Sunday, March 15, 2015

Barren Classrooms Can Ignite Creativity

 The year was 1984. My first year teaching. There I sat in my principal's office, dressed in blue jeans, a t-shirt, in striped, green socks and sneakers. I had worked a full day in a school for dually diagnosed, autistic children. Most were aggressive and non-speakers. They were self-abusive, active, destructive, and mostly non-verbal. It was a locked facility to keep the children safe. I had applied for another position within the same school.  My Principal sat across from me in her leather chair, perfectly coiffed. She wore a tailored navy blue suit, white blouse, nylons, and matching navy blue pumps. Mrs. Roy was always professionally dressed, straight-laced, and proper. She seemed quite out of place from the environment she worked in. Though she had been the Principal here for twenty plus years, she seemed aloof to the students. 
      I had no idea why she wanted to see me. After "hello", she said, "I see you've asked for a transfer to the "Pinebrook Facility." I replied, "yes. Do you know when my interview will be?" She replied, "This is it"! Every neuron in my brain must have sparked at the same time, as I sat there thinking, "seriously, why did you wear striped, green socks, jeans, and a t-shirt today?"! Dress at "Greenbriar" was very casual because on a typical day  I was spit on, pinched, scratched, covered in student food, and had to restrain children. Today happened to be laundry day, so all I had left clean was, striped, green socks! Had I known that I was interviewing today, I would have brought a tailored suit, white blouse, nylons, pumps, and maybe a string of pearls to change into! 
Since, running away seemed like a poor choice, I stayed and carefully answered, Mrs. Roy's questions. Somehow, I was granted the job. Mrs. Roy, a woman of distinction must have given me a pass on wearing incorrect job interview attire.

    That night, I kind of laughed about my striped, green socks and thought back to my first interview where I was so nervous, but perfectly dressed! Then, I thought of my first day at "Greenbriar."

     I was responsible for teaching eight boys, four at a time. They were between the ages of 11-15.  I was also responsible for the day care for four of them. This meant that I had to arrive at school one hour early to help them get dressed, clean, and to eat their breakfast. Telling you about them is another story altogether! Since this was a residential setting,they lived in a secured, renovated, manor house. Their rooms were upstairs. Their living room and dining room were down stairs. There was a rubberized room downstairs too for students who were out of control and needed to be kept safe. Their school house was attached out back.

      This school consisted of three teachers. Me, another academic instructor, and a physical education teacher. There were three classrooms and a student bathroom. My classroom was barren! My classroom had an old, oak, wooden teacher's desk, a kidney shaped table for the students, and chairs to sit on.

      Keep in mind there were not computers of any kind in classrooms in 1983! The picture shown is not original! Initially, I did not see materials of any kind. Then, I saw a closet. I gingerly opened it hoping for supplies. I found an old record player, Hap Palmer records, Laurie rubber puzzles, wooden puzzles, peg boards, and geoboards. My heart sank!

       I poured over my students IEP's. These children were all non-verbal except one who had limited speech. They mostly needed self-help skills, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. Some had self-injurious behavior, and could be aggressive. My most involved student wore a helmet and Posey mitts that tied around his waist in an attempt to decrease his self-harm. This child was like Houdini and could get the mitts off with ease. Helping him to dress each morning was a fierce battle of wills, we both won a little every day!
protective helmet

Posey Mitts

“At the classroom level, materials often seem more prominent than any other element in the curriculum.  They are, in fact, omnipresent in the language classroom and it is difficult to imagine a class without books, pictures, filmstrips, realia, games and so on.  Even the more austere classroom will have some sort of materials.”  (Nunan,1988)

     I had quite the austere classroom! I also had an austere classroom one year later when I transferred to another unit, called "Pinebrook".  The students at Pinebrook were mostly verbal, dually diagnosed with intellectual challenges and emotional disturbance. Some had limited reading and writing. They too were self-injurious and could be aggressive. They were 16-21 and strong! I had 28 students who rotated between classes in small groups. I did have a chalkboard at Pinebrook so this was exciting!
     Pinebrook was also a residential, locked facility for the safety of the students. I was hired as a functional academics teacher. We also had a home-economics teacher, a sheltered workshop teacher a wood-working teacher where the students learned to refinish furniture and cane chairs, an art teacher, and a physical education teacher.
     I began this new position in the Autumn, near Thanksgiving. I was sent to observe the previous teacher for ideas. She said "trace your hand with the paper on your desk and then color it to be a turkey." She then sat back at her desk and read the newspaper. She had no desire to talk to me! I was no more important than the turkeys the kids were drawing on the paper and they appeared no more important than me! I thought, "Are you kidding me? This is it? No wonder these kids throw furniture!" As class ended, she handed me a ruler. She said, "Carry this at all times. It scares "John". He won't pull the hair out of your head if you hold a ruler."  Then she turned and walked away. I began this position the following week.

     I again poured over IEP's. The histories of these kids were simply amazing. I, being me, needed to change things for these kids. They needed to learn that there is more to life than uncomfortable furniture, crayons, meds, and a television secured highly on a wall behind a case! Actually, they needed to know that there was more to each of them than just being part of the gang! No, I don't believe I was being unrealistic. I did not expect any of these kids to ever live independently but I did expect for them to find out that they had worth and there are things that they can be good at! Even, "Travis" who my Principal told me not to worry about! I worried! So, my eight year mission began!
     Teaching with limited resources can be both incredibly challenging and extremely educational.  This new position lit me on fire! I love a creative challenge and this was it! Like Greenbriar, I needed to get to know the idiosyncrasies of each student and allow them to work for the common good. Idiosyncrasies are often looked upon as negative, but if this particular behavior isn't hurting anyone and is important to the child, why not redirect it in a positive way?  Next, I had to know each child like a book! Their likes,dislikes,fears,foods,songs,aversions,loves,home-lives...etc. Finally to academics, functional academics to be exact, I needed to teach these kids skills that they need in real life!
      Having no materials is rough but does not make teaching impossible. I started out by throwing away all of the broken materials of teachers gone by. I couldn't understand how things of value couldn't be respected more!
      I began with what I had, a chalkboard,paper, pencils, crayons,and 28 students! We wrote daily journals, all the same that I wrote on the blackboard with each student contributing a personal sentence. For those who couldn't write, I quickly dotted out the entry so they could trace it. For those with no line boundaries, I made special with elmers glue. I traced the lines let them dry overnight to give the student built in boundaries! Eventually we began a pen-pal initiative with their families. Those without families were provided pen-pals by me! My little brother wrote to a student for years! We learned how to fill out envelopes and place a stamp. We learned the difference between an "in-town" and an "out-of-town" letter.
    Eventually, we went to the post office to mail the letters because I took a test to be able to drive the school van. So...we went out once a week to places that we needed to know about, the laundromat, the grocery store, the hardware store, farmers markets, restaurants, sometimes we went to homes just to visit people and to learn how to behave socially! Just to note, the first kids, the Greenbriar kids used to come to my house with my aide to cook, eat, and hang in a regular home! They always respected my home! 

   As years progressed and I was given my yearly stipend to order materials, we had more and more things! I wrote my name on everything and hoarded them to keep them safe! When I left Pinebrook, the new teacher was not walking into an austere classroom, but a vibrant one with many tools to teach with.
     Thinking of this first teaching experience made me think of my friend Sunny Thakral, an educator in Nepal and cofounder  of #INZPirED a chat on Friday evening. To quote Sunny, "Ignorance is never bliss".  He is so right! I guess that this is what ate at my heart back in 1984! Here were many children who were given the worst lot in life. They couldn't possibly go out and help themselves except for the basic instinct of "fight or flight".  Which they did well. They needed educators who believed in them as people. Educators who didn't care if they had supplies or not. Educators who will find a way.

       This brings me to all of the countries in the world who do not have adequate supplies or even basic nutrition in which to cultivate young minds. Can these children still learn? Can these children still be taught? Of course!
Technology is grand and I hear so many educators, including myself from time to time, whine when their technology is down. I love technology because it brings the outside world to the classroom. It makes learning fun! Is it absolutely necessary? Sorry, no! The outside worlds is grand if you have no materials.  You can use sticks or stones to count with, write in the dirt or dust, role-play, sing, dance, do anything thinkable to get children's minds away from their ghastly situation and on to learning. Just never do nothing!
So, back to those with austere classrooms, or no classrooms, I applaud you. I know that you are working harder than any educator in the world to give kids who seem to have no chance in life a chance to better themselves. A chance to know that even though their situations are bleak and perhaps people are dying around them everyday, that if they use their basic instinct of fight or flight perhaps they can too can make their lives better with education. If for just for a short time, they have positive memories from their educational experience and the educator's kindness, then they have something that will last a lifetime.

*The names and photographs used in this blog are not from the actual schools involved to protect all identities involved. The content however is true.