It’s hard to think of coat hooks as being instructional tools. Last year, however, my students and I learned some important lessons about the benefits of diversity and including many voices in the decision-making process when we restructured our closets.
I moved to my new classroom, and was thrilled to have actual closets for students to store their belongings. I assigned one closet to the boys, and one to the girls.
By October, the students were not happy with the arrangement.
“Mrs. Kissner, there aren’t enough hooks for everyone,” Emma said.
“And my stuff keeps getting buried,” Leah added.
My students explained that the early-arriving students put their belongings in the back of the closet. When they went to get their lunches, they had to burrow through the coats and backpacks of the later-arriving students.
We needed a solution that didn’t involve building bigger closets or getting more hooks. I asked the students for suggestions.
“We could make it so there isn’t a boys’ closet and a girls’ closet,” Brent suggested.
“We could have one closet for the first wave students, and the other closet for the second wave students.”
We came to a consensus and the Great Closet Change was undertaken.
It worked for a time, but by March, there were rumblings of dissent. As it turned out, the students hadn’t considered a key aspect of their first-wave/second-wave scheme. At dismissal time, all 13 first-wave students wanted to be at the closet at the same time. Five minutes later, all 12 second-wave students wanted to be at their closet.
“Let’s go back to the way it was,” Mark said.
“But we have more girls than boys,” Laura pointed out.
The boys were also outspoken about the inequity.
“We can take the closet with the broken hook,” mused Cody. “And two girls can put their stuff in our closet, to make it even.”
“But what about our lunchboxes getting buried?” Abby asked.
“Let’s put all lunchboxes on the top shelf,” suggested Brent.
Two girls readily volunteered to keep their belongings in the boys’ closet. Three other students volunteered to number the hooks and assign spots in the closet. A few students decided to share hooks. Before I knew it, they had taken care of everything. We monitored the closet situation, and everyone continued to be happy until the end of the school year.
These students had experienced some key lessons in citizenship and diversity. They made a significant change to the way things functioned and got more input to revise the plan. They dealt with issues of equity, and made sure that everyone was pleased with the result. What a great experience in functioning as a group.
As I think about this school year, it is easy to over-plan—to think about how I, as the teacher, will deal with every problem. But the biggest lesson I learned from the closet is to leave some room for students. After all, they can come up with solutions I never imagined.
Kissner is a fourth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania.