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Certified PreK-6. Masters in Child Development. Advocate for play, teacher & children choice, & the family's voice. Believe in volunteering as social justice.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Spaces and Places: Learning Through the Environment

Alright, here's the second question in the #kinderchat blog challenge. This one really had me reflecting on whether or not my teaching environments honestly reflect what I believe.

"Tell us about one (or two, or a few) of the classrooms you have had over the years. Not the kids, the ROOMS. What have you loved? What have you hated? How did you FEEL in the space? What did you DO with the space that, looking back, seems ridiculous? Or brilliant? We all spend so much time in our classrooms, we really do develop a relationship with the physical space. Tell us about that (those) relationship(s)."

Looking back, I'm rather embarrassed about the physical environment of my first classroom. Fresh from undergrad with a brand new teaching certificate in hand I rolled into a Chicago Public School determined to get it right. I had spent the semester before student teaching in a kindergarden classroom in rural Michigan and couldn't have walked into an environment more different than that if I had tried. My cooperating teacher was a great teacher who happened to love calendar time, borders, and "cute" bulletin boards and so this is what I assumed to be appropriate for an early childhood classroom. When I met the other first grade teachers at my new school, the year was half over and their rooms were cluttered and also full of calendar time routines, borders, and those "cute" bulletin boards.

Walking into my brick wall, windows facing a street full of abandoned lots and broken windows, empty save for 15 desks and boxes of text books I felt as though I had better hurry up and fix up my classroom before the children transitioned to my room in the next 2 days. So what did I do? Up went materials for a drawn out calendar time, a word wall, and oh so many borders on the bulletin boards. This room now looked like any other early childhood room in the school and quite frankly I hated it, but at the time didn't have the knowledge as to why I hated it. I stayed in this room for two years keeping it pretty much the same and wondering why I was so frustrated every day. Once I left this school and settled into my preschool classroom, it hit me. I disliked this classroom so whole heartedly because it was generic and not responsive to the students. I set this classroom up in a manner that I was taught, but not in a manner that I believed in.

As I moved into my preschool room, again a brand new class with no previous teacher, I knew that I would do things differently. How could I not with the pure fact that it was a full day preschool classroom and needed to be arranged into centers for the children to play. My first year in this room was better than in the first grade room, but still too generic and modeled after the other classrooms in the center. I listened to the Head Start rep who said that all my centers must be labeled and all my materials must be labeled and there must be clear cut boundaries between my centers. Okay, so now here's this preschool classroom that appears as a classroom should, but it still didn't feel right. The children were rowdy, they didn't care about the hundreds of word labels I had around the room, and to my annoyance (and slight fear of the Head Start rep and director) they kept moving materials from one center and into an other!

And then summer rolled around and with a lower attendance I was able to attend the North American Reggio Alliance conference in Chicago. My whole world changed after attending this conference. I realized that my classrooms were not child centric no matter how much I protested to myself that they were. This preschool classroom was just as cluttered and full of un necessary junk as the first classroom. This was the summer that I became a rebel for children. I went into my classroom and took off the tacky labels (so what if that was the one piece I got knocked off for in my ELCO ratings) in favor for a true print rich environment that included a child made word and picture wall, children sign in books, books made by the children, documentation showing the children's work, process, and words, signs made by the children protecting their work or asking each other questions, and clipboards full of children's notes in every corner. Away went the borders and bright colored butcher paper in favor of black paper only to highlight the children's work and learning process. The classroom received a big overhaul in collaboration with the children, the parents, and our teaching team. Now our centers were still arranged so that it was evident to a stranger (i.e. a monitor or director) that there were in fact all the necessary centers, but now they flowed in a manner that suited the children and there was no more nonsense about not bringing materials from one area to the other. Away went the miniature sized plastic dishes in the dramatic play and in came real sized ceramic dishes. Live flowers were placed around the room, the art area became alive with the everyday availability of paints, charcoal, pastels, crayons, and sharpies. The library was used in appropriate manners with the addition of baskets for the books rather than an overwhelming bookshelf and pillows, and a tent.

Finally I allowed myself the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of the environment as the third teacher and for once I felt at home in my classroom. And what's more important, so did the children. Never again will I go back to borders and anything considered "cute" in a classroom I teach in. Gone forever is the ridiculous and time consuming and makes no sense calendar routine and materials replaced with authentic work from the children. Bring on the curtains and real dishes and vases and authentic materials and animals and plants.

And you know what? Along with the physical change made to the preschool classroom came an unexpected change in transitions. As in I stopped having so many and allowed the day to flow in a more smooth manner (who says all the children must eat snack, go to the bathroom, or even go outside all at once?). And along with a better environment and better(less) transitions came happier and more productive children.

You live and learn. And I for one will never go back to having a classroom that is cluttered with teacher junk and instead is neatly saturated with children's possessions and ideas.

(Wishing I had pictures to share, am very unsure where they went!)


  1. Great reflection! Children do not all have to eat or go to the bathroom at the same time. When a class is child centered, everything else is smoother and more productive!

  2. Great reflection Meg! The process of figuring out what works sure takes time! Love how Reggio unlocked a door for you! So much quality stuff in the philosophy! And hope you find the pictures someday! :D