Because it is August, and because Facebook is creepy, I keep getting these Timeline reminders, or whatever they’re called, of various past status updates expressing my excitement about the first day of school — as a teacher. I loved everything about that first day — a newly decorated classroom, a fresh set of unit plans and course syllabi, my first day of school outfit. Those first few weeks were where I really shined, because even though it took me a year or three to figure it out…I (eventually) became something of a master of the classroom environment. (For that reason, third quarter is where my kids really shined).
My white board was a work of art. I played music, mostly for writing activities, and we had a lamp to detract from the awfulness of warehouse-style fluorescent lighting. Feng Shui For The Classroom and Capturing Kids’ Hearts were both part of my classroom management pedagogy. I spent the first two weeks of each semester gently molding my students into The Ways Of Ms. Richardson’s class, which involved many processes, well-crafted routines, a little self-reliance and a lot of social cohesion — oh, and some reading, writing, journalism, mass media and metacognition, too.
My first year of teaching, however, I didn’t win anyone over with my classroom management techniques. I didn’t have any. I was a lateral entry teacher, stalking my mentor from across the hall during the first days of work — until my principal (one of the best, Mrs. S) came in and told me to get my classroom ready. I needed to cover those bloody white cinderblock walls (my words, not hers) with something that indicated learning would happen here, because not only would I be judged, but the students would take significant cues from the decor, apparently.
I quickly learned about the power of a well-decorated classroom, but it took me another year to learn the significance of the classroom environment. The environment included everything from the decor, to the vibe — encompassing my demeanor, the music, the seating arrangement, the lighting and the organization– to the more important stuff: the amount of agency my students had, their independence, their ability to self-regulate, their self-efficacy and the way they interacted with one another. So we spent a great deal of time and energy setting up those policies and procedures so that I could spend my time teaching, and they could spend theirs learning.
What did that look like?
Basically, my students did anything that was not advantageous for me to do. We had roughly 10 class jobs every quarter, ranging from passing out journals to keeping the absence binder (unlike how it sounds, the absence binder is a genius strategy I learned from my amazing inclusion teacher, Mrs. G; during class, she would keep a log of everything we did that day, written on carbon paper for the kids who were absent). Instead of doing things like passing back homework, (a task that usually went to someone shy and trusted by all,) or monitoring distractions, I taught (or facilitated learning, as I like to say).
The kids managed each other’s behavior based on the social contract created at the beginning of the year (most of the time/unless it was egregious). They knew where the stress balls were and where the talking stick was, and I knew who needed a job that allowed them to move purposefully within the classroom. It sounds elementary, but processes and procedures prevent a lot of problems and produce more time for relevant instruction. They also allowed me to apply many learning and behavioral interventions broadly to the classroom as a whole, so that students without formal learning plans or “labels” benefitted as well (as did all of us). And because of who I am, this is how we’re approaching remote learning in our house.
It’s a mise en place way of life.
Our fall 2020 setup is all about following processes, uninterrupted workflows, less disruption and fewer arguments. So getting the environment just right before school even starts is my MO. I told two of my friends last week: we have two things to deal with right now: the places and the procedures. So, since what you’re really here for is the places, we’ll start there — just like decorating the classroom — then we’ll come back to the processes and procedures.
Plan Reality Check: Remote Learning In Our Apartment
First, it’s all about me. I’m the one who has to work and manage the household, and that has to happen as efficiently and effectively as possible. As a woman with bona fide ADD, working + household management + parenting 24/7 (aka Quarantine Life) is Hell Personified. Fortunately, over the decades, I’ve developed a full kit of compensation tools — ways of managing my study and work environments that minimize distractions, and increase my focus and allow me to do what needs to be done; both those things are also what helped me thrive as a teacher. Make no mistake, I am no Linzi or Annmarie. The routines I develop are an exhausting dedication to manipulating stimulation and implementing structure; they don’t come naturally. But as I learned during Capturing Kids’ Hearts: slower is faster.
The open-plan setup of our 3-room apartment was great when I was working from home and my kid was at school or aftercare, but not once The Great Shutdown started and my 8-year-old was eating at the dining table next to my desk or sitting in the reading nook across from me and right in my eye-line. Open-plan had to go. So when Goose finally left for a bit this summer, the first thing I did was rearrange the furniture.
The main problem this solves is the one from last spring where I constantly had to implore Goose to “get away from me” so I could concentrate. I now have two places that are solely mine to work from, and she now has multiple places that are hers — where she’s going to and wants to be, as opposed to finding places to get away from (me).
Our “Live” Homeschool Desk & Study Nook
Approximately two years ago, when I lamented to Annmarie about my grandmother’s sewing table being both non-functional (apparently the cost of someone coming to service the old machine would likely be more than the cost of buying a new one), and a mismatch for the “decor” in our apartment (let’s face it, there’s a lot of secondhand and a lot of nostalgia (aka hand-me-downs) mixed in anyway) she said ‘no’. ‘We keep our grandmothers’ sewing tables. I still have mine. It’ll be somebody’s nightstand, somebody’s something one day, we always find a use for those.”
It’ll be somebody’s remote learning desk. At home. For school-from-home, or digital learning, if you will, or hybrid school, if that’s where you are.
Um, so even though I gave up sewing within months of my grandmother teaching me how (as in, by the time I was a pre-teen or Tween), I still have her old sewing table. It’s one of the few things I still have from my grandmother (like the apron I’m wearing right now because apparently writing this is what I decided to do in between eating dinner and doing the dishes).
I was optimistic that Goose, who took sewing classes in first grade, would able to use the machine to make face masks, but that’s looking highly unlikely. I was determined to leave it in the “Elders” area of my Bagua, per Feng Shui best practice, but buying a new desk would have meant adding a new piece of furniture to our already crowded apartment and spending more money to make this whole Everything-From-Home thing more comfy. #NotHappening. Given the choice between having a workspace out here in the “great” room with me or having it in her room in front of the window, she chose the window — thank goodness, because now we know school will be “live” for the full six hours per day. Although I’m not thrilled about the prospect of my kiddo being on a screen for that long (admittedly, I have yet to see her daily schedule) I am looking forward to uninterrupted periods of work, and to the routine.
Cue the mismatched, but bright and cheery area that is now her “study nook”. We can close the sewing table back up at the end of the school day so that she use whatever extra space that provides.
The easel, a gift from my mom when Goose was just a tot, is the saving grace here, making the area look more official. The bookshelves add a touch of gravitas, as well. I’m very grateful she has the window for those much-needed 20-20-20 breaks from the computer (every 20 minutes, look up and out at something 20 feet away (preferably green and outdoor) for 20 seconds; supposedly this is recommended over special computer glasses for kids (also recommended for adults, anti-fatigue/blue light-blocking glasses or not).
I don’t love the chair I ended up ordering. Goose does though. I was in a hurry, and this looked much better on the Amazon photo. The back is not tall enough, and the vibe is too “cool” for her warm, cheery room, but it will do for now. It is adjustable, but if you have the space (width-wise), I recommend this office chair for shorter people, which I foolishly gave away (I’d forgotten that the sewing table opens up and the chair could’ve been stored that way). But, no matter. I kind of like the idea of closing up the table at night, and her having more space when ‘”school’s” not in session. If you missed the folding desk A suggested in her weekly favorite find, it’s here.
The hanging file thingy on the wall was also a random purchase I added when picking out the art cart. It matches some of the other bins and baskets in Goose’s room, and I figured we could use it for some sort of organization.We’re sticking Ball Jars full of markers and whatnot, as well as stress balls and dry erase boards into the baskets hanging inside the easel.
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After Goose complained about the spinning chair while working on her summer assignment this weekend, I hastily ordered a balance ball for her to sit on after seeing my friend C post hers on Facebook.
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Goose’s class needs white boards, which we have plenty of. Some of the supplies will get stored in the thread area of the sewing table (she put her pencils and erasers there for now) and some in the baskets within the easel. Others, like obvious art supplies, will go out in the “studio” in the art cart or on the art shelves. I figure the caddy will be super-useful for when Goose wants to move to either the “studio” or her cozy corner in the closet.
Cozy Corners, Craft Areas & Independent Work
Goose used to have a cozy corner on the floor of her room under the princess hanging tent thing-y, but having the extra bed and needing a study nook meant we had to get a little creative with her room layout. And as a result of the redecorating reboots, Goose will spend most of the school day in her room. In addition to the study nook in the window area of her room, she has two cozy corners — one in her closet on the floor, and one on an extra bed in her room. The extra bed is not “normal” (in The Before Times sense), but in the midst of advertising it, a pandemic happened, so it’ll be here until I’m ready to let strangers in my home…soooo….
I wanted her to have to cozy corner in her closet because often times the audio from her computer or from her Skype calls with family would come wafting into the living area, and I just can’t handle that kind of audio disruption. Plus, she likes having the closet as a “dressing room” so I figured if she had a space that felt like another room to call her own, she would really feel it was special.
The cozy corner under the princess tent on the bed is now just another place for her to go read and feel comfortable. She can use her lap desk in either place.
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“In The Studio”: Art, Movement & Online Enrichment (aka “Digital Aftercare”)
Arts and crafts became kind of chaotic mess during Quarantine Life Round One. We had different definitions of cleaning up, different ideas of what was art, different ideas of how to display said “art,” yada, yada, yada. Also during The Great Rearranging, I needed the shelves on which some of her art supplies sat. Enter the art cart. I love it. It’s a simple, budget-friendly solution that’s easy-to-reach and easy on the eyes. I wanted to purchase the art cart from the family-owned company on Target, but I really just preferred the design of the Target brand better. It was also less expensive.
To contain the clutter and decrease visual distraction, I used a combination of baskets, little metal buckets and Ball Jars. At the moment, her devices get plugged in and set into a basket in the “studio” at the end of the day/before dinner.
For my sanity, we no longer really have a dining area. The couch and a bookshelf are centered to divide the “great room,” so that the the “studio” (read former dining room, rarely) will now function as more of a multi-purpose area. There, where I do yoga at the beginning and end of each day, Goose can do her online dance and karate classes. She can continue to do homework, and arts & crafts at the dining table or at the breakfast bar where she likes to sit when I’m in the kitchen. We’ll eat our meals on the balcony until it gets too cold. #whateveroutdoortimewecanget
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Fun With School Supplies
I’m pretty lucky that we have a pretty solid selection of basic art supplies. When Goose was starting kindergarten, I desperately Googled something along the lines of “tips for single working moms” and one savvy mom wrote a blog post about all the expectations for parents when it comes to school assignments. One piece of well-received advice — buy as many school project-type supplies at the beginning of the school year and have them organized and ready to go. That way, you’re not stuck coming home from work only to find out your kid needs popsicle sticks or googly eyes or watercolor paints for an assignment due the next day. So, this year we just had to top off what we needed specifically for school.
Because clicking “checkout” on a computer screen last week sucked all the joy out of school supply shopping, I decided to wrap up Goose’s school supplies like birthday gifts. That gave us a little boost.
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Social Contracts, Self-Efficacy & Less Distractions
(aka “Agile” If That’s What You Want To Call It)
My goal is to get Goose set up the way I’d done for my students. I facilitate the environment and she does the learning — but alas, someone else is doing the teaching. I expect to keep my engagement as limited as it was in The Before Times — checking homework and providing feedback, and getting her “take” on wrong answers and having her correct them. I’ll see her for lunch and maybe hug breaks, then again as she transitions to digital aftercare or outdoor dance class, and again for dinner, bath and bed…it’ll be that smooth😂. RIGHT. We have yet to figure out some of it, like how we’ll handle interruptions — will she leave me a sticky note in a designated place if she needs me or will we make a little mailbox where she can drop non-urgent questions and concerns? Not a clue yet. But, we’re making this “social contract” in T-minus three hours so…. (our five norms, if you’re curious, will revolve around preventing interruptions, handling technology, managing transitions, homework, and then connecting with each other).
For the other stuff, we’ll rely on weekly family meetings (we do these at dinner Sunday night), her morning checklist, her evening checklist, the notes on her white boards (all self-implemented) and whatever social contract we divine tonight. We’ll set up as much as possible to avoid unnecessary distractions and arguments as we go. That’s right — much like one can “agile” a classroom, you can “agile” your family. I never called it that until discussing with Shana one day, but that’s apparently similar to what I did as teacher and what we do at home. There’s a TED Talk here, though our system isn’t an exact match (we center rewards as opposed to punishments.)
Other Ways I’ll Support My Kiddo
I’m hopeful that the environment and the processes we devise and implement over the coming days will help this whole Everything-From-Home situation go (somewhat) smoothly. I’m not an elementary school teacher, but I know I can give feedback on homework, as well as work with Goose on schema and enrichment. I can teach her how to annotate her reading, how to use Cornell notes, and other metacognition strategies. I set her up with a Gmail account last spring so that I could send her cool articles and online exhibits from the museums and publications like National Geographic. We’ll try to connect for 30 minutes a day to play a game or something like that, and we will keep evaluating, assessing and evolving as we go.
This is not going to perfect. But, it is what it is — it will be the best we can do under the circumstances. I can’t predict or control her teacher, her class or the content, but I can provide the environment and facilitate our ways of being….and if all else fails, there’s wine. (Wine for me, stress balls for her).