Susan Naomi Bernstein

New Classroom Transitions: Lessons from My Cat on Moving Cross Country

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Jun 11, 2018

The late spring and early summer months are seasons of moving for many of us, and last month, my partner and I and our orange tabby cat Destiny left Arizona to return to Queens, New York. While uprooting from a familiar place and grounding roots in a new community may not be easy or seamless, such transitions offer challenges that can keep our minds sharp and resilient, even through difficult moments. The lessons I learn relocating across the country remind me of the hard work of moving into new classroom spaces, whether we experience these transitions as teachers or as students. 

 

Destiny, an orange tabby cat, looks out the window at a view of city apartment buildings from his new home in Queens, New York.

 

My reflection on transitions come from an experience that my partner and I could not anticipate in advance. The morning after we moved into our new home in Queens, we awakened to find Destiny panting in respiratory distress. It was 6 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and we needed to find a vet who could diagnose and treat him. This process eventually became a daylong journey, and at its inception a positive outcome was not guaranteed. While the diagnosis was inconclusive, it seemed at the very least that Destiny was suffering from anxiety. Destiny had come to us as a stray early in our stay in Arizona five years before. The desert was the only home he had ever known, and he needed time to adjust to the decidedly unfamiliar space of a small city apartment. We would need to make major changes to our plans to care for Destiny’s immediate needs. 

 

Destiny’s transition from college-town house cat to apartment-dwelling city kitty especially teaches me to hit the ground running, to build new forms of participation into transitions, and to expect the unexpected. Even as these lessons have become common practice in my classrooms, relocating has caused me to try to reframe these lessons for a variety of settings.

 

  1. Hit the ground running: Create a plan to become involved with your community as soon as possible. Dive right into the curriculum on the first day of class, and offer an activity that represents a core value of the community that you hope to create with students. For example:
  • Try not to read the syllabus aloud or highlight only the key points of the syllabus (texts needed, major assignments, attendance policy, and so forth). Alternatively, you can invite students to study the syllabus together in pairs or small groups to prepare for a brief syllabus quiz on the second day.
  • Listen to a reading or watch a video together, then discuss it afterwards in small groups. Be sure to offer students a chance to ask questions and to write about what they have experienced.
  • Co-create an activity together. Brainstorm topics for a first writing assignment, or have students make lists of what they already know about writing and what goals they have for completing the course. Share the lists to find challenges and commonalities.

 

  1. Not everyone wants to participate immediately. Build alternative forms of participation into the transition. Offer a more inclusive curriculum through universal design that can help shy students and allow students with learning differences and differences in attention span and executive function to engage on an individualized level.
  • Try not to offer a “diagnostic” writing assignment. Students are not patients with symptoms that need prescribed treatments. Instead, present the first day essay as an opportunity for students to introduce themselves to you as writers. What values or experiences do students bring to their writing? What do students want you to know about how they learn, about what helps their learning and what may be a roadblock to learning?
  • Offer lots of opportunities for ungraded, directed free writing. Even as topics can be co-created in class, students gain a great deal from individualized practice without the pressure of formal evaluation.
  • Create a forum for students to ask anonymous questions about the first writing assignment, or about the course syllabus and classroom policies.

 

  1. Expect the unexpected. Try to approach this new transition without expectations for anything going as planned. Give yourself space as a teacher to deal with challenges that may arise at the beginning of the term. The internet may crash, or inclement weather may cause difficult commutes and late arrivals, but your classroom community can learn to adapt to unanticipated changes or delays.
  • Return to analog activities. Have students practice writing with paper and pen.
  • Draw or write salient points on the board, leaving a record of your activities.
  • Use pair shares or small groups to have students introduce themselves to each other and to the rest of the class.

 

This experience with our move and with Destiny’s adjustment reminds me not only of the hard work that our students do to adjust to new circumstances, but also the work that we must do as teachers to move from the imaginary classroom constructed in the syllabus to the reality of the desires and needs of the students with whom we share our new classroom community. We can learn a great deal from observing not only our students, but also ourselves. Even as Destiny continues to adjust to his new and unexpected circumstances day by day, we work toward transitioning to new space in our shared community that we hope will benefit all of us.

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