Sunday, July 24, 2016

Beginnings and Welcomings

The beginning of the school year is coming, and I stopped by the local teacher store looking for something new. I don’t know what, just something new I could add to my classroom that would engage the children. And that would give them something to do. My general focus in the classroom is to provide materials that encourage the children to think “What can I do with this?”and engage in innovative, expansive and creative problem solving. As I perused the shelves looking for maybe one more manipulative, or one more loose part to add to the art area, I noticed how slim the selection was.

What there was, however, were classroom decorations. Rows and shelves of borders, name tags, welcome signs, holiday symbols, job charts, and more, taking over the entire front of the store. And these seemed to be what other customers were drawn too, as I watched other teachers, excitedly gather rainbow colored owls and scalloped borders dotted with zigs and zags.

This scene played out at other stores I visited this weekend, from teacher stores to Walmart to the dollar store. I overheard conversations between teaching teams out shopping together – what would be the best and most exciting way to decorate a bulletin board to welcome kids to the classroom for the new year?

Here’s my idea for the best welcome. Have meaningful and exciting things for the children to do.

As I looked at the rows of borders and badges, what struck me was how much time, effort, and money is spent on something so inconsequential to children’s learning. The most beautifully designed “Welcome back to school!” board, with the most inventive puns (“Kick off the year!” “We Bee-Long in the Purple Room”) illustrated by matching cut-outs, aren’t going to help children learn. The scalloped borders aren’t going to build community, or encourage a child to explore a material for the first time, or lead a child to a new discovery. The money spent on all of these factory made decorations, created and chosen for adult aesthetics could be so much better spent on buying materials the children could use.

I’d challenge teachers to think about how to create an authentic welcoming environment in the classroom. When the children walk in, is there something immediate that they can choose to do and become engaged in? Is there space that they can control and make choices over? I’d challenge teachers to pass up the scalloped borders and use that money to buy one more puzzle, or a set of magnets, or an art material they’ve never used before. I’d challenge teachers to pass up the factory made die-cuts of owls or birds or baseballs that they write children’s names on and staple to the bulletin board, and instead fill that board with photos of the children and the scribbled art they create on their first days. I’d challenge teachers to take a good hard look at the classroom through the children’s eyes, and ask – what would make me feel welcome? What would make me want to come in and play? It probably isn’t a rainbow border or die-cut owls.