Week 5: Re-imagining Learning Spaces

Currently I teach in a school building that is about ten years old.  My classroom is a large beige box about twenty-five by thirty feet square, and it is filled with forty desks, since I typically have classes of thirty to thirty-five students. As you walk through the door, two large, long whiteboards completely dominate the walls to your right and left.  At the far end of the wall to your right is a taupe colored cabinet that locks.   The wall on the opposite side of the room from the door is dominated by four windows and a wall of low-slung bookcases.  My desk is anchored directly in front of the windows.  The desk is tethered there by a mass of cords and the only control (wall mounted) for the projector, speaker volume, and Elmo. Only the back wall is free of any encumbrance and open to be decorated.  Most of the rooms in my school, with the exception of the science labs, are structured in this manner.  I am sure that this was the result of budgetary decisions, but the influence of thinking bounded in the Industrial Revolution is obvious.  Each room is the same beige cut-out.

As you can see in these pictures from the beginning of the year, the room is very generic, The vertical blinds are broken, and the overhead lighting is standard industrial style fluorescent suspended in the typical drop ceiling. On the one hand, one might think that such a generic space is like a blank canvas, and in many ways it is.  However, I find that the drabness of the colors and the generic nature of the room make me feel completely uninspired, and I am sure the students feel the same way.  Sadly, many of the teachers in my school do little to adorn their rooms.  This added with the fact that the school is one giant, two story, brick building for over 3,500 students only serve to make the environment feel incredibly institutional.  In fact, I often think it looks more like a prison than a school!

Despite the fact that I have been feeling largely discouraged and inconsequential at work lately, the opportunity to redesign my classroom and create a more inspiring place to learn for my students and I inspired me.  First, for more basic, changes.  I would rid the room of desks and replace them with tables that have mark-resistant surfaces.  Tables just lend themselves better to collaborative projects and the sharing of ideas than traditional desks that, to me, seem more isolating. Desks cordon off individual spaces rather than a shared zone for work and creativity.  Imagine how much easier it is for several young minds to crowd around a table instead of a desk that barely has enough room for a textbook and notebook.  Next, I would replace the stationary chairs with comfortable chairs that roll.  While this might become a bit of a classroom management issue (students love to spin!), this would facilitate students being able to move around their tables and to other groups/areas in the room.  To further facilitate movement through the room, I would pull up the carpet and replace it with tiles that I would paint Italian words and pictures on before sealing it to protect it.  In this manner, even the floor could become learning/inspirational creativity space.  I would replace the book cases with cubbies and drawers for storing art projects between classes.  I would also replace the harsh overhead lighting with more Italian inspired fixtures with softer light.   The tables would be arranged in two sets of rows facing each other with a large open center aisle.  This allows me to circulate around the room more easily, and it creates a space for conversations and activities in Italian during class that are readily visible to the majority of students. My desk would be moved to the middle in the back to place me more in the middle as a co-learner rather than the sage on the stage. Finally, to complete the basic changes to the basic functionality of the space, I would have many electrical outlets added throughout the room both on the walls and on possibly on the floors (with covers of course to guard against tripping).  This would facilitate students being able to utilize their own devices as well as variety of artistic and audio-visual equipment (a 3D Doodle pen for example).

In addition to these changes, I would spend much time on the aesthetics of the space.  For instance, I would commission the Art department to create a topper for the cabinet and repaint it to look like the leaning tower of Pisa.  The broken blinds would then be replaced with blackout drapes that can be pulled to let tons of natural light cascade in or drawn for the viewing of video texts. I would then create some conversation spaces in the room by adding some overstuffed chairs and maybe a few beanbags.  This would also help create more of a homey, nesting place for my classes à la The Third Teacher+ (2010).  I would then have the walls repainted in warm tones evocative of Italy.  (A dream would be to commission a trompe l’oeil piece of an Italian scene such as looking out at the Mediterranean from Capri, Cinque Terre, or Venice).  I want to the students to feel like Italy is all around them… to be excited and inspired!  Of course the space above the front white board and the back wall would be decorated with posters of Italian products like cars, fashion, and foods, and scenes from across Italy.  Live plants would be added, as they just seem to lend something to a room.  Something about having living plants in a space makes it feel more homey and nest-like.  Finally, I would remove the second white board and create a kind of classroom graffiti wall/fridge where we could post pictures of us working together as a class, work that we are proud of, and work caught in medias res.

new-classroom

(This is a drawing I made utilizing SketchUp!  to provide a better image of what is in my mind’s eye!  The picture is meant to be a representation of the trompe l’oeil piece I envisioned, and the greens are about as warm as I could get them with the program.  LOL Imagine Italian words painted on the floors as well!)

Obviously, this would be a quite expensive re-imagining of my classroom.  In fact, money would be the greatest obstacle.  I would need new tables and chairs ordered, painting to be done, outlets to be installed, and a graffiti/fridge wall to be created.  I have no idea how much such changes would cost, but I would imagine it would be a few thousand dollars. In a district that cannot seem to afford to fix broken blinds, these changes seem unlikely to transpire.  In addition, the structural changes would need to be done during the summer when the room is not in use, since construction would be involved albeit minimal.  In any case, I believe that the changes that I have suggested would drive creativity, achievement, and collaboration.  As Barrett et al. (2013) explain, “Six of the 10 built environment “design parameters” were identified as being particularly influential in the multi-level linear regression model. Taken together these have been shown to significantly influence pupil progression and to account for a large part of the variability in pupil performance at the class level. The six parameters are colour, choice, connection, complexity, flexibility and light.”  In the meantime, while I am waiting for the federal flood of funds to make this possible, I will do what I can to make the best of the space that we have for learning together.

References:

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678-689. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016

Heu, J. (2013, May 23). Harbour of Capri [Digital image]. Retrieved February 11, 2017, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Habour_of_Capri.JPG
O’Donnell, Wicklund, Pigozzi, Peterson, Mau, B., & Orr, D. W. (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. New York: Abrams.
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