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Spring Cleanout: Tidying Up the Mind and the Classroom

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It's time for spring cleaning my workspace—which includes my classroom, my hard drives, and the inner workspace of my mind. Typically this time of year, the condition of all three makes me feel like I'm looking at a dryer full of wrinkly shirts. Unfortunately, I don't like wrinkles and I don't like to iron—and I sure don't like cleaning my workspace. So I've got a problem.

Cleaning My Classroom

Fortunately, the problem of my classroom has been mitigated by an end-of-year practice and strategy I've learned over the years that has made the chore less arduous and more complete.

The practice involves rebelling against my mom, who always said to start with the biggest or most annoying job and get it out of the way. What works for me is to do “something small, then something else.” One by one, the tasks get done and finishing each builds momentum to tackle the next. When I get tired or (more likely) bored, I take a break and return to do something small, then something else.

The strategy is to establish a continuum of potential end points at which I can call the job done and walk away. The first end point is make sure the room is ready for whatever cleaning and maintenance the custodial team will do during the summer. It's a low bar—everything off the walls and counters and stuffed into cabinets.

The second possible end point is a thorough cleaning, winnowing, and ordering of the places that get daily use during the school year—which in my case means the storage cabinets where I keep heavily used lab equipment and supplies. This job can take some significant time—a day at least—but it usually pays off next year when I don't have to look for things or work around the mess.

To get from the second end point to a complete top to bottom remake of every inch of my room, I take it a chunk at a time. After each chunk, I decide whether to continue or call it quits. Maybe I'll do this row of cabinets, or add that filing cabinet, or order my books. The key is that once I engage an area, I finish that area.

Cleaning My Hard Drives

“Something small, then something else” doesn't work so well for cleaning my hard drives (personal and work), which by the end of the year (or the end of several years) are so full of duplicate and obsolete files that it's an exemplar for the Department of Redundancy Department. The trouble is that there's nothing small, there's nothing else, and there are so many files to look at.

So I don't. Instead, with a couple of different software packages, I have my computers clean themselves. On my Windows machine, I use Duplicate Cleaner Free, which scans the folders or drives I select, identifies potential duplicates, and gives me options about what to do with them—delete or copy them to a separate location. On my Mac I use Gemini, which has a cool interface, but as far as I can tell has deleting duplicates as the only option.

Both Duplicate Cleaner Free and Gemini are free. I chose them because of users' and critics' recommendations. Other file winnowers are available and might merit a look.

Last summer, I bought a portable hard drive and created a master folder into which I copied all 17 gigabytes of documents (I had been avoiding the task for some years) from my computer. Then I ran Duplicate File Cleaner on my computer's hard drive and deleted all the duplicates. After that I had only single copies of files which I could look through fairly quickly to delete anything obsolete and organize the rest. And, just in case, I have a complete archive of the machine on the portable drive.

The process took a couple of hours for the duplicate detecting and another couple of hours to reorganize the remains.

Cleansing the Mind

After attending to the physical, I attend to the mental. My mind follows me everywhere, so I can do this task anywhere and anytime. It involves a blank sheet of paper and sharp pencil, a fancy coffee drink, some music, and a lot of middle distance staring.

I cognitively coach myself on the year that just ended. More than asking how things went and how I know, I seek causes and effects. For example, this year I’m very pleased with the climate and behavior of most my classes. I’ve only written one disciplinary referral, guest teachers have reported uniformly that students treated them well, and when I address students, they usually give me the time I ask for.

I think this is an effect of me loosening up on rules regarding things like listening to music. When I want to lecture, I tell them, “I need a turn, maybe 5-10 minutes,” before talking to them, and when things need some correction, I’ve modified my warnings to something like, “I’ve been seeing a lot of you texting and playing games on your devices, and I’m reconsidering whether you get to listen to music. I’ll make a decision in a couple of days.” One very specific change has been to ask tardy students whether it’s an excused tardy, instead of demanding to see a note. Virtually every time, they say “no” or “I don’t know” and explain. When I used to demand a note, they would nearly always get defensive and challenge me to call their previous teacher.

Then comes the deeper thinking: What is the meaning of the work my students and I have done this year?

Next, I do a "preflection" of the year to come. Keeping with the cognitive coaching model, I start with the bedrock question for all teachers: How will my students and I grow next year, and how will it show? Then I set some concrete goals, map out a specific route to meet them, and identify indicators that we're on the right path. For example, I already know that next year I want to stretch my students in both directions: to be more fluent with basic math operations and to stick with hard problems longer before they give up. A route to those ends will be to overhaul my approach to homework. To build fluency I’ll subscribe to a website like IXL (paid for, I hope, by Donors Choose) and to build grit, I’ll include puzzles, like Sudoku, that are conceptually easy but demand that students persevere. If I’m on the right path, students will stop asking questions in the second, third, and fourth quarters about concepts we studied in the first, second, and third quarters. Plus (fingers crossed) there will be a little longer gap between seeing a new concept and students saying they don’t understand.

By this time, the blank paper is a mess—what was intended as an organized mind-map inevitably ends as a montage of notes, doodles, arrows, and cross-outs. I usually throw it out because it's served its purpose to enlarge my thinking. I am ready.

The Moment Arrives

“The moment” is not what you may think. I'm not ready for the next year or to start writing lessons, or even to take a vacation. I'm ready for the catharsis that has come every summer of my career. I don't know when it will come. It might be triggered on a lonely highway with the family asleep and the playlist hits just the right song. Or maybe it will happen on a quiet walk. Once it came while I was lifting weights.

The catharsis is a complete emotional cleansing. Tears gush accompanied by full-throated sobs. Then there is joy; there is peace.

And then, once again secure that my "work is my play," I am ready to start writing lessons, or even take a vacation.

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