was a new book, gadget, game, or even a new holiday decor. I spent much of my thinking, time, and money looking for whatever item would make my class a little better or brighter. As I have seen myself purge many of these items I have realized that it is not things our students need as much as experiences. I have become more thoughtful with my lesson planning to make sure my students have experiences to build lasting memories, which I have found also helps in providing motivation in attending school, not wanting to miss out on anything. 

The past few years I have added things to my weekly lessons such as science demonstrations/experiments, PBL projects, STEM activities, art projects, food lessons, and creating things like memory books. Many of these lessons are free or very inexpensive.  I have also found many parents are willing to help and teachers are willing to go into these lessons together. I feel like my students are happier than they have been in the past, even though years ago I would have thought getting them EVERYTHING was what was best for our classroom.

Learning that experiences over things is what really matters has helped me value our time together.  I know besides how I treat my students each day, experiences is what they’ll remember most about each year.

I have learned over the years, (Yes, unfortunately this took me awhile) that it is not about me in the classroom, but all about my students and THEIR voices. My story is not as important as the one they tell and I must listen carefully putting in much effort to know who they are.

One thing I have been practicing is listening to my students daily. Each day our class has a share time where only the speaker talks. We then get the opportunity to ask the speaker questions. We learn so much from each other during this time. I am often able to refer back to their stories throughout the year, building better relationships with my students.

We also have share times during our many workshops. We take the time at the end of each lesson to share our own work. The person sharing or speaker says, “I’m ready for questions and comments.” The students then get the opportunity to ask questions or give specific feedback on what they noticed about the students work in reading, writing, or math. The speaker loves the chance to answer questions about their work and see that their work is valued. They learn through this sharing process that their work matters and they work harder the next lesson to make their work audience ready.

I have found that listening to our students during times out of class is also vital to the relationship. If a student comes up to me during lunch, recess, or during our brain breaks even if an adult is talking to me, I finish that sentence with the adult and then talk to my student.  I believe that my job is to put students first, so if my student needs me or even wants to talk to me about something important to them, it’s my job to create the atmosphere that they are always important enough for me to stop and listen. I make sure I give them full eye contact and many times I put my hand on their shoulder as we are talking. I want them to know they have my full attention, I also want them to know this is how we should treat others we are listening too. This is something that sounds so simple, but it has taken me years of practice to be successful.

The more I have let go of stuff, the need to be fulfilled with more, and let go of self,  the more I have gained as a person and as an educator. 

I have found that the world loves to tell you to buy more, be more, and focus more on ourselves, but this has not worked for me, instead it seemed to create unrest, discontentment, envy, and the feeling I wasn’t enough.  The past 3 years in becoming simpler, I have found that my classroom has become a joyful place full of peace. It is a place I love coming to each day and so do my students. In our world, which at times can be so over whelming, our classroom must be a place where students feel safe, motivated to work, and empowered to be their best.

If I could go back to my younger educator self, I would say to her simplify your class, create a community, use work spaces, build experiences, and listen more than you speak. I think if I had done these things earlier, I would have focused more on what mattered most, teaching my students.

Here's to a New Year filled with love, laughter, hard work, and experiences! May you be blessed this year in all that you do!

Alana Stanton is a kindergarten and technology specials teacher at Mulberry Elementary in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She has taught several grades over her 14 year career including K-3 literacy special, first grade, second grade, and kindergarten. Alana believes that relationships always come first in the classroom and the classroom should be a place where students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. She currently writes for her blog, More Than A Lesson where she shares the stories of her classroom and her heart.