While visions of sugar-plums dance in the heads of children each Christmas, a vision of maximizing positive student outcomes continually bounces around my head as a teacher.  This same vision spills into Chronicle Cloud.

How do we best improve positive student outcomes? That’s a complex and multifaceted question, but it’s worth tackling.

As the new year approaches, many will be making resolutions to improve their physical health.  Physical health undoubtedly influences one’s health in other areas, so why would this be any different in the classroom?

Classroom design, by this I’m referring to the physical classroom environment, isn’t found on John Hattie’s List of Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement, but I’d argue that the physical environment impacts the following, which IS on the list: decreasing disruptive behavior, collaborative learning, illness, lack of stress, (amount of time spent in) deliberate practice, and possibly a few others.  Add these things up and you’re looking at a significant effect size!

With this said, let’s rewind about four years.  As a teacher, every year is challenging, but this year happened to be particularly challenging.  A 1:1 Chromebook initiative was newly in effect, and in order to align instruction with the (then) Common Core Standards, elementary teachers in particular found themselves caught in a revolving door of new programs and curriculum. Ongoing contract negotiations accompanied an approximate 25% increase of students per class as I tried my best to do a good job teaching reading, writing, word study, math, science, social studies, along with squeezing in cursive work, keyboarding, a social/emotional program, Spanish (I took Deutsch in high school and college!), and acting as an advisor for two clubs (and serving on a committee for contract negotiations) 一 it was all very taxing.

On a personal note, my wife and my then two-year old (who had a reactive airway disorder that led to many ER visits) had just moved from a condo into our first home at the beginning of the school year. To boot, a sports injury mid year resulted in a C6-C7 herniated disc in my neck, consequently leading to severe pain and an inability to raise my left arm (I remember shoveling our stone driveway with one arm).  Funds were low.

Now let me rewind about 12 or 13 years ago (this will tie into the story).  It was summer, and I saw an elderly woman walking roadside, seemingly lost. I stopped my car and asked if she needed help.  She said she was looking for a nearby doctor’s office and from what I remember, she had the address written on a piece of paper. The doctor’s office was right down the street, so I told her to hop in and I’d drive her there.

In the short amount of time it took me to drive her there, she told me that she had lost her husband about a year prior, followed by a poignant statement that I’ll never forget:

“Life is hard, but God gives us enough good things to keep going.”

A warm smile accompanied her words.

During this challenging year of teaching, I seriously contemplated leaving the classroom.  Our salaries were frozen and with health benefits reform, my wife and I were bringing home less money.  Anti-teacher climate was at a high. I spoke to my father (a former teacher of 35 years) several times, expressing that I couldn’t see myself continuing.

Enter the light.

My principal emailed me, asking that I come see him.  He had some great news. A set of parents had come to see him.  I taught two of their older children, and I was currently teaching their third.  These parents conveyed how thankful they were with the school overall, along with my efforts as a teacher.  They continued to express how busy they’ve been with work over the years, and that they’d like to make a donation. That donation, coupled with a match from Wells Fargo, the father’s employer, came to slightly more than $8000.  So generous!

My principal asked that I determine how to spend the money.

I was honored, but I also felt a tremendous amount of responsibility that I use it well.  At a staff meeting, I presented the opportunity of using this money in a way that benefits the school.  Some ideas floated around – staff team building, special presentations/workshops for students, and perhaps a couple other ideas – but there seemed to be no consensus.

Over the course of the next couple of months, I considered what could be done to maximize the effect of the donation.

Active on LinkedIn, the following caught my eye:

My first thought: Wow, look how much room they have!

I walked by my wife’s classroom (she works about three doors down by the way) and I saw an obvious difference:

The students, younger and smaller, had less elbow room. And on top of this, Chromebooks weren’t even part of the equation (imagine a Chromebook on each desk, along with the likelihood of those Chromebooks falling).

Desks don’t allow for much flexibility when working in small groups, and could you imagine the difficulty when you throw in science materials for experiments or math manipulatives for discovery?

I then took a look at my own classroom, which had the same desks and chairs (which students often fell out of while leaning back). The kids, a year older, were that much bigger. And they were on top of each other!

So, when at a faculty meeting, our principal delivered a message about “janitorial items”, I was all ears. Janitorial items, he explained, are those inefficiencies that steal time and energy from our ability to be innovative. As he continued speaking, I thought of the many shattered Chromebook screens I’ve seen. I thought of the disruption of students falling from their chairs. I thought of the peer-to-peer arguing caused when one student knocks over another student’s materials, or when one student’s materials spill into another student’s space.

My classroom had to evolve in order to allow for bigger class sizes, a greater emphasis on project-based learning, students with less recess time than those from a couple decades ago (therefore creating more “antsy” kids), room for 1:1 devices, storage for multiple containers of new science materials, and a higher percentage of students with special needs.

I fear I may be painting a gloomy picture of the classroom. These are truthfully some of the challenges of classrooms nowadays, but before moving on, I’d just like to be clear that I’m honored to work for a district, a principal, and the best colleagues in the world, who, in good faith, work hard to improvise, adapt, and overcome in order to meet the needs of our students. Every single day.

Okay, let’s now continue. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to set the wheels in motion for improving the physical environment. Although it felt a bit selfish, I knew I had to start with my classroom (*fast forward – having the desired effect, this opened up conversation, and furniture and classroom design changes have been made in many classrooms since).

Doing this was much more difficult than I thought. I did hours of research online. I met with our occupational therapist for input. I met many times with an approved furniture vendor. I shopped for better prices elsewhere. I went back and forth with emails within district, trying to get approval to purchase items from other vendors.

It actually took an additional school year before I had everything, and during the summer, my principal, his son, my wife, and I spent several hours assembling some of the furniture because one vendor wasn’t district approved, and so the approved vendor had to purchase it from the non-approved vendor, which the approved vendor sold to us (for a markup), and since it wasn’t their product, the approved vendor would not assemble them. Confusing, I know, but that was the reality!

Over the course of several future blog entries, I’d like to highlight some features of my evolving classroom. It has changed a bit since the pic below, but the shot itself captures the first year the furniture made its way into my class:

Students were taking a math test at the time of the picture (and in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have allowed the students to use Chromebooks as “privacy folders”!), but here are some things I’d like to quickly note:
– There are FAR fewer cases of broken Chromebooks since the change
– Over the past couple of years, I remember one time a student falling over in their chair
– Look at the elbow room! Approximately a third of these 5th grade students were also in the picture of my wife’s 4th grade class, taken about 1 year prior

As a thank you to the parents who generously donated the money, I composed and gave them a poem, “remixing” the words from “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, found at the end of this post.

But back to the idea of light. That’s exactly what this generous donation was.

And whether one celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, or just desires to start over in the New Year, the holiday season reminds us that in times of adversity, there is light to help keep us going.

So as the new year is upon us, I wish you a great year 一 one filled with much light!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
‘Twas the time before a gift and all through the class
Not a Chromebook was safe, especially its glass;
Shattered screens from many droppings required repair,
IT work requests filed in hopes help would soon be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
Thingamajiggies were nestled all snug in the desks,
Fiddling distractions dashed dreams of students giving their best;
And leanings in chairs, and I in view of the flaps,
As students fell to the floor in loud mishaps,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
When out of the blue came help from the clatter,
A generous gift from a family who believes teachers and education matter.
Away to assess needs, one couldn’t be rash,
But the need became more clear as another Chromebook crashed.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
Twentieth century desks with no elbow room must go
21st-century learning is here, along with class sizes that grow,
After research and meetings, what to my eyes should appear,
But furniture with rhythm, the possibility filled me with cheer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
With a teacher’s desk from a time when Twist & Shout was a chart hit,
I knew in a moment it must go — and lickety split!
And more rapid than eagles I’d toss to the flame,
Those traditional chairs, and their undoubted stiffness and pain;
“Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
“Now, be gone kids who lean back and spill over, now come fewer distractions!
On, come less squirming, on come less slumping, on come more satisfaction!”
To the top of the classroom! then out to the top of the hall!
I’d toss away, toss away, toss away all causing learning to stall!
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
For as dry leaves before a big storm flies,
Stirred some obstacles causing inevitable sighs,
So up towards the list’s top, of course, is how positive outcomes can we best brew?
With conditions like bigger class sizes, and 1:1 technology too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound,
And then, in a twinkling, I heard a great truth,
That spoke to the prancing and pawing of today’s youth,
As I drew in my head my principal’s words that I found,
Down at a meeting one day came advice with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
He addressed all our innovation, from this path we must not stray a foot.
And he acknowledged certain items that can tend to tarnish a school’s output;
A bundle of cleanups that are flung daily on our backs,
And he referred to these as “janitorial items” as his message he unpacked.
His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
His words – how they twinkled! counseling how to remain innovative and merry!
His words were like roses, his message like a cherry!
The main idea coming from his mouth was to me like a bow,
And it confirmed the direction that I should definitely go:
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
For the bumps that wipe us and make us grind our teeth
And the smoke from fires encircling teachers’ heads like a wreath;
Take broad space from the innovative room in our belly,
That notion shook in my mind like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He was no dummy or chump, a right jolly old self
And I hoped when I heard this, in spite of myself;
For a gift from a family, a twist in the road that I tread,
Soon gave me encouragement to keep pressing ahead;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
The gift spoke to a word, a word often lost in life’s work,
And “reciprocity” filled my noggin, as I turned to put the gift to good work,
And laying my fingers to unwrap this gift in front of my nose,
And giving a nod, cleaning up “janitorial items” is what I chose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!
In time sprang forth 21st century furniture, which I met with a whistle,
And away flew old furniture like the down of a thistle.
But I hope with excitement, this gift drives discussion and light.
To making lives for teachers and students more comfortable and bright.

With sincere appreciation and admiration,
Andy Raupp