What We Learned In The Cabin

We huddled together as the walls were smashed and the floor was raised. We watched as the workman raised the mangled corpse of the diseased fox up on a stick, and waggled it around. Our time in the cabin was over.

The building work had happened all the way through the Autumn term and we had to endure having all of our windows boarded up. Ruth Miskin came in to observe me, and saw me mimescreaming about personification over the din of power drills. I was pleased to be teaching Year 5 for the first time, having only taught Year 4 before. I knew my pupils already and had taught them years ago when they were younger. We were having an already enjoyable year. For once, even my classroom displays were alright (by my standards).

As was scheduled, one class would need to be moved out into the playground from Christmas until the end of the year for the building work to progress. It was decided that this class would be mine.

My displays were removed. Cupboards were emptied. In three return trips, my children and I carted all of our collective belongings across the concrete playground, under the monkey bars and over to our new home at the back of the playground.

Almost all of our 980 pupils are based in the main building but for these two terms, my 30 Walkerbabies and I would be based here in a Portakabin.

Even by Portakabin standards, it was basic. It was large, which was positive, but the radiators didn’t work, which was negative. It had lots of wall display space, but the windows looked out onto a security fence and some generators.

I decorated the walls of the cabin with interesting posters linked to our Global Citizenship topic. There were flags, facts and charity campaign posters, maps and news stories. I tried to breathe life into it, but it still felt a bit stale until the kids got there and littered it with post-it notes, pencil shavings and trombones.

My kids were not massively enthusiastic about the move to a cold fusty cabin, not least one for which there has been a long-running playground rumour that beneath the cabin there lived a family of zombified putrid dead foxes.

Over time though, events happened and the room facilitated us admirably. It became like the 32nd member of our class, as instrumental to the nature of our class life as me or any one of the pupils.

Being so far out from the main building, suddenly I had the ability to very easily get to chat to the kids’ parents every day. Rather than being one face among hundreds, I knew that any adults in my bit of the playground were here with me and my kids. I had the chance to stop-and-chat in a morning and after school; I could sit on my steps with my hot coffee in the morning as the sun rose, and with my hot tea in the afternoon as the sun set. It was relaxing.

These parents all knew me quite well anyway, having endured my foray into KS1 teaching back in 2011, but I was able to get to know them socially. I could hear about siblings and cousins, family dramas and holidays. I could hear about homework problems. I could be more approachable and parents could speak to me privately with ease; I could be better informed, and so could they.

An additional benefit of the Portakabin being away from the main building was the slight immunity we had from outside interference. The likelihood of spontaneous managerial scrutiny was greatly diminished, particularly when the weather was crap, and this allowed me certain freedoms; I felt able to experiment with different strategies, and I felt that I had the intellectual space to evaluate their worth for myself. I feel that my teaching improved enormously, and my confidence in my own approach with it.

I became a bit more roguish, and the children grew with me, writing more expressively, articulating their views more honestly and taking more pride in being subversively powerfully different.

We also had an early warning system, in that when my pupils saw any suited adult crossing the playground, they sounded ‘Code Red’ to inform me of impending leaders. The irony of the whole situation was that I felt less scared of scrutiny because for the first time, I had fostered a class climate in which pupils engaged intellectually with their learning, in which kids understood and cared about each other and they behaved well because they had a reason to. I felt confident that I had plans in place to smooth the difficulties.

I had some remarkable writers and versatile thinkers in the class, along with some students for whom much of the school curriculum was an uphill struggle due to their difficulties in literacy. I was better able to cater to these needs. I spoke to the parents of the four pupils I was most concerned about, and convinced them to let the kids stay back an extra hour. In this after-school club which we titled ‘The Gentlemen’s Tea Club’ on account of my noble attempt to introduce the boys to the merits of the post-3:30 Earl Grey, we could use our space to best suit their needs. Sometimes we needed to re-tread the ground that they had stumbled on during our lessons that week, and sometimes we could focus on different things, such as raising their confidence to speak up in class, and their self-worth. A particularly memorable Gentlemen’s Tea Club involved us painting poems onto a 10 foot Union Jack whilst we listened to The Smiths. Bliss.

But there were bad times too in the cabin. Plenty.

It became the space where my feuding girls would need to settle down and sort out their differences, where their vulnerabilities were shown and where their tears were shed. It was a room in which I would sometimes notice a pupil wanting to hang about after the lesson, with something serious they needed to talk about. It was a room in which one child and his mother were both reduced to tears when I explained my reasoning for having to move the child out of the class  – against the child’s wishes – due to a sequence of poor behaviours. It was a room in which two of my most sensitive thoughtful pupils were made to recognise their grave error in sorting out their problems with their fists; a room in which I explained bluntly that the road that starts with lost tempers and bruised knuckles winds towards broken-hearted families and prison cells. I watched gritted teeth and small clenched fists gave way to sobbing remorseful hugs.

It was a room in which one pupil, who had been fighting a long and valiant battle against very difficult home circumstances, began to unravel as their home situation deteriorated further; within the walls, for a short but difficult time, swear words were shouted in rage. The door was kicked and slammed as the pupil found themselves unable to cope, and spiralling. The bent hinge of the door became a daily reminder of my failure to be what this pupil needed from me.

Strange, hilarious and impressive events occurred in the cabin.

A child showcased his unusual dance moves with the group, to their common enjoyment. One wet lunch, rather than just running away and hoping they don’t trash our home, I decided to imagineer a fully improvised 40 minute role play, which began with no plot whatsoever and evolved into a 25-person drama about a global epidemic illness that would wipeout everybody from one religious group. We role-played the difference between being on public transport in a Yorkshire village (“Alreet flower, by eck she’s grown. How’s Ernest doin’?”) and in Newham (“‘Chu lookin’ a’ bruv?). Once, I wheeled in a portable oven and cooked enough Chinese Chicken Curry to feed 120 children. We made papyrus. We dissected fairy tales for their implicit messages about gender. We meditated to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and 5 of us fell asleep on the floor. One child managed to correctly solve 100 equations in a record time of 79 seconds. Twenty-six children recited the Jabberwocky in perfect unison from memory. My trainee teacher shook the foundations with a rousing bhangra lesson.

I bloody loved that cabin.

On our last day together as a class, I had made gifts. For each kid, I had a photo printed of them at some point during our year – camping in the forest, exploring the British Museum, sharing a poem on stage, performing in one of our plays, dressing up for Comic Book Day, making a machine featuring pulleys and levers as a tribute to Beyonce and Jay Z, working in class, standing in the freezing seawater with tracksuits rolled up to our thighs launching our doomed cardboard longboats into the Thames Estuary – and I wrote a message on them and framed them.

These frames were laid out on the floor of our cabin for them to find.

They packed up their bags, took their photo frames and left for the summer. As soon as they had gone, I bundled together my gifts from the kids along with all of my possessions from the cabin, and put them onto a luggage trolley. It was time to move out of the cabin and back into the school. I turned the lights off for one last time.

The summer holidays passed and I came back. My old class were mine no more. Their labels sat atop different pegs.

The building work in the main building was nearly completed, and it was ready enough that we could house all the pupils in the main building. One day, when I was on playground duty, I was with some of my old lot as we saw a group of workmen moving over to our cabin.

The workmen carried red tape and heavy-duty metal fencing. They were blocking off the cabin ready for its demolition. It wasn’t even being moved on; it was being resigned. It had become unfit for purpose.

I had about six of my kids from the cabin with me watching, and I sent a message around the playground that our old classroom was being knocked down. Maybe another four or five joined us, but the rest of them are perhaps not as sentimental as me, and carried on playing.

We sentimentalists, such as myself, the Gentlemen’s Tea Club, one of the one-time playground brawlers and the kid who memorably began snoring next to me on the floor, killing the Vivaldi vibe, all watched as they dismantled our cabin so quickly and wantonly. Scraps of their work remained on the walls. As they knocked down the back wall, one of the children alleged to have seen a Beanie Baby fall out from behind a radiator.

The clearance carried on, and by lunchtime when we returned, most of the cabin had been loaded into skips. The floor was being split up, raised and removed. A workman started laughing and in a spectacular instance of poor taste and judgement, he reached down with a stick and raised the petrifying corpse of a fox that had obviously lived and died beneath our feet, like a macabre post-apocalyptic Muppet. He jangled it around, proving that the rumours were true, and that we had indeed been sharing our space with decaying foxes.

A few days later, on the space where our Portakabin once stood – where kids realised what they wanted to do when they grew up, where they failed tests and wept, where they forged friendships that they thought would last forever – lines were painted, and it became a car park.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.




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