When you walk into Carley Parker's 2nd grade classroom, your eye is immediately met by a floor-to-ceiling sized sunflower mural that is glistened by the sun when it peeks through the window blinds. The students have a variety of seating options, commonly called flexible seating, from stools to wobble seats to cushioned floor seating. She has a beautiful wooden stage that students use to present upon or gather around during morning meeting. As students come in each morning, they take part in a schoolwide practice called Morning Choice, where puzzles, board games, Legos, and art have replaced morning work and busy sheets. As she starts her instruction, students take a look at the Smartboard to see their small flexible literacy and math groups for the day.
In August 2017, I began as principal at Moore Magnet Elementary, a Title 1 public school in Winston-Salem, NC with approximately 600 students. As I did my initial walk-through of the school, it resembled many of the previous 200-plus schools I have visited around the country over the past eight years as a professional development trainer and presenter. It was a clean building with experienced teachers and a positive history. Staff and students were kind and it was a place that people spoke positively about.
But I also saw untapped potential. When I saw a white wall, I pictured color. When I saw rows of desks, I pictured flexible seating. When I saw worksheets, I pictured collaborative work stations.
As principal, I was not going to settle on being like everyone else. I previously taught at an innovative school in Atlanta called the Ron Clark Academy, a middle-school-meets-Harry Potter-meets-Disney World, where teachers combine rigor and high standards with a loving culture and endless engagement. This "potion" has produced amazing results for over a decade, and I wanted to bring this formula to a public school in North Carolina.
You see, school is different than when we were there. Higher standards are holding all students and educators more accountable, rapidly evolving technology is forcing educators to learn what students already know, and social media makes us that much more connected (for better or for worse). The need to evolve our classrooms is my non-negotiable, and it was my personal mission as principal to make my school feel like a place where students wanted to come everyday.
Carley Parker was one of my first teachers to join this movement. She began strategically transforming her classroom throughout the year, and piece by piece she would experiment with new ideas, getting rid of desks for tables, exchanging chairs for stools, putting up projects on DonorsChoose for new technology and materials for her classroom. As my teachers saw her results, they began jumping on as well. Teachers transformed their classrooms and their teaching. We are moving from a fact-regurgitation and skill-and-drill mentality to problem-solving and learning through multiple perspectives. White walls are being replaced by colorful paintings and murals. And teacher-talk time is being evaluated and reassigned to the students.
Let's be honest, unless you're playing bar trivia, the need to memorize facts is generally unnecessary these days. Siri and Alexa are at our disposal 24/7. What we do need are adults who can collaborate, imagine, trouble-shoot, and create. When our classrooms mimic environments where students have the opportunity to hone these skills, we are aligning our classrooms to the workplaces where students will one day work.
I see my teachers and my school moving more each day. As a person who likes things done yesterday, it can be hard waiting for change to occur. Even harder can be those people who do not believe that anything needs to be changed to make those changes. My goal then becomes to convince, not convert. While they may never be able to convert their classroom to the place that I believe it could be, I want to convince them that we do have a need to make our classrooms function differently. And belief is half the battle.
So in 2019, I challenge you to do school differently. Rethink, reimagine, and break the script of how school is done.
*You can follow Ms. Parker on Instagram at @sunflowers.in.second