Listen, Intentionally

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A few days after our Thanksgiving break during writing workshop I noticed the frustration on the face of one of my seventh grade writers as she stared intently at her computer screen. As I walked over to her, I began to plan what I was going to say to her as we began what I hoped would be a very quick conference.

My list of “Must Check-in With” kids was large and the deadline for the project was looming and this student is one of the strongest writers in my room. I did not think I had the time to sit with her. To be honest, I didn’t even want to sit with her. I just want to say as I walked by her table, “How is going?” followed by a “I am sure you will figure it out, let’s meet later in the week, but I need to check in with Josh right now.” The quick fly-by conference did not happen.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked as I was already moving past her table.

“I hate this narrative, there is no plot, it is pointless. It is crap and I don’t know what to do!!”

Stopping immediately, I looked at her, really looked at her, and when I saw the vulnerability of her expression, I knew Josh could wait. Her frustration was way beyond what I expected. She was well past the stage of “productive struggle”, “growth mindset”, “grit”,  “perseverance” or whatever phrase we might use to push kids to the ‘next level.’ This girl probably didn’t need any writing instruction. At this moment she needed someone to listen and someone to remind her that writing, like life isn’t always perfect.

I grabbed a nearby stool and sat down next to her.

“OK, do you want me to look at the part that is frustrating you?”

“It is all frustrating!! I can’t figure out what how to fix it, it is due in three days.”

“Well, I know that sometimes having someone else give you feedback is helpful to me. I often think my writing is bad, but usually somebody else can see the good in it. Can I look for some good?”

“Sure, but there really isn’t any good, my partner (feedback partners are an integral part of our writing workshop) keeps telling me my description is great but, there is no plot. How can fix ‘no plot’ when my short story is already six pages long?”

I let that comment linger for a few seconds. There were many paths I could have taken, but I went with the idea of reading a little bit of the story with her and hopefully finding a way to nudge her off the idea that her writing is awful.

“So, maybe we can’t find a way for you to revise this story, but I think it is worth shot. You have put too much effort into this piece of writing to dismiss it completely. Do you want me to read it over? Would you like me to suggest some things that might help you?

“Sure, I guess.”

Over the next seven to eight minutes I read over about a page and a half of her writing and we talked a great deal about the story. I really did not give her any writing tips, I affirmed her writing skill and shared some of my thinking about why her ‘bad’ writing had a tremendous amount of very strong writing. There were parts to her narrative that were almost lyrical.

At that moment in time, she didn’t need her writing fixed, she needed someone to listen to frustration. She needed someone to appreciate she was frustrated. She needed someone to remind her realize that it is ok to not have a ‘perfect’ product.

The students we work with come from a variety of lives. Their worlds outside of school are vastly different. The kids in my school may have different struggles than the kids in your school. But, they all have some struggle in their story. I also think our kids have many things in common. One thing that I believe they have in common is the need to have someone actually listen to them. Authentically and empathetically listen to them. We all need someone to be willing to see us for who we are and to accept that what we have to offer is enough.

There are times in our classrooms that we are pushing so hard because we have so many things to accomplish in such little time. I get wrapped up in this as well, but I work hard to create time and space to just listen to my students when they need someone to just be there for them.

 

Build Your Community

Building a thriving learning community for your students is the fundamental core of this website. The work you are doing to create safe and engaging learning spaces is one of the most important things you do. But, do you take care of yourself and build your community? Finding a community probably saved my teaching career. Adding to my community over the last 18 years helped me to continually develop my practice.

Early in my career and before the age of social media, I felt like I was drowning. The people in the school where I worked were kind and honestly good people, but there were only a few that actually supported my learning. With their help I made it through, but I struggled. Thankfully, I found community within a group of literacy coaches a few years into my career. If it weren’t for these mentors, I might have walked away from teaching before I really got started. Besides being a strong support network this group encouraged me to get involved with the nationwide organizations ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Design and ILA (International Literacy Association). These nationwide groups connected me with people outside my local community of adult learners by attending conferences by sponsored by these groups.

In this age of social media, it is easier than ever to get connected with other educators. If you are reading this post it is most likely due to seeing a link on Twitter or Facebook. However, this post about building your community is not about widening your online network. While I still use Twitter and Facebook and keep up with educational websites, I work hard to not be ‘plugged in’ every single day. I worry about how social media affects my attitude and how too much time online impacts my day-to-day life. I know that I can quickly lose hours of time I could be doing something more productive very quickly. Working on building my real-life community is becoming more and more important to me. This is why I am a member of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and regularly attend events it sponsors.

Over the past six years, some online connections have turned into real-life connections. When I attend events where these people are, my relationships (and learning) grow stronger. During the recent NCTE Annual Convention in St. Louis, I listened to Brian Wyzlic deliver a passionate speech about ensuring every child you teach feels valued every single day. We also had numerous conversations during various times at the conference. While speech affirmed my thinking, I learned more eating dinner with him and walking through the halls. I have known Brian for about 5 years. We have been around each other for maybe 25 days in those 5 years, but learning with and from Brian in real life has been more profoundly helpful than on Twitter.

I had an incredibly thought-provoking conversation with Kristin McIlhagga on Saturday night. After a long day of learning from some of the best educators on the planet, Kristin pushed my thinking was pushed more than anyone else that day. Like Brian, I have only been around Kristen at events like conferences. And while I do learn from her and am supported by her during online interactions, the face-to-face conversations are what really shift my thinking.

I was honored to present with Justin Stygles, Kara DiBarotolo, Cheryl Mizreny, Michelle Best and Laurie Halse Anderson on Sunday Morning. While I knew what was going to be said when they talked, The subtle nuances of body language and tone of voice made the learning more powerful. Plus, the time we spent together outside the session cemented the fact I am proud to know them. I met Michelle or Laurie at NCTE look forward to connecting with them again in the future. They are both smart and very passionate about their work. Justin, Kara and Cheryl have been go to resources for a while, but we wouldn’t have the relationship we have if it was completely online.

Throughout the entire NCTE convention my actual conversations with other attendees that I have known for years and ones that I just met over the weekend made the cost and the effort to attend worthwhile. I know the VISA bill will suck next month, but I cannot imagine not going next year.  

Real-life professional connections, both local and not-so local, support me and challenge me. The online world is a great place to start, but do whatever it takes to get to places where your online connections meet in real life. The echo-chamber of social media is not necessarily bad, but I think you can only find true support to push your thinking in the real world. Think about your classroom. Would you let your students do a completely computerized curriculum with only random comments of a few sentences provided by you? Probably not. So why would you do it to yourself?

I encourage you to consider building your community by joining an association, either local or national and attending their conferences or other conferences near you. I guarantee it will be worth your time. Below are links to various professional organizations that support educators. They are all designed to help you. They want you to engage in a bigger community.
ACEI, Association for Childhood Education International (www.acei.org)

ACTFL, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (www.actfl.org)

AECT, Association for Educational Communications and Technology (www.aect.org)

AERA, American Educational Research Association (www.aera.org)

ALAS, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (www.alasedu.net)

AMLE, Association for Middle Level Education (www.amle.org)

ASCD, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Design (www.ascd.org)

ASCA, American School Counselor Association (www.schoolcounselor.org)

CEC, Council for Exceptional Children (www.cec.sped.org)

ILA, International Reading Association (https://www.literacyworldwide.org/)

ISTE, International Society for Technology in Education (www.iste.org)

NAEA, National Art Education Association (www.arteducators.org)

NAESP, National Association of Elementary School Principals (www.naesp.org)

NAEYC, National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org)

NAfME, National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)

NAGC, National Association for Gifted Children (www.nagc.org)

NASSP, National Association of Secondary School Principals (www.nassp.org)

NBEA, National Business Education Association (www.nbea.org)

NCSS, National Council for the Social Studies (www.ncss.org)

NCTE, National Council of Teachers of English (www.ncte.org)

NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (www.nctm.org)

NSTA, National Science Teachers Association (www.nsta.org)        

 

Invest in Why

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A while ago I saw a new post in one of my educational Facebook groups. The author wrote something like, “Does anyone else get frustrated with the fact ELA teachers teach the same basic concepts year after year, but high school students still can’t write a paragraph?” To be honest, I initially sympathized with the individual who was brave enough to share this with the group. It can be frustrating to work with students year after year who can’t seem to consolidate learning. Even though I could see there were many comments, I felt like I had nothing to add. It is hard for me to engage in online discussions that on a surface level disparage kids. Normally, I don’t check the comments on a post like this, but I wondered if there were any ground-breaking ideas shared. I was hoping to see something to push my thinking, but sadly there were over 200 ‘amens’ or other rants about how texting, technology, and/or previous teachers or curriculum coordinators were not doing their jobs.

I kept thinking about this thread and rereading it over during the next few days. It was like a car accident on the side of the road. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but I could not help myself from looking.  After more rereading and thinking I noticed something about the cumulative nature of the comments. There wasn’t a single comment I read that dug into the “Why?” As in “Why do we expect kids to write a cohesive formulaic paragraph?”. There were lots of “why can’t they …” comments, but I couldn’t find one that even scraped the surface of “why” the kids should be writing this way. Before we go any further, please know I could rattle off lots of reasons why writers use paragraphs, even ones I don’t think are sound reasons. I also want you to know the topic of this comment thread doesn’t really matter to me. I can imagine a different stream of frustrated educators venting about mathematical thinking, behavior, lack of parent support, administrators, etc. I think this thread was a prime example of one of the biggest concerns I have about education. We expect kids to do things, but I think we don’t explore the purpose of doing those things on a regular basis.

If we want our classrooms communities filled with engaged learners, we need to “invest in the why” we are doing what we do frequently. And the “why” needs more relevancy than because I said so, because it is in the standards, or a general because it will help you in the future. No matter what age of learners in our classrooms, I believe they are capable of processing highly complex tasks if they invested in why they are completing it. Even if the “why” is a self-motivating, “because it is fun.” I have seen preschoolers build complex towers with Legos and high schoolers use design software and 3-D printers to prototype and evolution of the  soccer shin guard. I have seen 2nd graders write a compelling persuasive letter to a principal and middle schoolers write an in-depth character analysis essay. These examples don’t even scratch the surface of what our students are capable of doing. Look at all they do outside of our classrooms. They perform ballet, create Youtube channels, memorize play books for football teams, teach themselves fly fishing, build skateboard ramps, the list goes on forever.

When I started teaching in 1995 one of the first educational authors I read was Brian Cambourne. If you do not know Cambourne, google his name and “Seven Conditions of Learning.” After 20 years Cambourne influences my thinking. I have worked diligently to create classroom learning experience that are engaging and empowering for my students. Cambourne’s conditions include ideas like immersion, demonstration, expectation, and response in order help students learn while working. Cambourne believes that learners will engage in highly complex learning if they see “some potential value, purpose, and use for them.” (The Reading Teacher; Vol. 49, No. 3; November 1995) As Cambourne’s work influenced my work, I realized in order for learners to grow, they needed to invest in why they were doing the work expected of them.

The core of my work is now letting the kids know, discover or choose the “why” they are doing something. Currently some of my 7th grade students are taking up the challenge of writing a novel in 30 days (NaNoWrimo) and others are working on shorter narrative pieces during the month. Yes, we have targets, guidelines and daily goals. And the kids know our district curriculum expects them to work on narratives in the second quarter of the year, so if my administrator walks through the classroom and asks the kids what are you doing, they will be able to explain the “what”, but they will also be able to explain a “why” or two. For some of my students the current “why” is to challenge themselves to write something “big”, for others the “why” is to make their audience cry or to become better at writing dialogue.

I know their narrative work may not directly connect with the Facebook thread I mentioned earlier, but my students passionately invest in the work they are doing. In all my classes today, the only frustration I saw was when it was time to leave the room. Sure, there will be kids I work with who won’t be able to write a paragraph the way their teacher might expect a few years down the road, but all of them know that one reason writers organize thinking into paragraphs is to make a piece of writing easier for a reader to understand. So hopefully, if they move to another state and get one of those teachers who vented in that Facebook group, their teacher will be able to tap into a “why” for them. I am pretty sure if the teacher does, the students will want to become better.

The Long Game

I'm not concerned with noise because I'm playing the long game.

This site’s central theme is building relationships, empowering learners. Long before this site and tagline were created, I worked diligently to build relationships with students. I also attempted to facilitate conditions to empower students. But, if I am truly honest, the conditions in my room were engaging, but not necessarily empowering. This was especially true inside the reading communities we were creating. We engaged in reading our books, we engaged in discussing and sharing our books, we engaged when reflecting about what we read, but far too often I’d hear stories about how the passionate readers I let go of each summer fell out-of-love with reading by the following year. I was sad. However, I eventually learned to cope with the fact that I was creating a dependent-on-me reading community. When you realize your passion to do something might not translate to the results you want to see, it is quite a humbling experience. I was not playing the long game.

So, for the last few years, I have worked hard to empower my students with the tools to find their own books and build their own reading communities. By the end of each year my students have lengthy “I want to read” lists stored in multiple places. They have go-to reader friends (kids with similar reading interests), and they know how to use various features on different websites to find books that may interest them. While I still work a great deal to build a reading relationship with each of my students, I now work equally hard at them not becoming dependent on me to give them their next book fix. I will be there until June, but I won’t be there in the summer or the following years.

The idea for this post came from a question I received from an observer to my room this past week. The observer was carefully watching the reading conferences I had with students. In one conference I asked a student, “What are you planning on reading next?” When she shrugged, we talked more about her current book, Allegiant by Veronica Roth. The student shared several reasons why she has loved the Divergent trilogy so far (side note: it will be interesting if this student becomes as righteously indignant as I was about the ‘twist’ Veronica Roth threw into the end of this series). Then I showed her how to use a few websites to find books that may have similar elements to the Divergent series. I shared with her how much I liked one of books we found and she looked delighted and said something like, “Thanks, I will check that out!” Then she started to walk away from the conference. I didn’t let her go, we talked some more and she left with several titles to consider and to write down into her reader’s notebook.

After class the observer shared some thinking about this conference then asked “What made you continue on, even though she liked the first book?” My response was, “Future planning for all the readers I work with, I am in it for the long game. I want to run into a kid like her four years from now and hear her joyfully share what book she is currently reading. I am a big fan of driving home the importance of being a planful reader. I want to empower the students I spend a year with to be readers years from now.” We continued to talk and share more thinking around the idea of how we measure success as a teacher. My thinking over the last few years has shifted monumentally. I still want my kids to have a great day, week, or even a year. However, it is becoming more important to me to see them flourish several years down the road.

If educators truly want to impact change in our kids and empower learners, we need to think beyond the 180 days the kids spend with us in one year. We need to help them learn the tools that will not only help them this year, but next year, the year after that, and hopefully for many years into the future. Yes, our goal should be creating amazing learning communities for our children this year, but we need to keep the ‘long game’ in mind. We need to embrace the idea that success is running into a former student four or five years into the future that you remember. Then seeing the spark in her eyes when we ask, “What are you reading now?”, “Are you still into judo?”, or “I remember your writing so well, do you still love writing now?”

When you are planning for your next lesson or unit, keep the long game in mind. Celebrate if your students are successful tomorrow or next week, but also reflect. Are you empowering them in a way that will help their long-term success, or are you just engaging them for the short-term? For me, I am thinking a great deal about the tools my readers are developing now that will help them for many miles down the road instead of a drive around the block.

Chasing Mr. Tingley

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In the fall of 1985, I had no idea that I would ever be a teacher. Most likely, I wanted to be a professional golfer or comic book illustrator. As a junior in high school, I am sure the idea of being a teacher had not even crossed my mind. For much of my middle and high school years, school was not where I envisioned my life happening.  It took a very insightful college professor to suggest taking the introductory education class my junior year of my undergraduate studies to open my eyes a little. Thankfully I took that class and fell in love with the idea of helping kids learn. From that first experience until now, I have had wonderful mentors who have lifted me considerably.

However, when I really reflect, my first ‘mentor teacher’ was Mark Tingley. Now, 23 years into my teaching career I am still chasing the high bar he set. Classroom Communities is focused on how educators can build powerful relationships with their students. Even though I had lots of great teachers throughout my career as a student, Mark Tingley was a natural at building connections and inspiring learning in his classroom.

I was a pretty good student in high school. I wasn’t at valedictorian level, but I was smart enough to play school well and to get mostly As and Bs (AP Calculus not included). When I rolled into Mark Tingley’s physics class my junior year, I probably knew nothing about physics other than what I learned from Schoolhouse Rock’s A Victim of Gravity and Electricity, Electricity. Within days, I quickly learned that physics was my favorite period of the day.

Mark Tingley made a point to get to know who we were in order to connect us to physics, he wanted us to succeed, and he made physics phun. I had liked and probably learned in previous science classes (the burn and scar on my arm from molten hot glass in chemistry was a highlight of high school), but I had never loved going to a science class. To be honest I am not sure I loved going to any class until physics.

Mark Tingley was skillful in  finding connections between what we loved and the concepts o of the class. For me, he connected the principles of golf and swimming to physics concepts like linear motion and conservation of energy when he checked my progress in a lab setting. I would hear him try other ways for others to understand concepts a well. He set expectations for how we should learn from others in the class in meaningful ways. Mark Tingley was passionate about helping us understand a subject that most of us would never use post high school.

Mark Tingley pushed us to succeed. He loved physics and he wanted us to love it as well. He always had an open door if we wanted help. Even though I didn’t need to extra support often, I never once felt like I was doing the ‘wrong thing’ by stopping by his room to ask for it. There were teachers in the school that were not as welcoming when a student struggled, but he wasn’t one of them.

Mark Tingley also led us with an amazing sense of humor and joy. Which promoted the concept of fun in the classroom. He wrote tests and quizzes by hand before making dittos (if you are too young to know what a ditto copy is, you missed out on the simply pleasure of smelling a freshly made copy). These tests would be titled in ways that would make us laugh right before we had to show we learned. I will never, ever, forget the mid-October test, “The Smell in the air is Pumpkin, so it’s time for some Physics Phlunkin’!” Well, I have completely forgotten what the test was about, but the title burned into my memory. Friday quizzes were a lottery system. A student would spin a centrifuge labeled Regular Quiz, No Quiz, Everyone Gets and A, and Double Points. You were a hero or a goat depending on your luck, but we loved it. The labs we did in physics were wonderful hands-on activities that made the concepts stick. I even created some of my early career elementary science explorations based on labs from physics.

For an entire year, I was consistently engaged and wanting to learn more. I had a teacher who knew me as a student, but also as a person. I had a teacher who, for at least a little while, had me thinking that maybe I should study physics in college. I had a teacher who now is in the back of my mind when I think about how laughter and learning can go hand in hand. Whether it was a corny joke in a lab session, a ridiculous problem based scenario on a test or just a belly laugh when we shared how our day was going, Mark Tingley’s personality still resonates with how I want to establish a learning community in my classroom.

Mark Tingley has retired from the field of education, but his influence is felt by the students I have been fortunate enough to welcome each year. Principal Danny Steele from Alabama wrote, ““Kids aren’t inspired by lessons… but by teachers — teachers who bring joy to the room, passion for their subject, and love for the students.” Mark Tingley was a teacher who inspired me. There were many more in my life, but he is the one who I fondly remember when I think about how I should interact in positive and meaningful ways with my students to engage them in the act of learning. Which is why in many ways I feel like I am racing to keep up with the memories from that class.

Who were the teachers who profoundly inspired your thinking about our profession? Hopefully, you had one or two like Mark Tingley. If you did, thank them.

Immersed in a Reading Community

“Talk is the sea upon which all else floats.James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970.

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Most of the time, the act of reading is solitary and quiet. I crave days in which I can carve uninterrupted chunks of time with a book. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. My reading life, especially during the school year is short bursts of intensely focused time mixed in with longer stretches of time with multiple things getting in the way.

However, I have come to understand that even if every day of my life had a few hours built in for me to read the way I want to read, I might not be involved in a community of readers. So, my typical 20-30 minutes of quiet reading time before school each day is enough for me, because several times each day I live within a community of readers. As Britton suggests, my life as a reader is enriched because of the sea of talk that opens and closes my reading workshop time, the sea of ‘talk’ that invades my social media feeds and the sea of talk about books that occurs in my home several times a week.

Over the past 20 years, I have dedicated most of my professional development time to learning how to help my students become better readers and writers. My mentors from afar and near include some of the smartest literacy people on the planet. My professional bookshelf looks like the who’s who of NCTE and the ILA. I have learned how to assess, plan, instruct, design classroom libraries, give book talks, be an advocate for choice, and so much more.

But, about 5 years ago I shifted from an over-planned reading instructor to one who decided the biggest impact I might be able to make is commit to using the power of talk to build a reading community. My over-planning was getting in the way of kids becoming a vibrant member of a community that reads for itself, not what others think we should read. By the end of the year, my goal is to help my readers not only feel confident in their personal reading identity, but have a sense for how to help each other become more confident.

This shift to a more authentic reading community happened about the time I was catching myself bending the truth about my own reading. I would share things like, “I read for 40 minutes last night,” when maybe I only read for 30. I would say, “I loved _______________,” when maybe I only tolerated it. I would say, “I haven’t got to book three in the _______________ series because I have too many other books to read,” when it was probably because after book two I thought there was no way I could live with these characters in my brain for any more time.

The most valuable part of our readers’ workshop may be the time the students get to read. Each day, the only sounds you hear in my room for 20-30 minutes is the turning of a page, a pencil scraping against a notebook, and the very hushed whispers of a reading conference. However, I know the most valuable part of our reading community is the 5 minutes of talk on either side of the independent reading block.

During the five minutes prior to independent reading, we share our reading lives in the past 24 hours, we honestly talk about the books we read and we set goals for reading in the next 24 hours. When this talk is happening a much more honest version of my reading life has emerged. My students know a great deal about me as a reader. My modeling helps them learn about a readerly life and it gives them permission to be honest.

If had a terrible night/week of reading they know it. They know I am frustrated about lack of time or I am stuck finding a book that speaks to me. When I have an excellent night of reading with a book that I can’t put down, they know that as well. They know I am partial to lots of books, but still have difficulty with historical fiction. They know I have friends outside of my school that inspire me to read more and try books I wouldn’t normally try. They also know I recommend books to adults as well as them. I work hard to make sure I am fully transparent during this ‘status of the reading community’ talk.

It may take some time for the kids to become fully transparent. Some will ‘stalk’ for a while and say what they think I want to hear. Some will choose to pass if I ask them to share. But almost inevitably they all end up joining, because they learn that a reading community, like any community accepts and wants to take care of each of its members.

Once everyone is fully invested, our communal knowledge of each other makes it nearly impossible to feel like an outsider. I am only 13 days into helping new reading communities develop, but I have already seen signs with this year’s group of students that are so promising. During our ‘status of the reading community’ meetings I have heard personal book recommendations because a student has already learned that another might like the book she is reading. I have seen kids give each other tips like, “read in study hall if you don’t have time to read at home tonight’ and ‘I read in the morning while I eat breakfast because it helps me want to read more once I get to reading workshop.’

During our conversation at the end of our independent reading time, the kids in pairs or small groups check in on each others’ goals, try to persuade others to read a book, ask each other questions, and share joyfully about what they read in class. During this time I join a group and model some more. I wholeheartedly take book recommendations and jot down a note or log the book into my Goodreads account. I share what I thought when I read a book being discussed. I share my plans for reading later in the day.

Without all of the low-stress conversations centered on reading, I know my goal to help build a community of readers would be much more difficult. The kids would be missing something that is really great. And selfishly I have learned I would be missing out on being a member, not director of a reading community. So while I know that giving my students time to read books of their choice in school is vital, I have learned that without the sea of talk that ebbs and flows in our room, our community would suffer and our reading lives would be less connected and joyful.

A Classroom Designed For Community

As the 2017/18 school year approaches, I have worked many hours setting up my new classroom. A classroom that will welcome students that are older than any other group I have seen. After 22 years of learning in elementary schools, I will be learning with 7th graders this fall. I cannot wait for these kids to walk through my door. New challenges excite me.

Besides the daunting task of curating the classroom library I brought from my previous classroom, the most fascinating task was to think about how my new learning space will meet the needs of a diverse range of learners with the resources that were available to me. I probably spent a good day or two just ‘mapping out possible room designs on my computer. Then another day or two moving furniture around my room. While doing all this work, I thought about how during the last ten years an enormous amount of reading, research and practical application shifted my thinking about room design.

I am still learning about the impacts of classroom design, but I do have two guiding principles that helped my work over the last few weeks.

Spaces for Community, Collaboration and Individual Work.

As learners we thrive in multiple settings. We learn both individually and by collaborating with others. We also can learn from large group settings in which we build a shared knowledge. However, as adults who are responsible for our own learning we adapt our learning spaces to suit our preferred needs at the time. For me, effectively learning happens in multiple ways. I can close my door during my planning time, work in the dining room of my house, or find a completely different space. If collaboration is important to me I can meet with colleagues in my school, meet with colleagues not at my school at another site or use a tool like Google hangouts and collaborate from my couch. Our students don’t have as much freedom as we have in school. They are in our classrooms for specific lengths of time and for the most part we expect them to learn in the space we have.

This is why over time I have intentionally designed spaces that allow kids in the confines of my classroom to have community, collaborative and individual spaces. The classroom designed with all learners in mind needs to have these zones in play. Just like us, our students need the flexibility in learning spaces to best suit their needs. The book, The Third Teacher  has influenced most of my thinking about community, collaborative and individual learning spacesthough I will admit that I’ve never had the budget to create some of the spaces shared in it.

Options for Student Seating

In the book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, there are numerous ideas and rationales for different types of student seating. One idea that resonated with me is his call to “allow students to sit in different ways.” For the first 10 years I taught, there were basically two different ways, at a desk or on the floor. After reading Teaching with the Brain in Mind, I started to explore different possibilities on a limited budget. Items like cushions, smaller tables and standing tables were gradually introduced into my room. Over the years, students have appreciated the different options. Some students will be at a standing table for nearly the entire time they are with me. Others will work at a table or desk consistently. While others will stand for a while, move to the floor then maybe end up in a desk or table. Different seating options work because sitting still in a desk for an entire class period or school day is not an easy task.

Writing this post reminded me about how I effectively learn and work. During the last 30 minutes I have stood to walk around to marinate my thinking. I have had the laptop on my lap in a chair and now I sit on a stool with the laptop on my kitchen counter. In some classrooms, I would be reprimanded for being off task and disruptive. In classrooms that appreciate a learner like me, I would probably be excelling instead of being demoralized.

The ‘For Now’ Design

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In my classroom there are 22 “traditional seating” options. The 16 clustered desks into tables serve the joint purpose of a more individualized space and an easy way to promote collaboration. The large table will have 6 chairs around it. At times this table will serve the same dual purpose role of the 16 desks. At other times this I will use this table as a place for small group teaching. Students who chose to ‘land’ at this table during the beginning of class, will know they might have to find a different spot if I pull a small group for focused lessons or conversations.

The two standing tables and the low table are ‘less traditional’ seating options. When fully utilized these areas can accommodate eight to 12 students easily. Like the more traditional seating options, these areas are for independent and collaborative work.

The mix of the traditional and less traditional options described so far can easily accommodate 34 students, which is larger than the maximum class size I will see. I intentionally chose have more than enough seats. I could have easily removed four of the desks to create more floor space, but I wanted to make sure that students had a variety of choices and there would always be enough table or desk areas for students.

I know students will use the floor space and areas against the walls. I envision students using the ‘nook’ in the lower right if they are comfortable on the floor and need a much more defined personal space. The areas along the wall at the top of the design will serve the same purpose.

Finally, the ‘low table’ is easily moved creating a large floor space in which we can all meet in a circle. I know having a ‘meeting area’ is definitely more of an elementary mindset, but there will be at least one moment daily where we are all together in this area. I think it is vitally important when you have a classroom centered on community, that you have a clearly defined space and time for the discussions that will enhance the community.

A Tour of Room 229 

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Walking into my room. Those windows! Yes, I hit the jackpot for natural lighting, and I plan on taking full advantage of it. The blinds will rarely be closed in this new space I will be sharing with my students. You can also imagine if I quickly move the low table we will have an ample community meeting area.

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The left and right sides of the room viewed from the front of the room. There will be six chairs around the table in the top picture.

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The left and right of the front of the room viewed from the back of the room. I envision students seated on the floor leaning against the wall space in the bottom picture if they feel the need to have a quieter space or if they prefer sitting on the floor.

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This is wall is opposite of the windows. The soccer ball bean bags are in the ‘nook’ I mentioned earlier. I can also see students using leaning against the wall of cabinets.

The one item you didn’t see in this room was a desk for me. I ditched my ‘teacher desk’ years ago because I never used it. When students are in the room, I go to them or we are together in a large or small group. When students are not in the room, I use the standing tables or the larger table as my work space. If you can see yourself being able to inhabit a classroom without a clearly designated teacher space, I encourage you to get rid of your desk as well. The lack of a clearly designated space for me was an indirect message to the students that I was a full-fledged member of their learning community.

Student Participation in the Design

As of the date of this post, students are still not in our school yet. My last guiding principle for classroom design is student input. Initially things will look like they do, but after a few weeks of adjusting, I will actively seek their ideas. There will be a few non-negotiable items. For example, the bookcases are actually two giant units that will be very difficult to move and I definitely want to include some sort of whole class meeting area. However, I want students stakeholders in this room. If we discover the desks by the windows would be better in a different location, we will shift furniture around. In my experience, there is better student ownership of a space if the students actually have some say in the space. 

Another piece to student participation is the relatively blank walls in the space now. Students will design and manage these display spaces. Kids will develop spaces for anchor charts, books suggestions, and reminders of upcoming events.

Of course, student participation in designing the space for our community could present some challenges, but if I am leading an authentic classroom community, then I can’t dictate all design elements in the room. It could be messy to establish plans across different classes, but it will be worth the mess.

Concluding Thoughts

Over the past few years countless tweets, posts and images flooded my social media accounts in which teachers have created ‘Pinterest’ worthy classrooms. I hold no ill will toward these posts and I often think, “Wow, that is adorable.” However, I don’t think you need to have an unlimited expense account to design a classroom that is intentionally and mindfully designed with community in mind. Take a chance and think about the use of space, choice in seating options and letting go of some of the space to your students. You and your kids will be happier and more ready to build a learning community.


In addition to The Third Teacher and Teaching with the Brain in Mind, the following resources influenced my thinking about classroom design over the past few years:

http://www.hermanmiller.com/research/solution-essays/rethinking-the-classroom.html

http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jls/article/view/578

http://www.salford.ac.uk/built-environment/about-us/news-and-events/news/study-proves-classroom-design-really-does-matter