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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Importance of Classroom Environment: Lessons from A Colt Named Carl

I spotted him across the aisles of baskets of ferns and Christmas garland. There was something distinct about this colt. Maybe it was the crayon scribbles across his saddle or the way he leaned precariously to one side or the missing strands of yarn from his mane.

All the same, I left my local Goodwill with a Clue game and a Star Wars puzzle (which I discovered later was missing an edge and two pieces from the Death Star), justifiably for my classroom, but not with the lopsided horse.
Maybe it was predestined, but I left my wallet on the counter and a spunky, auburn-haired girl wearing a badge named Nan was waving it in the air just as I re-entered the store.

I thanked Nan and then the words every bargain shopper this side of the Mississippi can't resist blared over the intercom, "For the next hour all orange tagged items are half off."

There was no turning back.
I grabbed my wallet and was caught up in a stampede of other bargain shoppers in the direction of "orange tagged" items. It didn't matter if the orange tagged item was a set of golf clubs, ubiquitous painting of snow-covered mountains, mismatched set of holiday dishes, or a personalized cookie jar, for that matter.

The sheer rush of adrenaline that coursed thru my veins created a borderline hoarder mentality which is the reason seasoned thrift shoppers like myself must be careful and ask, "Do I really need this item? or Do I want it because it has an orange tag and I don't want anyone else to have it?"

Which is exactly why I ended up carrying an over-sized, over-stuffed, pony which I purchased for a whopping $3.50. I didn't need it and I didn't want the lady wearing the gray sweater to have it.

And so it was that a Colt named Carl made its way into my literacy classroom.
What happened in my classroom in the years that followed, is undeniable.
Since finding his way into my classroom, I've witnessed a reluctant 8th grader who would rather play Call of Duty than eat or breathe, choose Carl as a reading backrest and lose himself in a book.
I've seen a stressed out eleven-year-old whose parents were going thru a divorce, relax while fidgeting with the yarn on his mane. I've even heard kids called "dibs" on him; which is the highest honor when it comes to pre-teens' territorial nature.

And so I've developed a theory about comfort objects like stuffed animals and middle schoolers. I believe there is still a child-heart in these learners in spite of how cool and worldly they try to act. Eleven and twelve year olds are in an awkward phase of life.
6th graders posing with Carl

They're too old to play with dolls and robots, build blanket forts at birthday parties, or wear capes and pretend to be Spiderman. On the flip side, middle schoolers have a whole life ahead of them to lose sleep over whether or not a Senate house bill will pass or the collapse of civilization as we know it.

I believe that the middle school years should be a right of passage, if you will.
It's the period when kids can secretly believe that Santa climbed down their chimney in the wee hours of the night and that there is still a chance they will one day be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It's a window of time when they can hold on to the magic of their childhood while building skills to survive high school, and life, for that matter.
Carl in my home office.
Carl has taught me the importance of designing a learning environment that feels safe and taking risks are encouraged. As the years go by, I have had high school learners come back to say "hi" to Carl. I've even heard of kids posting "selfies" on Instagram with none other than Carl himself.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this odd purchase made such a difference in the culture of my classroom. Sometimes magic just happens.


Confession Reflection:
  • What are some characteristics of a positive learning environment? How does a positive learning environment support learning?
  • Research shows that optimum learning happens in a safe environment. What does this mean?
  • How can teacher entitlement (my room, my rules) be a barrier to building a culture of learning?

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