Canadian thought leader, Rodd Lucier, asked me the following question last week, and it has had me thinking ever since:
“What is the first thing that will be opened on the first day of school: the textbook or the stories?”
I remember clearly preparing for the first day of school at the beginning of my career. In those days, I would spend most of August in my classroom (much to the chagrin of our caretaking staff), preparing bulletin boards, photocopying worksheets and activities, designing curriculum tasks and devising complex incentive schemes. On the very last day of summer vacation, I would spend my time arranging desks in neat arrays, making sure that pencils were sharpened and that notebooks, textbooks and name tags were on every desk. I wanted to guarantee that when students walked in on the first day of school they knew that I had been diligently working on their behalf and that I was, indeed, ready to go.
I recall those First Days of School being characterized by a great deal of talking and a great deal of listening. Looking back, however, I know that I was the one who did most of the talking, and the students did most of the listening: listening to who I was and what my expectations were; listening to me outline the rules and procedures for the year. I thought that was the way to do it. I thought that was the way to establish control, rapport and student buy-in. I thought!
Fast forward twenty five years and my current method of preparation for that first day of school:
Bulletin boards are started but not complete. A large, blank piece of butcher paper runs along one entire wall of the classroom. Tables and desks are pushed to the side and the chairs form a large circle with several pieces of wood resembling a campfire as the centerpiece. A guitar leans up against one wall. I am ready to go.
It took me too many years to realize that I had been starting off on the wrong foot! The structures and infrastructures of school, while important, are not central to what my work is all about. Textbooks, bulletin boards, notebooks and all of the other scholastic trappings that my students and I are used to hiding behind are not what are essential to the ecology of my classroom.
For me, the core of teaching and learning has become the story: my story, my students’ story, story of our community and, indeed, our world. And if it’s true that our stories lie at the core of who we are as individuals, then why not recognize that in the way I begin my school year.
Our stories connect us to one another; our stories set us apart and allow us to express our uniqueness. Our stories allow us to relive both the highs and lows of life. Our stories allow us to express our hopes, dreams and our fears.
To take the time to open up our stories is to lay the foundation for empathic relationship which, I believe, is the cornerstone of any safe and nurturing environment.
So, the bulletin boards I begin are now designed to leave room for my students’ own creativity and insight. The butcher paper that runs along my classroom wall acts as a living, breathing record of what we learn and are thinking about on a daily basis. The tables and desks are sidelined in order to encourage openness and vulnerability. And the campfire? Well, that’s my new metaphor for teaching and learning, for it’s around the campfire that the art of living is played out: in story, in song, and in dance.
The textbooks—well, they still have a place in my teaching, but they won’t be seen for a while. If you walk into my classroom on the first day of school these days, the first things that you’ll see us open up are our stories.
So, come in, grab a chair around the campfire and get ready to learn!
Note: For a powerful example of how another teacher has adopted this approach on an ongoing basis, take a look at Children Full of Life a Passionate Eye documentary released several years ago.