I recall the first time I taught Grade 5. I was assigned a portable classroom at the far end of the schoolyard. I was full of excitement about working with the Grade 5 class and creating a community of talk…. then I walked into that space. It was small and full of shelves, furniture, and assorted stuff. It was, to say the least, discouraging. How could I invite meaningful, authentic, and purposeful talk in this space?
Well, the first thing I did was remove all and any possible clutter. I sent my large teacher’s desk to the storeroom in exchange for a small table. I pushed all the student desks against the walls in groups of four so that there was an empty space in the center of the room. I made sure to turn the desk compartments to the inside so they couldn’t be used to store forgotten lunches and assorted junk. There was a communal basket for each group with pens, pencils, erasers, scissors, glue sticks, etc. Textbooks and notebooks were stored in milk-type crates on the front shelves and could be easily accessed as required. Having no personal possessions in their desks, the students did not have an “assigned” space. Some days they were free to take any seat. Other days, upon entry I handed out playing cards. If they had a “4”, they sat at group 4. At first, they were reticent, but soon came to enjoy knowing everyone a bit better and not being stuck in the same group for an extended period.
I added a small, low, round table in the centre of the space with a blue cloth, and a little vase of polyester flowers.
As the term progressed, that table and that space became our little oasis. The students would bring their chairs and create a circle around the table. At first it was pandemonium as 28 kids dragged chairs and jostled for position in the circle. But perseverance paid off and soon they realized they didn’t have to sit beside their best friend, and it wasn’t a big deal to lift the chair rather than drag it. We came to that circle every day at the end of class to share the best and the most challenging parts of our day, or a poem that someone felt everyone would enjoy, or to talk about an event in the news. We came to the circle to hear the salient points of a lesson or topic of discussion before returning to the groups for focused conversation and discovery. We used the circle as a place to solve problems and to reflect quietly as a community when things went wrong. The table held a variety of items that came and went … a scarlet leaf from the maple tree, an oddly shaped rock, and a Beta fish named Happy in a little glass bowl.
When I reflect on that time and space, I no longer see size or “stuff”. I hear voices sharing stories, points of view, concerns, perspectives, learnings, and laughter. I feel the peace and the problems that we brought to our circle for sharing and resolution. And I wonder if the talk created our community or if the community that we created was the catalyst for the talk.
Last year I was at a restaurant with my family and noticed a man who kept looking our way. He eventually approached our table and asked if I remembered him. It took me a moment to see past the military haircut and recognize the little boy with a mop of shaggy hair that always hung in his eyes, but the smile was the same. “You know”, he said, “I will never forget our class. It was the best year”.