Boxes and dust -- they abound in my classroom this week. Students are here for three hours in the morning, to take finals, but then they leave and I have started to clear out the papers and books I have accumulated in a thirty year career as a secondary English classroom teacher. The traffic patterns of a school year are such that there are entire shelves of professional development material that have not been touched since September, folders jammed with papers and exercises I have not used in five years, collections of student work from a decade ago. Much of it goes into decrepit boxes stolen from the main office, to be dumped in the recycling dumpster. Some folders go in a crate to take home.
How do I decide what to keep and what to discard? My criteria can change, even as I am sitting in the midst of it all. What stuff is gimmicky and what stuff is really what children need? Lots of stuff was gimmicky: word finds, templates for students to create wordfinds, checklists for peer editing, rubrics in educationalese, student posters with erroneous definitions of words that convey emotion, exercises designed by teachers who are now travelling consultants, giving presentations to other teachers on how to raise test grades fast.
I have left for my replacement teacher all the folders of material related to the state assessments, some dating back to the first test, given to my students in 1998. There are actual test booklets, scoring leader guides, scorer guides, exemplars written by adults, exemplars written by students, many multi-colored copies of state rubrics. I also left in the filing cabinet the student "literacy folders" that were delivered to me last week, associated with students who will be in eighth grade next year. They used to be gold writing folders, with samples from fall and spring each year from kindergarten up. Those we gave to eighth graders in June. These literacy folders are new -- I gather that they will travel with our students up to the high school, though I can't imagine how the high school English teachers will use them, with their carefully recorded running records of miscalled words. It's too late for that information to help students or teachers by the time they are teens.
I have also left packages of construction paper, empty manila folders with writing only on one side of the tab, hanging folders, plastic tabs and paper tabs to go in them, if they only have student names written on one side (I have recycled this way for years). A few boxes of Ticonderoga pencils are left from a year when they flew out of my drawers like flies, on the occasion of every state assessment (there were four), every common assessment (there were four), and often on plain old class days (there were far fewer than 180). There is much Wite-out, left over from my serious writing workshop days, before other district initiatives interfered with that very student-centered activity in which children found their writing voice, had things to say, said them to some extent, wrestling with words and ideas all the while. It was nice while it lasted, a little over ten years. Some new black and white composition books, which I used for students to record their reading responses, fill spaces in a bottom drawer, along with boxes of paper clips, rolls of transparent tape, index cards of many colors, red and green Bic pens that workshop writers once used for self-editing.
Most of my extensive classroom library, over 300 paperbacks and a few hardcovers of well-written young adult literature and non-fiction, will stay here. Titles will change, but the concept of putting the right book in front of the right child will not, and my replacement will need a collection to get her started with that process. Some of my historical fiction has been farmed out to social studies colleagues for the same purpose, to put the right book in the hands of a student who is curious.
I take with me the material I want to be reminded of when I am training new teachers. I take student writing: the most authentic, so they will know what heights writers in student-centered workshops can attain, and some of the least, to show them what to question and nudge. I take copies of poems that worked for students, that inspired writing and reflection. I take collections of poetry and short stories that allowed me to develop literate readers who could discuss ideas and assess quality.
I hope to be training new teachers. I don't want them to think that teachers have to amass papers (or power point presentations, or Smartboard files) which contain gimmicky activities, though. I want them to be as comfortable as possible with change, since the constants of our profession, as of our lives, are few. I want them to be readers of current research, experimenters, classroom researchers, always asking themselves whether this lesson or that lesson really helped students read, write, speak, listen, understand the world around them better. Keeping up with technological changes, alone, will require teachers (and students) to be flexible and forward thinking. I want them to be reflective, as Socrates advised, not just to make life worth living, but to make their classes worth attending. Most of all, I guess, I want them to know how to ask good questions. And there aren't a lot of papers in my files that help teach that, which is why I'm throwing so much out.