Classroom Furniture: Does it impede or improve learning?

My first year teaching I remember spending the week before school setting up my new classroom. I hung pictures, organized my desk, and set up all of the desks and chairs into neat rows. I believed that putting students in rows facing the front of the room would make them easier to manage. I also believed that an effective classroom was a quiet classroom. Everyone was supposed to be quiet except for me.

Oh, how things have changed! As I prepare for next year and the launch of N.E.W. (Next Evolution in Work-based Learning) at my school, I’ve been preoccupied with concerns about the way traditional classroom furniture impedes learning. Most classrooms are not set up to encourage movement, collaboration, personalization, or creation. By stark contrast, classroom furniture is usually uniform following a one-size-fits-all mentality. Instead of selecting furniture suited to a particular subject area and/or learning objectives, it is ordered in mass for every classroom to save money.

However, furniture and the way it is arranged in a classroom sends a very clear message to students on the first day of school. If uniform desks are set up in rows facing a whiteboard (interactive or not), students know they can expect to listen to a teacher talk. If desks are set up in groups, then students know they will be working together, at least part of the time. But what if the furniture itself was wildly different from what students expect? What impact would that have on their perception of learning and their role as learners?

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When students walk into my classroom next year, I want them to stop and stare. I want the furniture to immediately send the message that our classroom space is inviting, flexible, student-centered, and unconventional. All of these are at the heart of N.E.W., the program I am piloting next year. The furniture that greets students on the first day of school can either reinforce these ideals or make them more challenging to achieve.

As my teaching partner in crime, Marika Neto, so eloquently put it, “Creating your own space for learning is the first step in creating.” I absolutely agree! So, we set out on a mission to check out different types of furniture and classroom designs. We visited local schools with flexible, moveable furniture. To our dismay, many of the rooms we visited with unconventional furniture were still set up in rows facing the front of the room. Instead of using the furniture to shift the focus from teacher to student, the furniture reinforced the traditional paradigm.

In an effort to see alternative furniture set up in strategic learning designs, we went to One Workplace in Oakland to check out their showroom. Each room was laid out with different types of furnitures produced by a variety of companies. As I walked through One Workplace, I felt myself getting excited the way I used to feel when I bought new school supplies as a student. I could imagine a totally different approach to furnishing a learning space to make it more comfortable and student-centered.
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Now that we have a vision of what is possible in terms of classroom design, Marika and I will take our proposal to the school board. Ultimately, I’d like our classrooms to become a “learning lab,” where other teachers on our campus, and in our district, can come and check out how alternative furniture can be used to improve learning, instead of impeding it. Then if our district decides to invest in flexible furniture to replace our aging desks and chairs, teachers will have a better sense of what they like and how they would use it in their classrooms to support and improve learning objectives.

Request: I invite any educator, administrator, and/or district leader with experience refurnishing traditional classrooms with flexible furniture to share their experiences, tips and advice! I’d love to learn from others who have already taken these steps to change the layout of traditional classrooms. If you can link us to a picture of your classroom, I’d love to see it! If you have furniture you love (or don’t love), please post recommendations! Thank you in advance for sharing your experiences!

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One Stop Differentiated Station Rotation

When I train teachers on blended learning, I am often asked, “Is this the right way to do this?” My response is always the same, “There are lots of variations on each blended learning model. They are constantly evolving. You need to make the models work for you and your students.” Even though people try to pin down the various blended learning models with specific definitions, they are really just a starting place. There is no right or wrong. Teachers must feel empowered to make the models their own.

I love to share the different ways I am modifying the Station Rotation Model to work for me and my students. One of my favorite new variations is the One Stop Differentiated Station Rotation. This variation doesn’t actually require students to rotate to various stations. Instead, there are multiple stations designed to challenge students at various skill levels. I typically design a One Stop Differentiated Station Rotation Lesson if we are focusing on a specific skill, like reading, writing or grammar, where there is a large degree of variation in the skills or abilities within a single class. I design tasks that target that skill in each station, but the degree of challenge is different for each station.

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For example, if students are working on annotating and analyzing a text, I’ll pull an article from Newsela or Smithsonian Tween Tribune that is written at different Lexile levels and assign different groups easier or more challenging reading based on their reading level. Then the task I assign with each reading is also different. I always spend my time with the lowest level group to support their work–providing feedback, support and additional scaffolding.

The trick with the One Stop Differentiated Station is to use a strategy for breaking students into groups that does not explicitly designate one group as lower level or another group as higher level. Instead, I put a colored post-it note on each student’s desk and they go to the group with their color post-it. I also make sure to change up the groups depending on the skill we are targeting since some of my students are extremely strong readers but struggle with an aspect of writing, grammar or vocabulary.

Hopefully, this is a strategy other teachers can employ when attempting to differentiate instruction or practice in a class with a wide range of skill levels.

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Manifesting My Perfect Teaching Position

Each year at the start of spring semester, my administration sends every teacher a form called “What’s Your Flavor?” It asks teachers a series of questions:

  • Are we planning to continue teaching next year?
  • If we could describe our perfect teaching assignment, what would it be?
  • Who would we enjoy working with?

This year as I stared at the form and asked myself, what is your perfect teaching assignment? Each time I tried to articulate my perfect position, I was flooded by the multitude of reasons that my perfect position would be impossible to manifest.

I’ve been teaching 9th and 10th grade English at Windsor High School for the last 13 years. In that time, my approach to teaching has radically changed as I’ve embraced technology and shifted to a blended learning model. I’ve tried to reimagine what learning looks like in an English class. However, there is so much more I would love to do!

As I reflected on what I want to achieve, I kept coming back to the idea of “blowing the walls off of my classroom.” I had read Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith’s book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era and I’d watched the film based on the book, which highlights the work being done at High Tech High in San Diego. Both of these experiences–reading the book and watching the film–had me questioning how much change I could actually achieve by staying in my current position. I wanted to explore new approaches to teaching and learning that didn’t currently exist on my campus.

I told my principal I wanted to begin a new program on our campus. It would experiment with a co-teaching model where I would share a population of students with another teacher. We would co-teach three block classes every other day. This would provide the time and flexibility to really dive into topics. We would design curriculum tied to topics, teach subjects in conjunction with one another, not separately, and ground learning in student-driven and designed projects. Instead of selecting a series of texts and building curriculum around those texts as I had done for my entire teaching career, I wanted to build curriculum around deep investigations into topics. Instead of teaching English, science, and technology separately, I wanted to pull them all together and teach them simultaneously as students worked to explore complex topics and issues.

As Wagner and Dintersmith state in their book, “retained learning comes, to a very large extent, from applying knowledge to new situations or problems, research on questions and issues that students consider important, peer interaction, activities, and projects.” This struck me as so fundamentally true, yet it can be so hard to allow for deep investigations into topics students care about when I only see them every other day for a 90 minute English block.

I’m excited to report that my principal was incredibly supportive of my proposal, so Next Evolution in Work-based Learning (N.E.W.) School was born! I’m beyond excited to bring all of my ideas to fruition as I work to make my perfect teaching position a reality for the 2016-2017 school year.

Ultimately, I hope to prove that pockets of innovation can happen on traditional school campuses. My high school serves 1750 students and the traditional design of school does not work for every student. N.E.W. School will offer an alternative for students who want to learn construct knowledge and make meaning through inquiry, research, making/building, and cooperation in project-based learning. I’ll be sharing my journey on my blog as I attempt to make my vision a reality!

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