There I sat, all at once excited with all that the coming year was about to offer, yet petrified at my own small existence in the world. The din of my fellow classmates chattering nervously floated in and out of my conscience as I took stock of my surroundings.
Who was Mrs. Elanjian? I'd hear stories, that she was tough and that she expected excellence. Beyond that though, I knew nothing about her. As I peered around the room, a picture began to form; a poster quoting James Barry extolling a woman's charm, a cup of tea freshly steeped, colorful pictures, flowers, and an assortment of decor that could simply be described as lovely. Finally, there was an art print. At 14, I didn't know what the title was, or if it was a "great work," all I knew was that I was drawn to it. A young woman swept up in a dance. The man so lost in the woman in his arms that we cannot even see his face. There are men and women seated behind them, enjoying the beautiful day. Even now, more than 15 years later I can remember the details of that painting. Every day for a year, I surveyed it, finding new details each time. As the school year progressed I created a story around the painting, who the people were, what they were doing, what they were feeling. As my own space in the world changed, the story changed.
Mrs. Elanjian was just as lovely as her room and she reawakened a love of reading and writing in me that had been lost somewhere in the trenches of eighth grade. She introduced me to my literary bestie Francie, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and brought me to Paris for the first time in A Tale of Two Cities. I fell in love with the succinct elaborate prose of Steinbeck under her tutelage, preparing me to fall in love with the works of Fitzgerald when I finally encountered them. She was an amazing teacher, yet I can't think of her class without thinking of her classroom.Each day that year I truly learned something new, even if it was just from sitting at my desk and looking at a poster. Her physical room, her physical being, and her educational philosophies were intertwined, not independent. She was brining beauty and culture to her students through many mediums, not just the text assigned.
My point in all of this? What we choose to put in our classrooms matter. They should inspire, educate, and reflect the person that we are, and the people that we hope our students become.
I think elementary teachers do a wonderful job of creating inspiring classrooms where children develop wonder and creativity. Somewhere along the way, we lost that extra touch at the secondary level. Too much of education has become about the numbers, the tests, and ensuring the curriculum is covered. I'm not saying these things aren't important, but I think we need to stop and take a breath and bring some beauty back into our rooms.
What poster or piece of art inspired you the most? Hang it up, chances are it will inspire a student too. Flowers, though serving no educational purpose, elevate moods, and remind us of the word beyond the classroom walls. Find a quote that moves you. I promise you if a student sees that quote every day for an entire school year, it will start to become part of their being.
Pictures of faraway places and time allow the mind to travel beyond the cinderblock wall. They encourage day dreaming, and I'm going to say it- let them! Let students day dream a bit, invoke curiosity about the world beyond their hometown. Give them a way to get lost when the real world becomes too difficult. It's okay to spend time discussing something, or showing your students something, simply because it enhances the human experience.
They will spend their adult lives producing, working, and (hopefully) being productive members of society. At times they will see the worst of humanity.. Help them to learn to take time out seek out the best humanity has to offer, simply by looking for something beautiful.
Years later, I looked up that painting, it is entitled, "Dance at Bougival." I will admit that as my own artistic preferences have developed over the years I was drawn to a more modern style. My favorite painting is Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. I think though, I like it for the same reasons. There's a mystery as to who the people are and what they are doing. Each time I see it, the story changes based on where I am in my life. That curiosity, that amazement that can be found in simultaneous complexity of art was first awakened in my 9th grade English class, an unintended side lesson., one that has stayed with me my whole life.
I have never asked Mrs. Elanjian about her classroom, or why she decorated with the things she did. I suppose that like me, she wanted to bring beauty to her room, and she choose things that spoke to her. The result was a calm oasis of beauty amidst the tumult of early high school.
I guess what I'm trying to say is go ahead, create a space you love to be in. You deserve that, but just as importantly- your students deserve it as well. Evoke emotions in them, and send them off to do battle against the world armed with the knowledge that beauty exists, if they seek to find it.
What inspires you? What is your favorite thing in your classroom?