I recently took my family on vacation to the most magical place on earth-Disney World! The days leading up to our travels took a toll on my anxiety, patience, and stress levels. I planned this trip several months in advance and felt prepared to ensure that my family and I were going to have the most amazing time ever, and we did. All of our reservations went off without a hitch, my children behaved beautifully (surprisingly, no meltdowns!), my husband and I worked together as a team, and we had an itinerary that helped us stay on track without feeling pressured to see and do everything. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was truly a magical experience.
After pouring through hundreds of photos and reminiscing on everything we did, I came to a realization. We had a exceptional time not because I made incredible plans (although, it definitely helped!), but because of our environment, trust in each other, ability to let go of things we couldn’t control, and simply enjoying each moment and the time spent together.
That had me thinking. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of a successful workshop classroom? Isn’t that the beauty and magic of why it works?
Trust me, teaching high school English is no walk in a Disney park (pun TOTALLY intended), but it IS an extraordinary experience. Who would have thought that what makes a successful family vacation ALSO translates into the workshop classroom? (You can find amazing resources about why it works here and here, and by exploring the Three Teachers Talk archives.)
Creating and maintaining the spark may seem overwhelming. However, based on the insight I have gained through this recent epiphany after returning from Disney, I want to share with you my top 5 ways to help you create (and continue to foster) magic in your classroom.
5 Ways to Make Your Workshop Classroom Magical:
1. Be prepared. It is true, in life we cannot prepare for everything. However, the confidence that is instilled when one feels as prepared as they can should not be overstated. In my classroom, I ease my personal anxiety and that of my students when we have a plan. We have clear expectations and a set plan/goal that helps us stay focused. It seems like a simple solution, but it is quite the task. Ultimately, in order to feel in control (and to provide that for my students, too) I am consistent about the following;
- Have an agenda
- Communicate the goal of each day
- Inform students of major deadlines in advance
- Plan for multiple scenarios and/or have a back up plan.
I also provide calendars, teacher and student samples of work when possible, and an array of mediums in which students can access helpful information. Over the years, I have found this cuts down on having to explain the same items repeatedly and helps students learn accountability.
2. Be mindful of the impact of your environment. Ambiance is a huge part of my personal philosophy when creating the climate of my classroom. As a germ-a-phobe, I have bottles of hand sanitizer, tissue, and Lysol wipes readily available. Rarely, if ever, are the fluorescent lights on. 1.) The lights give me headaches and remind me of a doctor’s office, so I chose to use a few floor lamps in my room. 2.) I adore natural lighting, especially with 3 large windows in my room. 3.) The dim lighting helps students feel comfortable, less intimidated, and reduces the noise levels (Trust me, it does!). In addition, I am particular about the quotes and student work on display. I even have carpets and pillows to increase comfort and provide flexible seating. You don’t have to pull out all the stops, especially with teenagers, but it helps to pay attention to the vibe of your tribe.
3. Trust in your support systems… and your kids. Lean on your admin or campus leadership, colleagues and PLC’s when you can. You never know when YOUR leadership can also serve as the support system for others as well. In my experience, I have learned something from every team and grade level I have been a part of, regardless of personalities or personal opinions. As educators, we are in the business of learning and seizing all teachable moments. This should also apply to our interactions with our colleagues.
One of the prime examples of why the workshop model works is because the focus is on the kids. As with any vacation or event for kids, we MUST keep them first at all times. Kids are kids. Yes, they will have times where it is a struggle to get through each moment, but it is worth it when the light bulbs finally turn on. All of the effort is completely worth it to see the growth and progress they make each day. My students never cease to amaze me with their stories, experiences, and development every year.
4. Prioritize. Part of planning and preparing is also understanding that you might not get to everything. Don’t stress about it, just figure out what your non-negotiables are and start there. Some reflection questions I have to help me in this process are;
- What do I want my students to learn in this unit?
- How will I know if they understand it?
- What do I do if they don’t?
- What do I do for my students who require extended learning or have special circumstances?
By keeping these in mind, I can quickly determine where we need to go, how we get there, and plan for various ways for my students to master their learning.
5. Enjoy the time together. At the end of the day, we became teachers for a reason. It is imperative that we also strive to keep that passion and excitement alive. Our love for our content and profession is contagious. When you surround yourself with opportunities to appreciate the time you spend cultivating young minds, trusting in the process, and uncovering the joy and value of each moment, that is the true magic of teaching.
I would love to hear about what has worked for you in your classrooms! What are some ways you and your students have been successful throughout your journey?
Gena Mendoza is still reeling from her recent visit to Disney World with her family over Spring Break. She is currently trying to convince her husband to agree to go back as soon as possible. In addition, she teaches High School English in Texas and is grateful for her students who kindly (and patiently) tolerate her latest obsession with all things Disney. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @mrs_mendoza3.