Meet Helen*, an engaging twenty something with a refreshing enthusiasm for teaching, who knows she can make a difference and is determined to do so. Helen is a member of the Teach for America corps and has been assigned to a school in rural eastern North Carolina. While she had no prior teaching experience or degree in a directly related field before embarking on this admirable endeavor in the fall of 2011, she was homeschooled through eighth grade (before attending public high school and college) and has five younger siblings…an education in and of itself!
I heard Helen relaying entertaining stories of various classroom escapades during a recent social gathering, which prompted me to ask about her thoughts on the role of design in education. Her first hand observations are unencumbered by the weight of all sorts of research that splits even the finest hairs which, quite frankly, makes them refreshing and enlightening for the very same reason.
Socially Inappropriate Actions
One of my kindergarteners got in trouble the other day; he was sent home for biting the librarian. Bobby* bites and licks a lot (me, the walls, other students, etc.) and eats crayons and erasers and growls at people when he gets mad. He often engages in these socially inappropriate actions when he wants to escape a situation he’s in, like gym class, Spanish class, music class (he hates all of his special classes, probably because they’re all loud, disorganized and chaotic).
When you ask him “Bobby, why did you do that?”, he says, “because I didn’t want to be in there.” Then when you ask him “Well, where did you want to be?”, he always says “in Ms. Helen’s room.” My room is calm, quiet, organized, and full of purpose and order, and it’s soothing to someone like Bobby who hates chaos and loud noises (he went hysterical at our last fire drill, and it was really scary).
You should see him building things with his K’Nex set – I really think he could be an engineer or architect, because he has some pretty advanced spatial reasoning skills for a six-year-old. However, he has to learn first, and he has to view all of his classes as organized, calm, purposeful places for learning and exploring, rather than dangerous, scary, unorganized loud places.
How can we create this? Is it the teachers, or is it the environment? Do the teachers create the environment or do the architects? I favor the concept of the teacher as the most influential force in a child’s education, but it’s interesting to think about how the physical environment could be designed to feel safe and nurturing. How could we design a school so that Bobby can be with everyone else (his regular kindergarten class) without freaking out?
Very Tall Buildings!
My fourth and fifth-graders have been writing emails to Ms. Betsy*, the teacher who had my job before me. One student, Jack*, asked Ms. Betsy where she lives now. She answered:
“My house is on the 17th floor of a very tall building. If you ask Ms. Helen to show you pictures of skyscrapers, you will see what my house looks like. I only live in a very small room in the skyscraper. Lots of other people live in the same building that I live in.”
When Jack heard this, he got the biggest eyes ever (this is a 4th-grader, mind you), and he and several other fourth graders crowded around my laptop while I googled pictures of skyscrapers to show them what they look like. “NO WAY. She lives in THAT?? On the 17th FLOOR? Isn’t that scary? How can she sleep up in that?” They seriously went on and on and on.
How can this happen that there are 9 and 10-year-old boys who have never seen a skyscraper, not even a picture of one? My students’ exposure to THINGS and LIFE and OPPORTUNITIES and EXPERIENCES in general is so limited to what is in this tiny community. Can this be fixed by a school building? Again, I think it’s more realistic and feasible that a person, a teacher, could and should bring those things into classrooms, but what if we design schools that bring global experiences into small communities that wouldn’t ordinarily have that exposure (compared to students in wealthy schools whose parents take them to Paris and NYC for vacation every year)?