Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Deskless in Cedar Rapids

Image credit: Andhij. "Messy Desk," Jan. 31, 2006.
Allow me to begin by saying "no, the cutbacks were not that severe this year." I do have a desk.

I'm just getting rid of it.

I can year your thoughts. (Oh, yes, I have that power.) "WHAT? Give up the very thing that symbolizes the power and majesty that is teaching? Where will you sit to evaluate assignments? Where will you put the many apples that adoring students will surely present to you as a token of their appreciation? What will you hide under during the 'duck and cover' drill?" All good questions I assure you. (For those of you post-baby-boomers who don't understand what a "duck and cover" drill is, take a moment to stroll down cold war lane and see what many of us lived with as children. Chillingly heartwarming.)

If there is one lesson that I can definitively say that I've learned so far in my Instructional Technology education, it is this: the new normal isn't normal. What we've been teaching with is OK, but it doesn't match with what students and parents expect. Technology moves at what might as well be a million miles an hour, and we are expected to not just keep tabs on it, but use and teach with it. Student achievement is a hot button issue for just about anyone who cares about our future generations - and we need to monitor and constantly look for ways to improve how our students learn. Change is constant, and we in education are notoriously resistant to change. (Well, fine then - if you're the type that keeps count, then I guess that's about four lessons that I've learned.)

So what does any of that have to do with me not sitting at a desk?

For one, the physical nature of my desk resembles a bunker from the MaginotLine - a weak fortress that gives one a false sense of protection. I have what is best described as a "nook" set up with bookshelves flanking the desk; a defensive perimeter if there ever was one. What message does that send to a student? Do not disturb? Out to lunch? Hunkering down for the next onslaught? I've got something more important to deal with? Take your pick - none of them are good.

Image credit: Lammers, B. "Items from my desk cleaning" August 19, 2011.

A desk also holds a great deal of crap. (Yes, I said "crap.") One of the items from my repository that helped me arrive at my decision was a file folder with several IEP documents - from seven years ago. I know that IEP's are very valuable, but I'm pretty sure the students they documented are no longer in our educational system. Other vital items removed include: a box of ball point pens (completely dry), a package of sticky-notes (that won't come off without tearing), a cassette tape of a "sanitized" George Carlin routine on euphemisms, graduation announcements from four years ago, a smattering of rusty paperclips, a steak knife (and I SWEAR I have no idea where that came from), and nearly a dozen M&M's that probably escaped their package during the Clinton Administration. (They might be Reses Pieces, but I'm not eager to find out.) It also contained the usual trappings that I would use on a daily basis, but certainly I could have used something much smaller to contain these items. What message does that send? I'm a pack-rat? I have poor organizational skills? I don't pay attention to my own surroundings? Again, not something to crow about.

I think everyone also understands that while we put things in the desk, we also keep things on the desk, and this is the front line of impression making. Got a dirty desk? Ho boy ... too bad for you. Neat and tidy piles? Good boy! Good girl! Have a cookie! (And wipe the crumbs up when you're finished.) We do judge people by the appearance of their desk, right or wrong. Does a dirty desk mean you're a poor teacher? Right now, on my desk top (which I haven't cleaned yet) you can find various piece of hardware, markers, cables for the computer, copies of our literary magazine from last year, and an odd combination of small lumber pieces - and it's thoroughly scattered. I know what those items are there for, but what message does this send to students? Again with the organization? Train wreck? Lack of focus? Incompetent?

Enough with the office furniture postmortem. Aside from removing a mess, what will not having a desk mean for me as a teacher?

One: More student monitoring. If there was ever motivation to keep moving around in the classroom, not having the anchor that is a desk is a good place to start. True, there will be times where I'm circulating through silent sustained reading time, but I've never heard anyone tell me that I'm monitoring students too much.

Two: More classroom movement. Since I won't be sitting, I'll be walking - which, when it comes to activity, trumps sitting every time. I realize that there is more to losing weight than just walking around a classroom, so let's not alert Jenny Craig just yet. It surely can't hurt, though - and I need all the help I can get.

Three: Relinquishing computer time. Considering just about every sort of data that we keep is stored on the computer - grades, attendance, participation - there is plenty of opportunity to be in front of the computer for significant portions of the class time. The problem is that you can get a bad case of the "might-as-wells" when you do that: "As long as I'm at the computer, I might as well (insert computer aided task here.)" That quickly becomes time away from students. Considering I'll be working on my education in Instructional Technology, there will be plenty of time in front of a screen outside of class time.

Four: More meaningful student interaction. Not necessarily more, but better. Creating meaningful interactions with students is something that we all want to do, and some of us do it better than others. I need to be one of those on the "better" side. I'm certain I've determined that it can't be done from a desk.

The arrangement will be tricky at first, and I know that the students who have known me for three years will be on my case right away (because, as they all know, Lammers loves him his desk.) However, letting go of the "fortress of old office supplies and stale candy" may be the spark I need to focus even more on what is happening in my classroom. I know it smacks of gimmickry, but given that the classroom of this century shouldn't look like the last one, it may be the start of something challenging and changing.

So, am I killing a sacred cow? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Barking up the wrong tree? Taking a solid stand? Searching for tomorrow? (Getting carried away with cliches?) Please comment to share your thoughts, and share some of the more interesting finds from your desk.