It happens without warning, catching me by surprise. We might be watching a video in which a Bolivian chola comes on screen, or perhaps a very dark-skinned person, an overweight woman wearing a hijab or a homosexual couple dancing in the background of a music video. I hear a snarky murmur, mean-spirited chuckling… nothing that I can precisely distinguish but I know what this is about.
You cannot let this fester. This has to be addressed immediately and unequivocally, but winning hearts and minds can be trickier than just shutting down the rude comments. I have developed the perfect tactic to address this situation. This is not an overall strategy (every teacher should carefully plan how to honor diversity in their classrooms), but rather a tactic to remind students of their better selves. I like this tactic because it rapidly turns the tables and invites them to join us in the 21st century.
When I sense such an undercurrent, I stop whatever we are doing and quickly say, “I thought yours is the cool generation, the generation that refuses to carry hate in their hearts, to hate people for what they wear, how they were born, for being different”. I pause and frequently somebody in class will say, “we are”. They really are the cool generation. “I admire that about your generation… all of that bullshit is over with your decision to end it here and now”. Sometimes I make eye contact as I say, “right?”, but often I am addressing the whole class when I say that. More students will respond affirmatively. “We´re together on this one, right?”, and the whole class responds affirmatively. Most often I can find a reason to fist bump the offending students within ten or so minutes, and they are fully back into our class community.
I do not know why this works so well, but every time I refer to them as the cool generation they immediately take it on as their identity. I am hoping that in the future when my students hear hate speech, when they see white supremacists in public spaces, when they observe powerful figures making harsh generalizations about minority groups, they will think to themselves, “that is not a cool generation, those are not my values”.
For those of you who are going deskless, here are a few photos of my classroom to share what I do to prevent those chairs from migrating around the room. Especially if you have a big room you will see that it is hard to keep the chairs tidy without a little organization.
At the beginning of the year I organize my chairs in a large horseshoe (with a small section in the middle because I need to fit 40 chairs into a room made for 28). You can click on this photo to get a closer look:
Each group of 6 chairs is inside a colored rectangle. Students place their bags against the wall and notebooks beneath their chair. They are allowed to have their feet outside of the rectangle, but all chairs remain inside the rectangle:
I use two different tapes; I start with colored masking tape and really ground it into the carpet with my shoes. Then I covered that with clear packaging tape, which has superior resistance to all of the scuffing that kids will do. For seven groups I used two rolls of clear packaging tape ($2 each at Staples for each 800 inch roll of tape) and 7 rolls of colored masking tape ($3 each, but I have left over to use on future projects).
After two weeks it still looks beautiful and everything is nice and tidy. Here is a close-up of the worst damage, where a student has pressed down while pushing his chair back repeatedly. Most of the time chairs glide right over the clear tape, so he must have tried extra hard to leave his mark:
Ultimately going deskless has given me more control over my classroom, but if I let my desks wander around the room it would have driven me crazy!
A teacher who is going deskless next school year recently asked me to repost this letter that I sent home to parents when I first went deskless. I think that this letter is gold; it places the deskless classroom within the context of solid teaching practices and describes why this change is an improvement. My administrators and parents were happy once the change was explained, and even students recognized that desks often are used to hide phones or homework for other classes.
I have left the letter as an editable .docx file so that you can change names to fit your teaching situation. The first year that I went deskless I left one desk in the back for students whose parents insisted that they “need a desk in order to learn”. Within a day or two of using the desk I always found the student using the desk to hide non-class activities. EVERY SINGLE TIME. However, leaving a desk or two in the classroom may be helpful for a student feeling anxiety about the change. I still would not let them take notes during the class, but that is a paradigm shift that many parents (and teachers) may not understand. This letter is a good way to open that conversation.