Walk down the halls of any school and peek through classroom windows. Some teachers are incredible designers, creators of colorful bulletin boards, aesthetically pleasing decor, and thematic design which changes with the seasons. I’m not one of those teachers. Aside from Ralph Wiggum’s friendly first impression, “Me fail English…that’s unpossible,” I do not spend much time with decorations. The walls are for students to display their creative contributions throughout the school year. While many observers are drawn to the posters on the wall, I am intrigued by a room’s design. The learning environment communicates the educational priorities of the classroom teacher. With this in mind, I have tackled the annual August question: how will I design my classroom this year?
On most days, students have the freedom to choose to sit wherever they prefer. Many appreciate being treated with dignity and we begin establishing a mutual respect. Such a simple gesture initiates the foundation of a trusting, student-centered climate. I enjoy variety, so I tend to redesign seating arrangements based on the unit of study or day’s lesson. On some days the physical structure changes, while on other days, names are assigned to various locations. This practice intrigues some students and irks creatures of habit, but gets everyone’s attention before class begins. In my high school Communication Arts classroom, the most common design has always been semi-circular, with students facing the center of the room to promote discussion and community.
It is important to be cognizant of students whom are more comfortable in a traditional setting. In my basic design, I try to leave 6-9 desks in a structured pattern somewhere in the room. Such rows are also appropriate if we are giving formal presentations where the audience should face the speaker. Likewise, when students are working on an individual assessment, they need personal space for quiet isolation.
However, the focus of my classroom is collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. When we work collaboratively or on differentiated material, seating should accommodate groups. I have desks, which provide flexible seating, and tables to promote peer interaction. Every year, I eliminate more desks from the room, opening up space and possibilities.
With today’s students, there is a growing need to personalize learning—a progressive shift in our district. Students are urged to bring devices to class, and (in my room) a Smart board, projector, and class set of Chrome books invite the use of technology. But modern learners also need a setting in which they can best use these toys. District leaders have researched the “model classroom” concept and several teachers are paying closer attention to how the physical design impacts student learning. My room is made up of soft seating in a cozy reading area, collaboration stations of tables or desks, and space to create. All areas of the room have wall or board space to display student learning.
Yes, that is a white leather couch (circa 1970-something) surrounded by a chunk of carpeting and a cushioned deck box (which provides excellent storage for an assortment of props). I separated this comfortable space from the rest of the room with a book shelf, making this corner a popular destination. Some students race to class to claim a first-come-first-serve seat, while others hope it is their day to be assigned an activity in this portion of the room. When I designed this area last year, I had no idea of the impact it would have on several students. Allowing them to sit on the couch or spread out on the carpet completely shifted the dynamic in the room. Knowing students’ learning styles and preferences is of great importance.
A reflective educator accounts for all learning styles, is creative with resources (especially on a limited budget), and designs the classroom to enhance the impact of learning. The room will likely look different by the time students return to class, but one thing is certain: the teacher sets the tone for learning in any environment.
When my students arrive, I will welcome them to room A15–our educational “clubhouse”–a playful environment created solely for the purpose of learning, or, in Parker Palmer’s (1998) words, where “students have direct access to the energy of learning and of life” (120). Every day, on their way out, students will be reminded to extend their learning beyond the classroom. If I truly want students to learn with a purpose, I must establish a classroom climate which respects the individual, inspires curiosity, reinforces a growth mindset, and accommodates all learners.