Thursday, July 21, 2011

Minimalist Teaching Redefined (An Introduction and Musings)

Inspired by a recent personal interest in minimalism, the other day I found myself wondering, "What would minimalism as a pedagogy look like?" Immediately I turned to Google, but every search result referenced what I've heard called silent teaching, standing back to let students discover knowledge for themselves. While I admire this approach, it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

I have two large tubs full of "teacher stuff" in my living room closet. The quotes are used in the previous statement to imply that not everything included is actually useful as a teaching tool. Honestly, it's been a while, and I'm not exactly sure what all is in there. I know that there are plastic paper organizers, small containers, stickers, ink pads and a couple of stamps, a few sets of bulletin board borders,... And that doesn't include all of the supplies (pencils, paper clips, sticky notes) that are kept in a separate box in my bedroom closet, the countless children's books that have crowded themselves out of an entire two-shelf book case, or a shelf full of professional books in my bedroom bookcase. And I don't even have a degree yet!

During my time as a paraeducator, I worked with a teacher that, frankly speaking, I shall call a hoarder. She'd been working for 26 years, and her room showed it. The first thing one noticed upon entering her classroom was, despite having one of the larger rooms in the school, the complete lack of space. Stacks of papers lined every surface. The students' tables were topped with a small plastic tub each, but the tubs were overflowing with worksheets in various stages of completion, broken crayons and various bits of their boxes, dirty ziplock baggies, pencils to be sharpened, and fragments of destroyed pink erasers. Boxes and boxes of worksheets stood around the perimeter of the room. Her walls were covered with faded, outdated, childish cartoon character posters. Stuffed animals lined top shelves. And the closet? I had to work with her for a year and a half before she let me take a glimpse. The door could only be partially opened because it was crammed full of tubes of wet wipes (for cleaning?), countless boxes of untouched construction paper, a million worksheets, and a tower of unopened boxes of tissues (literally around 50).

I also worked with a new teacher that had only been out of college for two years. She was unfortunately let go because of cutbacks, but found a position elsewhere in the state. I helped her clean out her classroom at the end of the year. Despite having worked for such a short period of time, it was surprising how much she had accumulated. She had let her students know a couple weeks before school let out that she had a new job in a different city, and they helped her pack most of her materials into boxes. Still, it took the entire morning to finish cleaning out her desk area and closet. By the end, she was tired and frustrated and kept saying variations of, "I don't care, just throw it all away!"

How do these kind of situations come to be? What does it mean? How can we prevent them from happening in the first place? When I did a preliminary search for Minimalist Teaching, I hoped to find more along these lines.

Just the other day, I got a catalog in the mail (who knows HOW they got my address) full of page after endless page of cheap junk. Apparently teachers are just another source of income for capitalist corporations wanting to make a buck. But is it at the expense of your students?

My political stance aside, when I first began looking into minimalism for my personal life, I noted to a friend what a contradiction it would seem to be both a minimalist and a teacher. You never know what might interest or help any particular student specifically. Therefore, everything must be saved in preparation for having that one student in your class. I've come to believe that this is the mutual though process of most teachers.

It's either, "Oh, look at this thing! I could use this in my X lesson!" or "Hey, that's an interesting thing. It might come in handy sometime."

I've learned a lot from Leo Babauta recently about how to quell these feelings and fears. (Personally, I have a fear that I might be able to use something for making something new or for a craft, but I'm not even a crafts type of person!)

Back to my original question, what would a classroom concerned with minimalism in regards to "stuff" look like?

I've been a fan of Socratic teaching for a few years, but since I haven't made a post on it, I'll have to reference this article, in which the author teaches binary to third graders. In my ideal classroom, we wouldn't need a large quantity of materials because we would spend more time in dialogue and discussion.

But how realistic is that? As a pre-service teacher, I'm not entirely sure, but I may be able to approach the topic with more of an open mind than an experienced teacher whose judgement may be clouded with personal bias. The main issues that concerns me are the areas of tactile learners and (with a hint of bias picked up, whether truthfully or not, from media and popular conception) boys. Would I be able to reach them as fully without objects for them to hold and manipulate about every matter we discuss? The obvious answer, at least in the case of the tactile learner, is no, I would not. But perhaps the question I should have asked is whether I would be able to reach them as easily. To which the answer may not change, but the ideas to which it alludes might. It may not be easy to reach these learners, but maybe, it would benefit them more.

Perhaps, a good friend notes, children who are "inundated with the stuff and the entertainment of their parents" would benefit from a blank canvass. It could be a healthy break from the fast-paced, invasive life of our current society. She also suggests bringing in a new set of found objects every once in a while to study, perhaps from nature, seashells, feathers, pine cones, etc., which I thought was a wonderful and simple idea.

Above all, what I want to accomplish the most with this study is to get students to question more. "What is this doing here?" "What do we use it for?" "Why are we keeping it here?" I want for us to constantly re-evaluate and look for ways to improve our shared environment. And, hopefully, our dialogues themselves will be entertaining enough to keep the children's attention more than materials and manipulatives would. I want to teach the powers of community, thinking, and sharing, not the power of items.