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

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 7.26.16 AM

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 

20170804_143805

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.

20170804_14352920170804_143455

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.

20170804_14355320170804_143747

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.

20170804_143539

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

Planning For A New Community

14483143668_590885a030

I saw an aspen tree for the first time about seven years ago. Within an instant the aspen’s white bark, simple leaves, and movement in the wind tugged at my gaze. The aspen is a gorgeous tree. I later discovered the aspen tree is so much more than itself. There is really no such thing as a lone aspen. One aspen is actually part of a bigger organism, the root system of the aspen extends over a large area and produces multiple aspen that connect to each other. I just oversimplified this amazing organism, but it is fascinating that aspen are not independent trees, but a community that thrives together. We should be so lucky to be connected like the aspen are.

I have many goals as an educator, but when I begin a new school year the primary goal is building a community of learners. I want the classes I learn with to feel like a stand of aspens. My hope is that all of us will be better learners because we connect with each other. And hopefully these connections will move us toward a common goal of being empowered learners and more active citizens in our school and community. The work I expect to do the first month of the school year will be difficult, but I know it is vitally important if we are to progress as learners.

The Commitments I Make During the Beginning of a School Year.

Listen, listen and then listen some more: Years ago I was fortunate enough to learn from Max Brand when I did my year of training to become a literacy coordinator. The learning was intense, but incredibly rewarding. One of the major concepts that was repeatedly reinforced that year was to watch the students and listen to the students. Over time I have become better at using the idea of “kidwatching” to refine my practice. While you should always be willing to listen to your students, there is no more important time than the beginning of the year to commit to listening to your students. Let them have some voice in the room, it will pay off later in the year.

Find ways to learn more about my students: I work hard at the beginning of the year to help establish some norms for classroom discussions and independent work time. During the time I work to help establish the norms, I often chose activities that allow the students to share about themselves. Specifically their lives outside of school. I used to use a lot of surveys and checklists. You probably know the ones I am picturing now; a sheet of paper with 10-15 questions like “what is your favorite movie” or “how many people are in your family.” I still sometimes will pull together something like that if I want to know very specific things about my students, but now I do most of this information gathering in different ways. Informal questions like, “What is the best movie ever?” turn into prompts for when we are working on building norms for classroom discussions. Or they turn into quick-write prompts for when we are working on building norms for independent work time.

Intentionally plan community building time: Even though I know time is precious in a middle school, I know I need to plan specific activities that on the surface may seem like they have nothing to do with language arts. Every year I look for new community building or team building activities that help students connect and work together. Sometimes these activities look like something that you would expect to find in a science lab (paper airplanes and egg drops) or an art class (heart maps and personal logo design), but the point of these activities are to help the kids work together and learn more about each other when we begin the school year. I know based on the research and work of Neil Mercer, Brian Cambourne and others that creating classroom conditions where students can help each other learn from each other as much or more than they can learn from me is a key to success. It is hard to get to a place where we are a learning community if we don’t know each other well.

Actively seek the thoughts and opinions of my students: It took me a long time as an educator to seek out the opinions of my students about how the learning was happening in the room we shared. I am not sure of the root cause for not asking for student advice, but for the better part of 10-15 years it never occurred to me to genuinely ask for feedback from my students. Now it happens many times a year. During the beginning of the year I ask for feedback about the room enironment. I ask questions like, “Are the desks and tables arranged well?”, “Are the norms for learning helping you learn?”, and “Does the classroom library need any updates?” When I ask for feedback it can hurt a little, but then I remember that student learning is really not about me, it is about them. And if there are little things that I can do to help make the environment for learning better, then I should do them.

Remember that to get to depth in learning we need to be ready to learn together: During the first weeks of the year, it is hard to dig deep into content for many reasons. Yet, I will still find myself getting nervous when I hear colleagues sharing stories about being on their second writing project or they have already had three formative assessments completed. Whenever I make the mistake of pushing curricular goals ahead of community goals, the learning later in the year suffers. It is not like the students are just sitting around doing nothing, but I need to remind myself that focus is on the kids and the community those first few weeks.

Choose kind: The beginning of the school year is difficult. As teachers, we can be overly tired and stressed. Our students may be having difficulty adjusting to new schedules and expectations. This is why I commit to choosing kind in the classroom. It is easy when you are not at your best to lash out at someone for something you don’t appreciate. I know I have barked at students in the first few weeks, days or maybe even minutes of school. I am sure it will happen again because I make mistakes, but I do commit to choosing kind and when I make a mistake I will work to correct it and make amends with the student. It is difficult to establish a learning community in a classroom when the lead learner acts in ways that are detrimental to the concept of community.


“The smartest person in the room is the room itself” is a quote from author/technologist David Weinberger that I have heard many times. I truly believe that Weinberger is correct. However, in his book, Too Big to Know, Weinberger also wrote, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all those who enter smart.” In his book, Weinberger focuses on the role of rapidly evolving role information and technology in our society, but I think the notion that the “room doesn’t magically make all those who enter smarter” is a good thing to grasp when thinking about the beginning of a school year. We can’t expect a community of learners to magically appear. We need to help cultivate our communities, by taking time and doing some work.

Remember the aspen I shared at the beginning of this post? Another interesting thing about the aspen is its extensive root system can lie dormant for decades before producing trees. It will only produce trees under the right environmental conditions. We all start the school year with dormant communities in our rooms. Whether they blossom or stay dormant will depend on the right environmental conditions emerging.

photo credit: JusDaFax Summer Aspens via photopin (license)

Looking at Teaching and Learning Through a “Relationship” Lens

34588296075_cd949dd477

The photographer Eve Arnold once said, “I don’t see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary. I see them simply as people in front of my lens.” When we think about teaching and learning in schools, we want to emphasize the idea that all of us — teachers, administrators, custodians, secretaries, guidance counselors, parents and most importantly students — are viewed as people first. These people can be extraordinary or ordinary, but we want to send the message that places of learning should be filled with value building relationships first. We should be looking at everything through a relationship lens.

This blog’s primary purpose is to share the how and why it is vitally important for classrooms and schools to embrace the positive impact of building positive relationships. We are thrilled to have a great group of educators joining us to regularly post on Classroom Communities. Within our group we have decades of experience working with students and colleagues in schools. We love the fact our group includes elementary and secondary teachers, administrators, as well as current and former instructional coaches. We believe the community of voices we are creating will resonate with many different readers.

We decided to launch Classroom Communities at the 2017 Nerd Camp Michigan for many reasons, but one is the community of educators and authors who regularly attend Nerd Camp Michigan are wonderful. During a presentation there, we spoke about how relationships are vitally important to help students feel valued and empowered to learn. During our talk we shared the idea of how little things can turn into big things if you commit to them, or as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said at the University of Edinburgh Commencement Ceremonies: “Do small things in a big way…whether you realize it or not, these things matter.”

Here are a few of the ‘little things’ we have infused into our classrooms, that over time have helped us to create meaningful relationships with the students in our learning community.

  1. Greeting students in the hall as they enter the room. This is a simple, but effective way to ensure your students know that you want to connect with them. This act doesn’t have to be fancy (you don’t need to have a special handshake or a 5 minute conversation), it can be as simple as, “Hey Alex, how is it going?” or “Good morning Salima, how was dance last night?” Two minutes a day in the hall, can have a tremendous impact of the culture of your classroom.
  2. Invite the teacher board. Consider a sign-up sheet in which students can invite you to out of school activities. Even in middle school and high school, students enjoy knowing if you can make it to a basketball game, piano recital, or theatrical performance. Of course you cannot make all of them (well maybe you can), but if you are able to attend, then you will show that you care more about the student than just the time you spend with them in the classroom. Another side effect of the invite the teacher board is that when you can’t attend an event, you still know when a student was doing something important to them. You can always follow-up with a quick chat after the event or wish them well the day of the event.
  3. Allowing students some say in the design of the classroom. We know that teachers value ‘their space.” There is almost something sacred about our classrooms. For many of us, we can be in our sacred spaces for many, many years. And we think we know exactly how we should design elements in our room. However, we have found that students value sharing input on how tables or desks are arranged. Since we share our rooms with 25-35 other people, we should consider the simple idea of asking them for their input.
  4. Joke Time. Let students share a joke with the class. This can be done at the end of the class period or day or at a transition time. You will need to set some expectations that work for you, but a quick bit of student driven humor infused into your classroom can do wonders for a classroom community.
  5. Share your own wonderings and learning. Schools should be places where everyone is learning. We know that is our responsibility to honor our curriculum and content, but sharing your own wonderings and learning that are outside of your curriculum allows students to see a teacher who is invested in other ideas. It also allows your students to see that you are with them on a learning journey. So open yourself a little to your students. If you spent 30 minutes the night before learning how to prepare a new dinner or reading deeply about a new topic, briefly share that experience in class.

If you have other “little things” that you use to build community within your classroom add the ideas into the comments. We want to learn what everyone else is trying with their students as well.

We hope this blog can serve as one of the little things in your professional life that help make each of us better teachers. Thanks for being a part of this community. We look forward to this journey with you.

– Tony Keefer and Brian Wyzlic

photo credit: Phototravelography Selfie without a stick. via photopin (license)