The Little Things

Last time I wrote about the daunting challenge of "Keeping it up!" Looking at my own failures to do so this year was important but also left me kind of flat. Last year was big. I'm not sure I can match that big. I'm not sure I want to! So, I did the only logical thing one can do when overwhelmed - I went to Disneyland.

While sitting on a railing outside Soarin' at California Adventure I noticed two very whimsical Christmas decorations that I hadn't noticed before. Atop the souvenir store were a few windsocks. One of them had been replaced with a Santa Hat. It was a tiny adjustment and a small detail that I imagine the vast majority of guests will never notice. I saw it though and I couldn't help but chuckle and smile.

It also, however, was a big "ah ha!" moment. My brain connected this detail to the cans I had seen hanging from the pine trees right behind me. When I first saw them I didn't think twice, or really even once, about them. Tree + lit thing = decoration. The end. That's all the processing my brain felt necessary. But, the Santa hat windsock caused me to look again.

More whimsy! As I looked closer I realized that not only where there tin cans as decorations but camping lanterns as well. They were joined by strings of homemade garland made of popcorn and some other natural looking thing (I really can't figure it out!). These are the only trees in the park decorated this way. Others have modern strings of LED lights along with traditional ball ornament and stars. Here though, tucked away in the area of the park dedicated to California's natural beauty it makes perfect sense to decorate this way. Every little piece of decoration has to fit the story. The little things matter!

And, of course, they matter in our classrooms too. Just as these little details brought me joy, deepened my engagement and caused me to pay closer attention, so too do the little things we add to our presentations and lessons.

Some little things that matter:

  • Remembering and recognizing student birthdays. Lots of fun ways to do this like writing a message on their desk in erasable marker or singing for them. Just saying happy birthday can mean a ton as Samantha's "Wow, I didn't think anyone noticed." comment to me this week showed. One of my favorite ways though is leaving a Disneyland Happy Birthday button on their desk (they are free if you ask at the park!)
  • Greeting them at the door. I do not understand why so few teachers greet their students at the door regularly. At my school it's less than a quarter who do. It's a great time to set a welcoming tone and reminding students that they are coming into your class and thus your expectations. Plus, you can throw out some high-fives which are another great little thing!
  • Opening your room during non-class hours. My room is always bustling with activity. Kids want a safe place to be and it costs me nothing to open the door to them. It gains me a whole bunch. I learn about the goings on at school and in kid's lives often far before other people at school. It's a small thing for me but huge for them.
  • Use good images. I highly recommend using Bing image search over Google's. When you do you can choose option like to search for transparent images and specify minimum image sizes. When you use images that are pixelated, have a white background or have a water mark it takes away from your focus. Finding a high resolution, clear background image does not take much more time and adds a ton to your presentation.
  • Theme your lesson types. I'd imagine most of us have a series of go-to lesson types. If you're going to use it more than once maybe theme it. I have History Mysteries, Digging for the Truth, Culture Shock, etc. By linking them together from unit to unit I build a sense of series and sequence into the class that helps my students. Speaking of that...
  • Consistent designs and stories. Especially in secondary ed we ask our students to remember a lot. The more we can provide consistency in our designs and presentations the easier it is for them to keep up. You shouldn't be changing fonts, colors and backgrounds randomly in your lessons and presentations!

Which leads us to Mickey's 7th Commandment: Tell One Story at a Time. This is, admittedly, the commandment with which I have struggled most. (It's maybe not the one I've done the worst with, that would probably be commandment 6 - Avoid overload, but it is the one I work on the most unsuccessfully!) It's just too easy to throw something together at the last minute and leave design consistency out of consideration. Sometimes I just need a lesson done before the kids walk in the door. It isn't surprising that those are my worst lessons. If I'm trying to tell the story that my classroom is a place where students want to learn I have to put in the little extra work to keep that story consistent. One missed detail can ruin it and one extra detail can sustain it.

There's a story of Walt walking through Disneyland in the early years and seeing a cast vehicle driving through Frontierland (I've also read it as a cast member dressed as a cowboy walking through Tomorrowland) which angered him greatly. The inconsistency made the whole thing feel fake. Immersion is important. Even, or perhaps especially, when we don't even notice it. It's a santa hat windsock. It's a lantern as an ornament. It's the little things!

Big things are hard. Just starting a big task can be a monumental challenge. When that happens we should instead focus on the little things we can do to improve our classroom experience. What little details or additions can we bring in to further drawn our students into our story? Is it an act-it-out? An animated gif? A song? It doesn't have to be big, it just has to be consistent!

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