On August 6 – less than two weeks hence – we’ll get the keys over at Research Triangle.  That’s going to be very exciting, but also quite stressful, since that means that we’ll only have one week to get everything set up and moved in before the students invade on August 13.

So deciding that I needed a tune-up game of sorts, on Tuesday I headed down the road to Durham’s Parkwood Elementary School, where my former student and current friend Allison has been hard at work setting up her 3rd grade classroom in preparation for her rookie year of teaching.  While setting up a classroom probably seems like quite a chore to a lot of people, for teachers it’s a lot of fun.  An empty classroom is like a canvas; you can arrange desks, put up posters, and bring in other stuff that shows off your character and makes your room a fun, inviting place to learn.

And sometimes, you also find all kinds of stuff that sends you back in time.

Allison’s classroom at Parkwood is a temporary one; just five weeks into school she’ll be moving over to a newly-renovated wing of the school, and the area where her current classroom is will be renovated.   I don’t know how old that school is, but it’s old.  And that was the first thing about my trip to Parkwood that reminded me of my elementary school days.

I tried to get Eric to buy me desks like these for my classroom at RTHS. Nothing doing.

I went to Winecoff Elementary School in Concord.  If you live in Concord, you may say, Oh yeah, I’ve driven by that school.  It looks so nice and new!  Well, that building was erected in 1999, when I was in high school.  My Winecoff’s main building was built in 1928, some other wings were built in the 1950s, and due to decades of deferred maintenance the building was crumbling around us.  My first thought upon walking into Parkwood yesterday? Oh my God, this place smells like Winecoff.  It’s that captivating aroma that’s a combination of really old paint and something in the air that probably gives you cancer.

It didn’t take me long to discover that the previous occupant of Allison’s classroom belongs on that “Hoarding: Buried Alive” show.  I don’t think that woman threw anything away at any point in the last 30 years, but that just added to the fun of getting the room cleaned out and set up.  One of my main tasks was going through all the books and separating them out by genre (and discarding the ones that were way below third-grade level).  I was absolutely stoked to discover that third graders apparently still read the same things I read back then – Encyclopedia Brown (RIP Donald J. Sobol), Cam Jansen, Magic School Bus, and – best of all – The Boxcar Children.  There was a time in 4th grade when I would go through a Boxcar Children book a day.  There was also a copy of A Tale of Two Cities; that seems a little heavy for eight-year-olds, but hey, to each his own.

Found in Allison’s classroom: this science textbook, published in 1989. I distinctly remember using this book at some point in elementary school, before I started consistently getting C’s in science.

While this trip down memory lane was plenty fun, it was also a relief to hear Allison point at things from time to time and say, “This stuff has got to go.”  Armed with a degree from the UNC School of Education, infectious enthusiasm, and a bottomless supply of energy, I know she’s going to provide her kids with a valuable, 21st-century education, and the outdated maps and cassette tapes stored up in that classroom aren’t going to help in doing that.  I was told that her classroom will have several computers once school starts back up.  Hopefully they’re not the Apple IIe models of my elementary school days.  Oregon Trail, baby.

It was a reminder that teaching kids the way they’ve always been taught isn’t going to cut the mustard anymore.  All levels of education have to change, to teach kids to use new technology, to think through problems for themselves instead of having information dumped on them.  If it doesn’t start at the elementary school level, those kids aren’t going to be successful at a school like Research Triangle, or in the job market when they leave high school.  In a way, the cleansing of Allison’s classroom was symbolic of what has to happen in education across the country – out with the old ways of teaching, and in with the new innovative methods that are going to help students succeed and become lifelong learners, and teachers that help students develop knowledge instead of just providing it.

But don’t ever throw away the Boxcar Children books.