This year, I am spending most of my day in the central area of MVU, called The Commons. This has caught many people off-guard for a few reasons. For one, I’m on sabbatical, so people assume I would be off traveling, or, as I imagine people who have no idea what a sabbatical of fellowship is, in a wizard’s library in the sky. Most, however, are concerned that I lack any other options for a workspace. Each day,
I receive no fewer than five offers of a quiet space to work, and an equal amount of jokes about how crazy it is that I choose to be here.
I made this ostensibly crazy decision to base myself in Commons fairly last minute. In June, by the kindness of our librarian, I secured a quiet, dignified, fellowship-appropriate space in the library. In early August, I came in to get settled, and I immediately felt I needed to be in the Commons instead.
I was not sure at the time what was driving this decision besides the ease of others being able to find me, and vice versa. I have always been a cart teacher, so having a location to be found at all times seems magical.
(Side note about cart teaching: I am unsure if this condition has caused me to be a roving viking educator, longing to see the sights of other disciplines and grade levels, or if I was destined to be that way even if I had the cushy confines of my own space, free to design the seating arrangement of my pedagogical dreams)
What I have realized over the first six weeks of school is that I am exactly where I need to be. And my placement, though odd to some, is actually the key to the change I want to start with this fellowship.
The rest of this post is about to get a little creative. As a social studies teacher I live in the world of informational text, but part of the magic of sabbatical is expanding one’s horizons. Thanks are due to the last English course I took, Creative Writing, in my senior year….of high school.
Now that you have the proper preparation and expectations….
The Glorious Glossary Guide to the MVU Commons:
Our central area of the school. Used for lunches, primarily, but sometimes for meetings, a senior area, celebrations, quiet space, loud space, prep space, formerly Academic Round Table (all study halls combined, much maligned or beloved, depending on who you ask). An open area that is closed to most people most of the day. Very inviting. If you are a student, you will be asked to leave. If you are a teacher, you will be questioned about why you are there. Bright skylights, bright white walls, bright ideas.
The Tragedy of the Commons:
Economic principle to explain when when bad things happen to public goods. Without formal ownership, spaces will be neglected to the point of, well, tragedy. If we do not own a space, it is off our shoulders to care for, decorate, love, clean, and maintain it. We trash it, walk through it, ignore it, refuse to be comfortable in it. The real tragedy is that we neglect, or damage, a space that is at least twenty to forty minutes of our reality every day.
What we all share, often involuntarily. All are allowed in the Commons (at least temporarily). It is often the first thing we see when we walk into school. The first stop of: class-skipping, romantic rendezvous, emotional regulation snafus, confusing classroom changes, excited chatter at the commencement of an out-of-classroom experience, and general non-conformity.
Those who are not of special note in the history books. No one is scoring goals, winning awards, or jamming a drum solo in Commons. There are no AP sections of Commons. Social capital creates hierarchy, but it is transient. After twenty one minutes, the crowd leaves, never to return in the exact structure. No scorebook is kept.
This space is visually and auditorily OVERWHELMING to many. The undecorated white walls offend some, the murals of student work that pop up every few weeks offend others. The sea of faces at lunch, round tables in slightly different spots each day, the lack of clear pathways from one end to the other, the uproar of laughter and chatter, chairs scraping tile, swearing or possible unkind words, music being played though cell phone speakers, sticky table surfaces. There is at least one sensory nightmare awaiting even the most resilient extrovert.
A space we all can identify with. We all have memories there, and most everyone can find positive ones. Meeting new people, laughter, taking an extra slow walk back to class from the bathroom to look out the window.
This space literally connects all parts of the school. Most cannot go a day without passing through it at least three times. From class, to class, to lunch, to the nurse, to the library, to the office. Each person passing through has unique ideas, skills, and knowledge, potentially of benefit to so many others, or even just one in desperate need. Inspiration, support, lunch money, a laugh, a hug, a ride home.
Homonyms/Homophones for Core: Cor, Latin for Heart: The center of life for the larger entity. Sends vital nutrients to the far corners, and pulls them back to recharge.
Corps, French for Body: Often used to describe an army or force. The mass of people who work together as if they were one to achieve an awesome task impossible for just one alone.
What is most important, what will be tested. In the MVU Commons, I have benefited the most in my work, and personally, from the relationships. I see former students, for a quick smile and nod or a lengthy discussion on the importance of the arts in school. I have spoken more this year to the people who know our students best: our student attendance support person, our SRO, our custodians, our special educators, our IAs, than over the previous eight combined. Every day in the Commons, I see and hear and feel the Cor/Corps/Core of our school, the vital signs of our community.
The necessary conditions for the success of my work will be a feeling of belonging, shared ownership, equality, and collective efficacy. To create a system of shared leadership and ownership of our school by our students and our community, it is crucial for all parties to feel that their voices are equal and important. What better way to create this feeling than by using a physical means to set the mood?
This space, more so than any other in the school, changes. There are no assigned seats, career-enduring wall decorations, distinguished overhead projectors, or rogue chalkboards. The furniture is completely removed every day. The kitchen creates new smells each day. If you took attendance in Commons, there would never be two ten minute blocks with the exact same roster.
Synonyms: everyday, familiar, prevailing, routine, simple, trivial, typical, universal, bourgeois, general, humdrum, plain, regular, standard, stock, casual, colloquial, conformable, conventional, customary, habitual, homely, informal,run-of-the-mill, stale, stereotyped, trite, undistinguished, unvaried, usual
Yet, there is only one Commons, which defies all of the above. How special, how unique, how loved it should be. Classrooms are common. For every school, there are dozens of classrooms. Why do we dote on them so? Numbers and names, bean bag chairs, couches, soft lighting, posters, student work, mini-fridges, music, microwaves, snacks, sweets, toys, all hidden away.
What we all share, and can relate to. Even if the space or spaces in your school go by different names, maybe there is something special in the common that can help you in your work the way it has helped me. The first step for me in finding what was special in the common, was for me to bring my own specialness to the Commons. My cart, my duct tape, my computer, my scented markers, my posters, my stickers, my mug, my speaker. This is much easier for a cart teacher, and for a teacher on sabbatical. However, I see other teachers out here, eating lunch, grading, socializing. Students see them too.
A task that is is difficult, but often rewarding. While there are certainly times when isolation and quiet and control is necessary for learning, there are just as many, maybe more, when it is not. What I will challenge myself to do back in my regular schedule? Become as common as I can. Could my students benefit from doing group work in the wide open space of the Commons? Could I bear to have my lunch in the same conditions that students do? Could I incorporate a Commons survey task into the learning for the day? Would doing my prep in the Commons have unintentional benefits, like connecting with teachers from other disciples, snagging a free bulletin board the custodians are carrying off, spotting a struggling student on a walk and giving them a pep talk to make it through class? I am ready to give up some of my control, all in the name of the common good.
Alyssa Urban is a 2018 Fellow and Social Studies Teacher at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School where she spends her teaching and non-teaching time with several awesome and tolerant English teachers. She lives in Cloverdale with her husband, daughter, and fantastic neighbors.
More about her fellowship project at: MVUnity.org