Hacking the Classroom
Hacking the Classroom: Beginning of School

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Well, September is almost gone. It’s been a busy month with school starting. As mentioned earlier, I am starting a new class in a new classroom which has made the start to the year even busier.

This year, in coming back from working on a startup, there were a number of things that I wanted to try and do in my classroom. The first was to teach coding this year as part of our computer lab time. The second was to do more inquiry based projects. Finally, I wanted to create a classroom environment that was less industrial school like and more an environment suited for students to create and be engaged in. Part of this came from a book called the Third Teacher which, if you haven’t heard of it, should be a must have. The blog, facebook and twitter feeds are also a must follow. The Third Teacher centres around the idea that the classroom environment is just as important in engaging and encouraging student learning. Having worked in a startup last year, I had been very impressed with the space that we had worked out of. It was a cooperative workspace, with many companies working in the same space. While it was sometimes distracting to be working with some many people doing different things, it was also great to hear different perspectives. The big thing for me though, was the space. The working area was in an old warehouse, so had a nice wall of brick which I loved. The rest of the space was filled with wall decals which were¬† a really cool space theme (think large monkey head wearing a space helmet) and quotes made out of decals. I loved the vibrant ( but not too bright) orange wall paint.

I thought that, when I went back to teaching, I wanted a space where people wanted to come and work. I thought, what if we had a space where children wanted to be; where kids thought it was cool and were engaged and where it was less like an old portable with desks in rows and more like workspaces that screamed collaboration, creativity and encouraged students to engage. You can sort of see what I am talking about here on my pinterest board.

Of course, reality always hits.

I started looking at furniture and alternate seating options, getting rid of my desk and all the student’s desks and going instead to tables and modular seating setups and realized that I didn’t have nearly enough money for that. I have however, convinced the school that the portables do need an upgrade but I think they are thinking more about better flooring. They did say that paint is an option and I am hoping for customized decals as well but that’s not until next year and I will probably have a fight to convince them to spring for more.

However, there were somethings I did do before school started to try and create a more interesting and creative classroom and I thought I would share some of them here.

Book Baskets

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Last year, I had bookshelves with lots of books on it. However, a lot of books were never looked at and there was no order to it. Not only that, but students had a difficult time putting books back in the right spots neatly. Books were all over the place and were getting wrecked as students pushed, squished and stuffed them back on the shelves. This year, I thought I would organize the books better, choose fewer books to have out at any time and organize them into themes for easier handling, organizing and filing of books. Students seem to be really liking it it and know exactly where to put them back when they are done with them. It has made my job easier and easier for the students to find the books they want. As the year goes on, I will exchange the books for others and add more themes. The baskets were very cheap. I got them at Dollarama and they work very well though I like the squarer ones best. I may pick up more of those and replace the others over time. I also like the addition of more colour in the class. Next week, I am going to use a couple of new apps I found called Booklever and Level It to scan all my books and level them. With these apps, you just scan the barcode to create a library which will not only help you know what books you have and organize them but also level the books you have and create a class library where students can check out class books to take home. You will always know what books students have borrowed and also keep track of the levels of books you have. As the year goes on, I hope to use this information to create a library with a more diverse range of reading levels.


Mission Statement

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I’ve always hated the whole classroom rules thing. I have thought it was prescriptive, needlessly authoritative and not conducive to a collaborative environment. It was always more like the rules came down from above with no input or buy-in from students. The last few years, I tried to solve this by getting the students to create a list of rules which they would sign but only felt like that was a stop gap measure. This year I found a great post by a teacher who would create a mission statement with her students and use that as the guiding principles or rules that would govern the classroom. Instead of rules though, the students would imagine their classroom in terms what they wanted to get out of the experience by the end of the year. I really liked the idea and decided to do the same thing with my students.

We focused on three questions: What? How? and Why?

With each question on a separate piece of poster paper, we started with the “What?” and answered the question, “What are we here to do?” Students wrote their responses on a piece of stickynote paper and put it up on the board. After discussing their answers and combining ideas into one list under the title “What?”, we looked at the next question. “How?” made us think about how we were going to accomplish the things we had listed under the “What?” category. To discuss this, we talked about what would need to happen in order for the What’s to happen? We also brought sensory thinking into it as I asked them what they would see, hear and feel if all the “What’s” were to happen. Again, students put their ideas onto stickypads and shared our thoughts to create one list under the “How?” category.

Finally, we discussed and brainstormed the “Why?”. It’s always important to connect to real-life to get buy-in from students. Why are we following these rules; why are we striving to become this type of class? Why should I do this? Being a Christian school, of course honouring and glorifying God is a big part of what we try to get across but the students also had lots of other great ideas and connections to make.

Once, we had all our ideas down, we combined all three parts with the starting part of the first sentence (We, the students of Mr.H’s Grade 4 class, are here to….) to create our mission statement rough draft. I then took it and fleshed it out a little to make it a little more readable and flowing without taking the essence of what the students had come up with away. Finally, I presented the final copy to the students, who really liked it and had them all sign it. We also share it on our blog for the parent’s. We have referred to it many times since, both for positive reinforcement and to remind students about what we are trying to accomplish. It’s posted prominently in our class and has worked very well.

Objectives Board

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Most teachers have an agenda part of their board. I would go over the agenda each day with the students. But this year, I wanted to try something different. On Pinterest (great source of ideas, though I wish there were fewer links to teacherspayteacher stores and more just sharing ideas and resources), I had seen some teachers take their agendas and turn it into an Objectives board, where all the objectives that the students will be covering that day are listed in kid’s language. It’s still a work in progress but I think it gives students a better understanding of what they are doing and really focuses me on what the objective of the lesson is supposed to be.

World Time

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This is more a fun thing than anything else. I bought a bunch of clocks really cheaply from one of our local chains and set them up like a train station with the time from major cities around the world. The only thing I have to figure out is a way to show the time difference so that Moscow time and New York look like the same day.

Sodoku Board

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This was one of the harder ones to do. I bought some cheap whiteboards from the dollar store. Then drew lines with permanent markers. Using a kids Sudoku book I had, I added numbers with water based markers so they can be erased and changed. Then I added magnet strips to the back of the whiteboards and to the bulletin board. Students can grab them and take them back to their desk. When they are done, they just put it back on the anchor magnets. If they finish a board, they just bring it to me and I will erase it and create a new one. In the bucket underneath, I have facial wipes from the dollar store and dry erase markers for the students to use. Strangely enough, this is the first year that none of my kids know how to do Sudoku, so the board hasn’t been used much. I wanted to create a more interactive board for the students and something that would challenge students. We will see how it works.

Inspirational Quotes

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Over the summer, I found these inspirational quotes and thought they would make great quotes to decorate the classroom. They are about thinking creatively and being yourself. I would rather have had them as decals but then I probably would not have been able to use them all. I made the posters myself and bought cheap ikea frames to put them in and I hung them over the windows. I made them with photoshop and, after a couple of tries, printed them at Staples on heavy stock paper for about 6.00 which is pretty good. They look pretty nice and they make the classroom look very nice.

Since I am all about sharing free things, I am making these posters available free as a printable pdf. They come in an 8.5 by 11 size.  Just post a comment and I will send them along. Here are images of all of them.

Anyway, I am slowly creating a different kind of classroom. My next project is to create a computer area with a hanging table off the wall. I want it to be a standing table where students can access the computers. I also want to make sure there is enough room to work by anchoring the monitors on the wall like tv screens. While they are not being used, they can be used to show examples of student work, announcements and other items.