“Just throw it on my desk,” I used to say. All the time.
And so my desk became the place that people threw things. It became the place that I threw things. Weeks and weeks would go by, my desk would sit alone in the corner of the room, untended, with no one to sit beside it; a mere collection of papers, books, and miscellaneous confiscated items. It got to a point in my third year where I actually hid my desk behind a supply cart, in an effort to shield any visitors from its less-than-attractive facade.
In fact, as those weeks and weeks would pass, I’d notice similar piles of things stack up around the room: student work, remnants of activities and games, even books strewn about across the room. Was it because I was careless? No. Disorganized? Maybe a little bit. But even that wasn’t the real reason.
It was because learning messy; it’s a forced to be reckoned with.
Learning is instinctual, and if you really think about it, it isn’t something that anyone can force us to do. Instead, learning requires the active participation of the learner. He or she needs to make a choice to listen, process, and internalize the information or provocation presented before them. But this complex process is neither linear nor sequential. While it might have a trending progression or series of steps, it is by no means a one-way path, and it can only be found through trial, error, and consistent interaction with the media presented. What’s even more baffling is that it sometimes can only be tracked retrospectively.
Yesterday, in the midst of a lesson on form and function, my students built structures for various fictional companies, trying to make a building that met the needs of their fictional character. While the original intent of the lesson was to lay a foundation and draw parallels between real-life structures and text structure, the amount of learning that occurred through trial, error, and rebuilding was rather startling (and not what I originally intended). Instead of prescribing the content, though, I purposefully provoked learning so that students were able to try out-of-the-box solutions and inquire as to their success or lack thereof. Likewise, I was able to continuously ask a barrage of questions, getting them to truly think about the intention behind their structures.
When we finished, there were toothpicks strewn about the floor, mixed with dirt and sticky marshmallows; the tables were turned, askew to the rectangular shape of our classroom; and the stools were no longer three to a table.
Could they have been more intentional about keeping the space clean? Of course, they could have. But the silver lining in their lack of intention was the industry, autonomy, and risk-taking that accompanied their curiosity and engagement. Keeping the space clean was deprioritized because they were too busy trying, rethinking, and most of all, they were too busy learning.
There’s a certain romanticism that comes with a messy classroom, even when it causes us teachers some anxiety. It makes a space feel lived in, and it makes a space feel real. Too often we get caught up in the “cute” of teaching, when that’s actually not what the reason we’re in it . Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bulletin board or colorful anchor chart, but a classroom should speak the language that the children speak; it should mirror the culture of the room.
And our culture is messy. Because learning is messy.