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Thursday / May 24

When Life Gives You Lemons: Making Portables Work for You!

I am a 5th grade teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. I grew up in Baltimore, Baltimore County to be exact, and I attended the elementary school where I now teach. I love my school. I love my community. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Growing up in here, we had a special summertime treat that might be found in other parts of the country, too, but we like to claim it as our own. We would take a lemon, cut a hole in the peel, and wedge a peppermint stick into it. Then, we suck the lemon juice through the peppermint stick creating a delicious, refreshing mess that I crave every time it starts to get warm. I have never liked lemonade, but I am all about taking life’s lemons and poking them with a peppermint stick.

At the end of last school year, my principal informed me that I would be moving into a trailer. . .ahem, Learning Cottage. I was very unhappy. The. . ahem, Learning Cottages. . .at my school are about 2/3 the size of a classroom. How was I going to fit 25 fifth grade bodies and all of the furnishings that I needed to provide a strong classroom experience in such a small space? I had several meetings with my principal, essentially begging her to reconsider (in a professional manner, of course), but in the end, I was still relegated to the portable village, exposed to the elements and squeezed for space.

I have never been more wrong about anything in my professional life. Being “relegated” outside was the best thing that could have happened to me because I had to rethink my space. I considered what was truly essential for the academic programming that I like to use and designed my dream classroom environment. Using crowdsourcing, I raised about $2500 and furnished my new space. I decided desks would be too bulky, so I bought four tables. I also wanted the room to feel more like a home, so I bought four small vinyl love seats and a futon. I bought three floor lamps, a salt lamp, and three book shelves. The school provided me with a kidney table and a utility closet, so I ditched a desk for myself, as well as file cabinets. I even put in a doorbell. The room was gorgeous and special.

But I was still worried about seating. In my plan, students would sit at the tables as well as the couches. How could I do that? In my regular classroom, I would create a seating chart and change it every month or so, perhaps moving one student here or there if his or her current seat wasn’t working well. Would I keep track of who got to sit at the couches so that when I changed seats I would know who hadn’t had a chance yet? Would I just tape down name tags on the couches? Come to think of it, would I tape down name tags to the tables? The students already had less space. Was it worth it to take some more of their space with the name tags? And how would I move their seats if I needed to? I couldn’t just move the desk anymore. What had I done?! Was it too late to return the tables and just move regular desks into the room? What was this silly experiment I was trying?! Who did I think I was?

After my spiral into existential crisis, I took a breath, watched an episode of “Parks and Recreation” and channeled my inner Leslie Knope. I was overcomplicating this. It was simple. The kids would choose their own seats.

Each week.

I created a diagram of the class, stuck it in a plastic sleeve, and each Friday, the students one by one picked out their seat for the following week. Students with the highest homework averages get to pick first, and then so on, until everyone has a seat. I have found that the students almost always make a responsible decision, either in choosing their seat, or in functioning at their seat at a table among their friends. They feel pride in their room and they feel pride in their choice. They don’t want to mess that up. Once, one of my student’s moms asked me to make sure he didn’t sit at a table with his best friend. When this student came to choose his seat, he picked a seat at the table with this buddy of his. I reminded him of his mom’s rule, and without any protest, he picked a different seat. His ownership over the choice negated any frustration he felt about the restriction.

With students choosing new seats each week, there was no need for name tags. I did make a set, and I don’t tape them down. Monday morning, before my homeroom arrives, I put them in their spot so they remember where to go, and then after attendance I collect them all back for safe keeping until the next week.

I am an extrovert and another concern I had about being moved to a Learning Cottage was how isolated I would feel. Honestly, on professional development days when the students aren’t here, this does still bother me. I feel a little out of touch with my co-workers and I have to make much more of an effort to get my social fix. But I grossly underestimated how much noise was generated in the hallways. Out in our own little world, we don’t hear lockers slamming, or kids running, or teachers fussing at the kids running. We don’t hear students having meltdowns in the hallway, or classes walking by, practicing their multiplication facts while on a bathroom break. It is an oasis.

Not to mention, we can make as much noise as we want! If we want to have a classroom party, I can pump up the music as loud as I like it. I had a guest speaker come in once who played a trumpet. No problem! I had another guest speaker come in with his electric guitar and looping pedal. No problem! We can have lively debates, spirited class sing-alongs, and competitive games without concern that we are disturbing any other classes.

Yes, there are some inconveniences for sure. The bathroom is far away, the weather is more of an issue, and I miss having the extra space for storage. But I have done the best teaching of my life this year because of how I redefined what a classroom environment can be. I am more creative, more resourceful, and more efficient. Therefore, my lessons are more creative, more data-driven, and more efficient.

As we near the end of this school year, there is a chance that you will be reassigned to a new room, a new space, or a new position. By all means, stand up for yourself if you feel you aren’t being treated professionally, or if you really feel uncomfortable with the change. But consider that this change could be a gift. You have an opportunity. I thought the world was against me; it turns out the universe was giving me exactly what I needed. I thought that I was going to be stuck with a sour lemon. By reconceptualizing that lemon and adding my own ideals to it, this school year has felt like a perpetual summer.

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Cara Jeanne is a veteran teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. She teaches 5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies at the same elementary school she attended as a child. She is pursuing her phD in Instructional Leadership for Changing Populations at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she also received her Masters degree and a certificate in Equity and Cultural Proficiency. Cara completed her undergraduate work at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where she studied Psychology and English. Cara was a finalist for Baltimore County Teacher of the Year and is honored to serve on the Equity Team and Faculty Council at her school.

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