For three weeks one summer, about eight years ago, I was a part of the National Writing Project (in central Indiana we call our small corner of it the Hoosier Writing Project). Teachers get together, discuss lessons and the importance of writing, as well as take hours upon hours to write for ourselves. It was when I started seeing innovation before innovation was a hashtag on Twitter and George Couros wrote about it being a “mindset.”
One of the goals for this group of teachers, all spellbound by improving our craft, needed to create and work on a “teacher research project.”
Since I wasn’t taking the class for credit, it sounded awful.
I threw up in my mouth.
What could I even research? What did I want to improve? It’s not that I didn’t need improvement, that wasn’t the case -- I’m not a diva. I know I can always improve. The question was...how does a middle school journalism teacher that teaches a full journalism curriculum (and no language arts, like most) even find research about his craft? There are not many teachers out there like me.
Typically, middle school language arts teachers take over aspects of a journalism class at their schools. The yearbook is the biggest, and there’s sometimes a newspaper, but typically they’re club activities and not actual classes.
And I’m not a high school journalism teacher -- there’s a TON of research out there, and articles, and lawsuits. Middle school journalists are not ready for such dramatics within the field of journalism. Yet. My goal for them are basics. They need the ground level before they advance -- and since our feeder high school has a tremendous journalism program, they can take the basics they learn from me and stretch their wings there.
Ugh, so what could I even research? I wanted it to be beneficial. Who does research for the sake of research?
Nevermind. I know those people are out there.
But I started thinking: How amazing would it be if I could have areas in my classroom that could be for specific purposes? When students came into my room, they would have to utilize different areas for different tasks.
And then it hit me -- if I’m a journalism teacher, how can my classroom look more like a newsroom?
I started to think about classroom design before it was trendy. Except, since it wasn’t trendy -- there wasn’t anything out there for research, and I wasn’t snazzy enough to put the studies of Piaget, Bloom and Gardner to the test and write my own papers about classroom design.
I was at a loss. My teacher research went nowhere, but it set the stage for my journey -- eight or nine years later.
At the time, my classroom held 17 computers, 30 desks and 30 chairs. A teacher desk. Three windows. A door to the media center. Counter tops. It felt like a smallish room, and there wasn’t much I could really do to move furniture around. Getting fancy with classroom design wasn’t abandoned completely, but I felt stuck.
Then, years later, I transferred rooms. I moved across my building to a larger room -- a change I didn’t like at first, because, really, who likes packing a bunch of yearbooks?
Then, on the last day of the 2014-2015 school year, my assistant principal showed me my ‘new’ room, and I had complete say in where my computers would go. I also asked what I could do with the room.
His response: Anything I wanted.
Insert: Confetti Cannon.
The support of administrators is a glorious thing. I didn’t always have it. At one point in my career, I was afraid of my administration. Going to my principal’s office made me feel like I needed to go to the bathroom -- you know the feeling.
Sure, the principal left you alone if you did good things, but also called you out when you did bad things. So, you weren’t sure if you were doing good things, but you knew quite well that you did bad things.
After a change in command, and gaining the absolute trust with my latest principal, I’ve become one of the biggest risk takers in my building.
I’ve become the teacher that tightrope walks without a net.
So, looking at the blank canvas that was my new room, I looked at my assistant principal and said, “I don’t want any desks or chairs.”
It was one of the best, but also most challenging, decisions as a teacher I have made, yet.
Who is The Vade Mecum
Evan Williams is a middle school journalism teacher in Indiana. He advises the student publications: yearbook, magazine, video announcements, broadcast and online news. To find success in the classroom, he uses blended learning with the help of Canvas and Google Apps for Education.