Classroom Crews and a Vision of a Cosmopolitan Classroom

It happened several months ago. I was packed around my principal’s small conference table with seven colleagues, a rep from the superintendent’s office sitting at the head. We were there for a 45-minute discussion on all things equity. In my experience, these types of conversations are bland usually involve a lot of high-level posturing and showmanship. For these reasons, I don’t like them. Near the end of our time together, however, my attention piqued. The rep turned our eye to the future. Where were we headed? What was next? The superintendent wanted a vision, but it had to be something concrete. The rep asked the teachers around the table, If I walked into your classroom on a typical day five years from now, what would it look like?

Given the circumstances, I shouldn’t have been caught off guard. But I was. I felt like I was staring out at empty ocean trying to identify something recognizable on the horizon. I couldn’t find it so, overwhelmed, I let everyone else go first. I sat in my upholstered chair and pondered. What was my five-year vision for my classroom? What would my students be doing? What would I be doing? What would the room look like? What would it feel like?

In his book For White Folks who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too, Chris Emdin describes cosmopolitanism as an essential element of his teaching framework, reality pedagogy. When the term cosmopolitanism comes to mind, many of us think of being “worldly,” being connected to many different cultures and walks of life. But to Emdin, this broad way of relating to the world can also be situated in the context of a classroom. He defines cosmopolitanism as “an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment.” He argues, and I agree, that cosmopolitanism is a vital dimension for an effective classroom — especially one in an urban setting.

I consider personal attachment a big part of cosmopolitanism. When students feel connected to the classroom and the people in it, the space takes on a different meaning than it does otherwise. Seen under the light of cosmopolitanism, a classroom is no longer just a place students arrive each day to learn mathematics, history, or art. Students’ relationship with their classroom is more sophisticated and pronounced than that. It is part of who they are. It’s a destination. It’s a place where a student’s academic self flourishes in direct proportion to the connections they have with the classroom and its fellow inhabitants. In a cosmopolitan classroom, learning and living are equivalent.

Naturally, if a place is important to you, then you take care of it. You own it. Thus, in a cosmopolitan classroom, the responsibility for classroom success shifts from being solely a teacher’s concern to one that is shared by students as well. With the teacher’s guidance, students help maintain the room on a daily basis to ensure that the space reflects them. The cosmopolitan classroom is a communal enterprise. Community is paramount.

Emdin focuses mainly on students’ cosmopolitanism, but I think that a teacher’s socioemotional connections to the classroom are equally important. Teachers must model what cosmopolitanism looks and feels like for students. This is especially true for those students who have never experienced it in a school setting.

When it was my turn to speak about my five-year vision, this all flashed before me. I didn’t use the word “cosmopolitanism” in my response, but it was the core of what I saw in my future classroom. As I spoke, I envisioned students managing the classroom alongside me, the space being an extension of each one of us. Each student carried a role that fed directly into the class’s success. These roles extended well beyond the roles they traditionally inherited as students.

What are my students doing in this vision? They’re connecting my laptop to the SmartBoard and pulling up the slides at the start of class. They’re handing out materials to fellow students as they walk in. They’re setting timers. They’re erasing and cleaning whiteboards at the end of class. They’re hanging up posters and photos. They’re updating bulletin boards. They’re watering plants. They’re tidying up the classroom furniture, pushing in chairs and straightening tables. They’re coplanning and coteaching lessons with me. They’re sweeping floors.

Classroom Crews is one small way I’m working towards making this vision turn into reality. Classroom Crews are small teams of students who are responsible for managing a particular aspect of the classroom. For example, Set Up Crew connects my laptop to the SmartBoard while I greet students at the door. The Board Crew ensures our 12 large whiteboards are wiped clean at the end of the period. The Calculator Crew counts and organizes our graphing calculators. The Watering Crew tends to the plants in the room on a set schedule. The Photography Crew takes photos of the class to document the year. The Floors Crew sweeps at the end of the day.

As of today, I have a total of 14 different Crews. Each has two members. Being part of a Classroom Crew is voluntary. I send around a clipboard for sign-ups at the start of each marking period. During sign-ups, I encourage students to find new ways to contribute to the class by joining a different Crew or creating a new one altogether. Interestingly, several Crews developed as a direct consequence of my reimagining of physical space this year. Like any parent who reminds their kids about their chores, I need to remind my students about their Crew responsibilities on occasion. I teach teens, this comes with the territory! I view these instances as opportunities to reflect with my students about the importance of everyone on the team chipping in and doing their part.

When someone walks into my classroom on a typical day in five years, I hope it looks different than it does today. I hope that my students’ relationship to our classroom and everyone in it is richer and more full. I hope that my Classroom Crews are more prominent. I hope a cosmopolitan ethos is a defining characteristic.


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