What I liked least about my class is what I miss the most
Even after I started teaching, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. My problem was not fear of children or public speaking. It was the classroom space that made me uncomfortable, nervous, uncomfortable.
About a quarter of my last year of college, I started teaching at a creative writing workshop in Brunswick, Maine. We would go every Tuesday for an hour and a half to an alternative high school and teach the 10th graders in a personal storytelling seminar. At the end, we promised them, they would have their own space in a printed volume, a chapter from a chapter book made up only of the stories generated in that class.
But this classroom was not a welcoming space; it was a redeveloped hall, without a door, wedged between the school bathrooms and the school auditorium, which was no longer used as an auditorium because the lights in one half of the room were not working and the lights of the other half were flickering. their own schedule. In a corner of the room hid the busiest printer in the school. In another corner, a concrete staircase leading directly to the ceiling. Our classroom had no door, just a door covered with paper banners. Sometimes a corgi would walk around our room, dragged by a leash. And, as students have often pointed out, the Wi-Fi sucked. It was not the place to learn, not the place for student engagement, not the place to keep a student’s girlfriend from drifting at random times and getting stuck in her chair (finally, she has just joined the class).
But we made do with it! The half of the auditorium which sometimes had light became a space for writers who wanted to be left alone; the staircase to nowhere has become a space for receiving comments; the printer area and wherever the corgi was has become a space to take a break. And as the seminar progressed, the little spatial discomforts that I carried around the room – Where am I? How to hold my arms? Can i sit down? – ceased to be so heavy.
And I ended up loving it.
And I decided to become a teacher.
And I accepted a place in a graduate program.
And I made plans to come to Washington, DC
And one night I watched the news arrive that Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert had both tested positive for the coronavirus, and the classroom space I had anticipated became a desk harvested from the sidewalk and squeezed into my room. rented room.
So now many of us have been teaching in the virtual space for over a year. I haven’t spoken to a teacher yet who doesn’t have a strong nostalgia for the physical class. The Zoom room is not quite the same. Neither academically nor emotionally, and certainly not socially. As I wait for an email with in-person fall 2021 plans to waddle around my inbox like a disheveled, messy, cheerful puppy, I find myself wondering: How to reintroduce yourself into the classroom? How do students move from virtual to physical space?
Chewing on this issue, a priority emerges: we must ensure that the physical space of the school is a habitable space, not just a centralized list of activities and outdated standards, new rules, deficits. and concerns and standardized tests not passed to pile up. and baroque surface washing protocols and so on. Health and safety are top priorities, but reestablishing the school as a truly shared space should be next on the list.
I think one of the things our students hate the most about virtual is that there is no space or time to breathe together. There is no corner with the printer. There are no whispered conversations in the dark half of the auditorium. One of my sections this year has been particularly difficult to involve. A few weeks ago, we took advantage of the first half of a class period to reformulate and reinvigorate our class social contract. And the first thing they asked for was space for the virtual school to be a little less educational. They asked for a few minutes a week not to worry about goals and summaries and to catch up on lost work. They asked to collaborate in small groups. They asked for a space to talk to each other as people, not just as classmates. Since then, I’ve noticed that sometimes the best times are not when you start right on time.
Instead, productive and engaging lessons can be when students start by talking about their favorite weekends or movies or what they’re reading right now. I’m chatting with a student about volcanism, and 15 minutes after class starts, we privately set goals in the chat about what it’s safe to do independently after class. I draw a diagram explaining the jet streams, and towards the end of the lesson I don’t have to ask volunteers as many times as I usually do to share their answers.
There is no way to prove a relationship between making room for sixth graders to be, briefly, 11-year-olds during class and whether or not they hand in their outing ticket on a given day. But in the short time I spent with them, I found that providing that space didn’t hurt. And I believe that restoring that mental, social and emotional space in the physical space of school will be essential in bringing our children back to where they need to be. Imperfect and uncontrolled space is needed; sometimes to write a personal story you need stairs that lead nowhere. You need disruption. You need a glimpse of a rampaging dog.
Samuel Milligan is a sixth-grade English teacher in Washington, DC, who graduated from Bowdoin College in 2020 and a desperate Philadelphia 76ers fan. He spends his free time writing short fictions and not finishing coffee shop loyalty cards. It can be found @sawmilligan on Twitter.