The Fall of the Classroom Empire

When I was a kid, I ruled the breakfast table. I was a kind and benevolent king. Always saving the marshmallows for last. My bananas were perfectly placed on the corn flakes. The first meal of my day began with me building my kingdom on the kitchen table. I would construct the walls of my castle with all the material that were in my kingdom. Salt and pepper shakers were the Knights guarding the gates. The butter tray was the the west wall. I would use placemats as hot lava fields or the deepest moats. Even if I were eating Lucky Charms, I would go to the pantry and grab all the cereal boxes and finish my castle with multicolored walls, protected further from the approaching armies by the characters printed on the sides and the sugar coated grains within. It was beautiful. I would eat my cereal in peace, knowing I was protected and undisturbed. This was my breakfast, my table, my kitchen, my kingdom.

Ever take a look at some of your fellow teachers’ desks?

Like the cereal-box kingdoms I built in my youth, many of the desks that I see teachers sit at are of a similar make up. Let’s start this analysis by first looking at the last sentence of the above paragraph. “This is my breakfast, my table, my kitchen, my kingdom.” This sentence is a reflection of how I felt after constructing my castle. Now for some substitutions as to what I can only imagine must go through a teacher’s mind when placing their 15th elephant figurine in its proper position. Most likely, the same exact position it held for the past decade. Ready? Here goes… “This is my elephant, my desk, my room, my kingdom.”

All of this came to mind when talking with a colleague about the changing culture of education and all that goes with it. At the heart of this culture change is the evolution of the definition/role/concept of the teacher from the traditional definition into that of the “lead learner.” Throughout this (r)evolutionary process, many of the traditions of a teacher’s role are no longer necessary for the survival of the species. (some of these traditions will be fought for harder than others) What was once called the classroom, is now a student centered learning space. “Sit and get” has got up and left. I have a wireless keyboard and mouse that I use to deliver content. You will find me sitting with my students in “their” learning space in “their” classroom.

So back to the elephant in the room.

Where does the teacher’s’ desk, full of personal artifacts and kitsch, fit into the concept of a student learning space? The only way I could explain how it may be happening was to allude to my breakfast table kingdom. What message is being sent to the students who walk into a classroom seeing a desk that is full of the teacher’s self image? Is the teacher blatantly saying to the students “My home, personal life, and elephants are so much more important to me than this place, that I need to be constantly reminded?” Is the desk-castle saying “This is my kingdom, you just sit here.” Does the desk signify a “safe zone” for the teacher to get away from the same place they educate in? Is it like “The Forbidden Forest” where no one except the most experienced travellers may enter? Should a student be made to feel like Dorothy, when she finally reaches the Emerald City and is told by the Guardian of the gates (the teacher) that “nobody, no how, gets in to see the Wizard?”  When students walk into a classroom do they get to unload all their personal items onto their desktops (insert new blog here, or Jeff Spicoli) and arrange their pencil box, picture of family, Xbox gold card, and shells they collected from the beach, to their precise location around their notebook or computer? Is the space truly theirs? How do we begin to build a student centered learning space when clearly the centerpiece of this particular space is that of the teachers’ “Throne”?

Get rid of it.

Let’s make 2016 “The year without the fortress”

Would you be able to let go? Would you need something like a “kitsch patch” that would take a little away at a time as to lessen the blow? Could you pack up the “desktop” image you choose to display of yourself before the last day of school? Would the simple task of putting items in a box change how you teach? Would you feel as if a piece of you had left the room? Do you feel more effective if the students know you collect small glass elephants? Does your kitsch empower you to be a catalyst for learning in the classroom? These questions lead me to this old philosophical question. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? If your kitsch is on your desk when no one is there to see it, does it reflect who you are? I am not asking these questions to simply add words to this post. I would really like to hear from you.


Imagine the impact of this conversation:

Student: Hey Mr. Luetjen, what happened to all the stuff on your desk?Teacher: I packed it up a little early this year.Student 1: Have you been fired? Are you leaving? (You see how they have been conditioned?)              (I guarantee this will be asked most)                                                                Student 2: Why? (Teacher smiles)                                                               Teacher: Because in this room, you all matter most to me. I love my family and my elephants but this is the space that you and I share.               Teacher: Who has an idea on how we can use this new space?

This task is easy for me as I don’t sit at “my desk.” To be honest, I have never had a “teacher desk” in any of the classrooms I taught in throughout my career. I do admit to have had an office for a couple of years that was unattached to the classroom, where I did sit to plan and reflect. Currently, I have a rectangular thing in my classroom that holds papers and scissors and has a tape dispenser and pencil holder on the surface. But you won’t find me there. It sits, nondescript in the room, owned by no one and everyone. As a lead learner, I choose to be present in the space of learning. Not locked in my tower. Although I must admit, my breakfast kingdoms were awesome. Perhaps in the lunchroom next week I’ll put together a fortress with the napkin dispenser, ketchup, mustard and mayo, just for old time’s sake.

Michael Luetjen teaches PreK-5|8 CompSci at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, FL

Follow me on Twitter @criticalclick



I failed at ISTE and it was fantastic! Discovering the Three Laws of Failure

We instill in our children and students the lesson that failing is part of learning, part of life. Failing is good. Failing is real. The action of failing in the classroom has been transformed into an opportunity for achievement. Failures are the building blocks toward success. Michael Jordan failed. Einstein failed. We show examples of the Wright brothers taking a few for the team before they flew. Students, staff, and faculty have heard me say that “Failure is only one of the outcomes resulting from the positive action of your creativity.”

We are applauding failures in the classroom. We cheer when the code our children write does not work. Iteration becomes the norm as students work through their failures in real time. We cheer even louder when one student’s failure becomes another student’s opportunity to help. We go nuts when, at the last minute of class, a student’s redesign, rewrite, and replace results in a successful outcome.

So when was the last time you failed? When was the last time that you were cheered on at every stage of your failure? Can you remember the last time something took you twenty, maybe thirty tries to complete? Have you achieved the prize of failure while you were writing that lesson plan, creating PD for staff, or designing a formal assessment strategy? Granted, failure is best served while being observed. As teachers, we most often assume the role of the observer. As the expert in the classroom, we typically set the pace as such. I have fake-failed to my students to show them what a wrong answer may look like. I have let them correct me when I knowingly did a computation or process wrong. When was the last time you actually failed on your own, when information was new to you, with no safety net, while being observed?

For me it happened at ISTE this summer. Failure happened while sitting in the last row of a room, in what seemed to be the farthest location from the energy of ISTE. Sitting with 12 others in Franklin 11, we began our journey together with Jana Sebestik and George Reese from the University of Illinois Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education to Turn on the Lights! using copper tape circuitry, LEDs, sensors and microcontrollers.

I lost count of the failures after a while. Maybe this time… Nope…  What if I do?… Nope…  Oh wait,  If I do this…Nope. We were all struggling. What happened in the midst of our struggles? We began helping each other. I’d look over to see someone either a few steps behind or looking over their shoulder to what I had completed. No one was sitting on a chair for more than a few moments. The class became a fluid, living space of work-arounds, attempts, failures, sighs, and laughter. Borrowing ideas, asking for help, and offering assistance gave us all a view of the student centered activity that we orchestrate for our students but rarely operate in. Each time someone got a step further we all felt good and cheered on their success.

We were being guided brilliantly by the session presenters. It was at that moment I realized that I am actually in a classroom setting that I have been providing for my own students for 20 years! I was in a classroom and I was failing! It was marvelous!

Failure was an option. In fact, it was the option. What wasn’t an option though? Neatness. There were instructions, conductive tape, wires, LEDs, parts and pieces everywhere. Each of our neat, manilla folders, full of materials, given at the beginning of the session, became strewn across 3 feet of table space. I was amazed to see that every single person at this session helped clean up. I don’t mean just our own space either. We we rolling up cords, making sure items were put in the correct boxes. The pride in our failures led to pride in the workspace and the desire to prepare it for the next session.

Getting back to my failure. As the session continued on, I discovered what I now refer to as  “The Laws of Failure”, and they proved true. I have written them in reverse order as my actions revealed them the way they occurred to me. The “Third Law of Failure” is for every iteration made, an equal and positive motivation surfaces. The increase in my motivation resulting from the increase of iterations became the acceleration in relation to the second Law of Failure. The “Second Law of Failure” is that the effort put forth into the project grows proportionately to the pride felt, both expanding constantly as the result of increasing motivation. I found that the “First Law of Failure” is true and absolute. The “First Law of Failure”, is that when at rest, failure is failure….when put in motion and acted upon, failure leads to success. The envelope wasn’t open, the LED did not light, success was not achieved, until I was able to fail.

And then, the LED lit! The world was turned upside down, or inside out, or contrary-wise. Something happened that just an hour before was unimaginable, or unattainable, or unachievable. The light emitting from this LED seemed to be the most powerful light source I had ever experienced. Bathed in this light, I was proud to succeed in this session, proud to be at ISTE, proud of my Ignite, proud of my family. The educator that left that room was more proud of his profession than he could ever have imagined.

I failed at ISTE this year and it was fantastic!

Childhood turns 2.0! Happy Birthday!

When I was a child, and my birthday was approaching, my mother would ask; “For your birthday cake, would you like chocolate or vanilla?… What kind of frosting do you like?… “Should we invite Brent or Michael or Allison?” The anticipation alone of this event had me thinking of my birthday for many weeks in advance. The lead up was immense. Listening to phone calls my Mom would make about the occasion had my ear to my bedroom door at any of her phone calls to neighbors. Those feelings, that I had assumed were inherently reserved for 5 year olds, have resurfaced for me over the past few days.

This Fall, childhood turns 2.0!  Happy Birthday!


In the fall of 2015, two events are happening that will mark the birthday of Childhood 2.0. The choice of chocolate cake, for this 40 something year old child, is equivalent to Mattel’s VR View Master. The people working on View Master at Mattel would like us to know two things; First, for over 75 years, generations of kids have been introduced to the wonder of 3D by View-Master®. Second, Mattel is reimaging an entirely new way to explore and discover the world around you. Lastly, “Mattel’s new View-Master® viewer offers an easy-to-use and affordable platform that will empower users to take dynamic field trips where they can explore famous places, landmarks, nature, planets, and more in 360 degree “photospheres.” By pairing the View-Master® “experience reel” and app with a compatible Android or iOS smartphone, users will immediately find themselves immersed in an imaginative and interactive learning environment.”

Anki Drive would be my vanilla. For those unfamiliar, Anki Drive is a slot car racing game that utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning so that the vehicles actually adapt and learn how to best each other on the track. For me, the slot car track was the holy grail of an immersive experience in my room. Connecting the tracks, getting the cars set in the slots, plugging in the handsets and making sure mine was connected to the right track was all part of the ritual of slot racing. Let’s not forget the smell. With Anki Drive, the slots are gone. So to, are the trigger controllers. What remains is a sleek track, sans slots, and cars that are linked to the AI to keep improving their performance and a controller that has morphed to your smartphone.

Unless Hasbro has plans to give G.I. Joe  a six fingered, MMA-Tap Out grip, things could not be getting better for the class of 1980-somethings. What used to be a trip to JCPenney, is now a click away at Amazon, KickStarter, or Indegogo. All of which have been a wallet-drainer for me. I find myself with my ear to the door, waiting (im)patiently for the glorious day to arrive. Childhood turns 2.0 this fall and fortunately, for this upcoming birthday, I am now of the age where I can choose swirl!


“View-Master ® – View What’s Possible.” 4 Jul. 2015 <

“Anki Drive brings iOS videogame racing to real life for $199 …” 2013. 4 Jul. 2015 <>