A Thousand Words a Day • Dec 19-23 (No. 17)

I am documenting my 2022-23 school year through photography. Each day, I take a photograph and include it in a weekly post here on my blog. The goal is to create a compilation of photos that tells the story of my year and challenges me to go beyond the written word. This is the 17th post in the series.

Monday, December 19

A water drinking contest!

Tuesday, December 20

A student in 6th period choosing her “mystery gift” person

Wednesday, December 21

I won staff member of the month for December!

Thursday, December 22

A field trip to the library

Friday, December 23

The day before winter break: An unauthorized selfie

Rethinking the Physical, Part 2: Lighting

After years of transforming my pedagogy, strengthening relationships with students, and retuning content, this school year I’m rethinking the furniture, walls, lighting, and the other physical elements that make up my classroom. Each post in this series details a different element of my room and how I’m reimagining it. This is the second post in the series.

Anyone got fluorescence?

If you work in an office, hospital, or school, of course you do! Bland, impersonal, and unmistakably bright, these suckers are a hallmark of any formal workspace. They’re in every room, every hallway. No area is devoid of them. Their luminescence is omnipresent.

The main draw for these cylindrical mainstays is their immediacy and efficiency. With the flip of a switch — and relatively low energy use — every square inch of my classroom is blanketed with their sanitized luster. They pride themselves on leaving no desk, chair, or wall dimly lit. Their unrelenting beams remove even the hint of a shadow. When they’re on, they mean business! Sure, they’re fragile and must be handled with care, but they make up for their delicate nature with the sheer magnitude of their luminosity. Each one is a workhorse that prides itself on being able to do the job of several of its non-fluorescent cousins.

In addition to their efficiency, another reason why these warriors have been so successful is because of where they’ve been positioned. To avoid danger from prying human hands and minds looking to escape their unfiltered glow, they make their living on the ceiling. This keeps them inconspicuous, far out of reach, and allows them to resist being noticed. Being concealed in plain sight is their specialty: they offer us an essential function all the while slyly operating in the background of everything we do. It’s the perfect disguise.

Having taught for 17 years under the low hum of these impassive lights, I am just now realizing their masquerade. How could I not second-guess them before? How have my wary eyes not led me to look up? It’s sad to think that they have been perched on the ceiling glaring down at my students and me all these years. The mockery!

That ends this year. To help me subvert my fluorescent foe, I’ve introduced several new light sources to my classroom. These new additions are more playful and diverse than their overhead counterparts. And unlike fluorescents, which flatten the room and rob it of dimension, my new lights add depth and nuance. They don’t seek to make the lighting more uniform, but instead strive for the opposite: to make it more varied and heterogeneous — just like the students I teach. These lights accomplish this by being warm, flexible, personable, and fun. When my students and I walk into the room now, the lighting is no longer an afterthought. It’s noticeable and prominent.

Meet my new lights.

Twinkle Lights. I actually used these last year, but in a less purposeful way. What I love about them is their modesty and elegance. The specks of light they emit never feel like the center of attention, but always get noticed. I’ve strung my twinkles along the walls just above our whiteboards. They also crisscross the center of the room above our heads. An extra few feet adorn the outside of the door.

Table Lamps. The soft glow from these puppies is a welcome respite from the harsh overhead punishment handed out by the fluorescents. The presence of these lamps brings a homeyness to the room that we’re enjoying, but still getting used to. I paired one of them with a table near my lounge chairs. A second is in the opposite side of the room on top of the lockers.

LED Strips. With changing colors and expandable lengths, the flexibility of these lights has made them one of my favorites. Their vibrant and chromatic, but also somehow subtle and understated. They have found a home complimenting three walls of the room as well as the rear of the SmartBoard. Their ability to send light bouncing off walls and splashing onto the ceiling takes my students and me to a happy place.

LED Signs. These have quickly become beloved by my students and almost anyone who walks into the room. The confluence of being a wall ornament and a reliable source of light adds to the attractiveness of these signs. I have three in the room, all on different walls. Perhaps it’s too much, but I simply couldn’t resist.

Glow Ball. The most novel of my new lights, the glow ball is pure fun. It can glow as a single color or be set to slowly cycle through hues. Thus far I’ve opted mainly for the latter. Watching it magically transition between colors has put me in a satisfying trance on more than one occasion! Interestingly, a kid recently asked me where I got it because he needed “dorm room ideas.”

With my new friends by my side and above my head, I’m glad to say that the bright, washed-out rays of the fluorescent lights blanket my classroom no more. I still must use them from time to time, but they now play more of a supplementary role instead of a primary one.


A Thousand Words a Day • Dec 12-16 (No. 16)

I am documenting my 2022-23 school year through photography. Each day, I take a photograph and include it in a weekly post here on my blog. The goal is to create a compilation of photos that tells the story of my year and challenges me to go beyond the written word. This is the 16th post in the series.

Monday, December 12

Period 2: In a chair, on top of a table

Tuesday, December 13

The classroom decor gets festive

Wednesday, December 14

Game changer #1: Deltamath

Thursday, December 15

Game changer #2: Vertical whiteboards

Friday, December 16

Pregame warm-ups at the boys basketball game

Lay it all on the line

I lay it all on the line each day because pre-existing structures will only get stronger if I don’t.

Those are the words of a colleague of mine. I’ll call him Mr. N. We started chatting at lunch during a recent day-long PD and found ourselves still engrossed in conversation long after everyone else had left. He was referring to his teaching style, which many in our school community view as overly demonstrative and demanding. He pushes harder than any teacher I’ve ever known for students to be on time to his class. He tracks down those who miss his tutoring like a heat-seeking missile. From collaboration to self-assessment, Mr. N’s class functions with the expectation of greatness each and every day.

This has led many students at our school to say that Mr. N is “doing too much.” But in his eyes, “doing too much” is precisely what’s needed from him. If the future will be a just one — one that is full of productive, generous, thriving citizens who can reimagine society — Mr. N believes that it begins in his classroom. Because of this, he shoulders the burden of manifesting a better world. He bears direct responsibility for it with each lesson plan he writes, class demonstration he designs, and exit ticket he creates. If a given lesson of his doesn’t move the needle toward justice, then he doesn’t consider that day a success.

This may seem like Mr. N is putting a lot pressure on himself, that he’s setting unachievable expectations, and that his mindset is unsustainable. In the midst of a pandemic-induced teacher shortage, these are all valid responses.

But as someone who knows him well, I can tell you that he doesn’t experience it as pressure. Instead, his stance is one that treats each day as an opportunity. These opportunities are small, but they’re stackable. Over time, they can lead to change.

How is today’s lesson helping to unlock my students’ potential? How will what I teach today contribute to a better, more humane world? How will my pedagogy undermine systems that perpetuate injustices like sexism, classism, and racism? When he says, “I lay it all on the line each day,” I believe it’s these types of questions that his subconscious is asking himself. His classroom — like all of ours — is a microcosm of society. He teaches as such.

Cornelis Minor captures this mindset well in his book We Got This.

A kid can’t be successful in my classroom if I have not created the opportunities for that child to be successful. Each decision that I make in the classroom is an opportunity created or denied. If I’m intentional about these choices, then my classroom can become a place where kids aren’t just incidentally powerful but powerful by design — in all the ways that we want them to grow.

When we consider school as it functions best, kids learn. When learning does not happen, it fails because there are things that get in the way. Lots of those things come from outside of the classroom, but a good number of them originate from within it. We can’t take on the world’s challenges without first acknowledging the structural boogeymen that live in our own classrooms. (pp. 36-77)

Mr. N will be the first to admit that he fails often at achieving his goal. But when a lesson bombs, he doesn’t kill himself. He does what he can and works hard to understand the result. Like a coach, he carefully studies what happened, looks inward, and devises a plan to make better decisions tomorrow on behalf of his students. His work, often flawed, is powered by the importance of the everyday.

It’s invigorating to work beside someone who goes all-in each day, motivated to weaken systems and structures that do us no good. Though things like grading, pacing calendars, and broken copy machines consume much of his attention each day, he has a boundless vision for his students that extends far beyond his classroom. This vision is a gift. I think this type of thinking alludes many of us in this profession because, despite doing right by students, we get lost in the grind of teaching and forget our why. By positing that he can improve society by way of his classroom, Mr. N discovers motivation of the highest order.

So while colleagues stand in awe of his persistence and students might be put off by his expectations, I see him as someone who simply knows who he is and what he’s about. Standing on the wrong side of history is not an option for him. His teaching is his testimony.


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