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The Evolving Classroom

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two
evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
5. After 10 hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every teacher should lay aside from each day’s pay a goodly sum of his earning for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Taken from One-Room Schools of Knox County, by the Knox County Retired Teachers Association

I started my teaching career in an Oakland, Ca high school, far from 19th Century Knox County, KY in time and place, far from the contemporary one-room or open-air schoolhouses in Afghanistan or Central Africa, their orthodoxy, their restraints, their children studying earnestly by rote and recitation. Most of my registered students were either football players, cheerleaders, truants, or members of gangs. They were privileged, if only they had known it. Far from war zones. Far, still, from economic hard times. Yet they were accustomed to boredom at school, and rage at their teachers, expressed as belligerence, or indifference. They cheated, threatened, fled. The words effort and self-respect were lost to them.

According to my California State Teaching License (Secondary) I was qualified to teach English and American History. There were required text books, a state curriculum, and too many desks crammed into a box-shaped room, albeit a clean one. It was before the days of high security, but there were incidences--kids packing, kids threatening, kids expelled. I took a look at my contract, consulted with the beleagured principal, the brain-dead, burned out heads of my departments and my union, and decided I could risk doing what I wanted. The kids—and I was still nearly a kid—were restive. I was over-confident, politicized. I knew I’d only be at the school for a year; my husband and I were headed to Europe, graduate school, travel, writing. So I tore the envelope, I made my own plans. The challenge was to make theater out of the classroom, to bring it alive, to make it real.

All that year, I went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke at 3 a.m. to read what my students had written; they submitted 500 words a day. Needless to say, I had more than one class and each class had more than 25 students. Because I was so young, I dressed in suits and pulled my hair up into a sophisticated “do.” I carried a bag lunch and never left the classroom; my door was always open for conversation and consultation—with other skeptical teachers, with students. In my English class I broke the desks out of rows into a seminar style and placed a Socratic stool at the center. I read up on Socratic dialogue and danced patterns onto the chalk board. I invested in an anthology of short stories and began the term with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I insisted that my students write all day long, that they take notes on what they were thinking as they worked and talked, what occurred to them. And not just in my classroom, in every classroom. In my American History class, we made costumes and conducted a Constitutional Convention. The ancestors of my students would have been slaves. So how to deal with that? More conversation. Word got out and some of the truants returned. Here was a teacher—little ole me—who understood something the “ school system” didn’t. No test at the end of the year could measure this. Most of all I was touched by the effort the students made, how much they wanted to learn. I had heard they were lazy—far from it. They worked to exhaustion, and so did I.

And it is with the memory of this wonderful early teaching experience—and many others since—that I enter my classroom at NYU every term. I am always so happy to be there, to meet my new students: who will they be? What will they be interested in? Will they commit, make effort, respond well to the constantly evolving, dynamic classroom? Will they continue writing when the workshop is over?
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