One of the first classrooms I taught in was handed down to me by a retiring teacher almost a decade ago. She said something on her way out that has stuck with me over the years.
“It’s just a room, what you do inside is what matters”.
I’ve always tried my best to keep this simple yet profound thought somewhere in the back of my mind as I struggle, daily, with organizing the layout of the room. I don’t leave the tables and chair in one spot all year. Every single day there might be a slightly different arrangement depending on what we are doing in class. I have the philosophy that a learning space needs to be physically flexible. It needs to be adjusted and reflected on just as much as the content that I teach. The two work in concert to accomplish the goal of creating an atmosphere conducive to motivated, self organized, organic learning.
It’s just a room. It is just ‘space’. A space to create. A space to imagine. A space to feel safe to explore information and concepts that are barely beyond my current understanding. A space for students to want to push beyond the reach of their learning comfort zone.
I like to learn here. I reflect here. I slow time here. I give up my authority here. I try to become one of the many who are struggling to understand the goals for the day. I ask questions and listen to feedback. I find direction and passion.
I am not ‘in charge’. I am learning. I am respecting the space. I am listening. I am thinking. I am modeling the reflective process. I make mistakes. I embrace those mistakes openly with students and act on feedback.
My students realize very early on that this class will use space very differently from other classes. They might come in one day and see all the tables and chairs stacked up against a wall. They might see all the chairs in a circle or all the tables in a giant square. They come to know that the ideal ‘look’ for my class really depends on a few things:
- What are we going to be learning/discussing/reflecting about today?
What is the guiding question? What do I want students to reflect on? What specific skills will they need to accomplish any reflecting they do at home.
- How will the organization of the room help or hinder that process?
The layout of chairs, desks, tables, floor, projection equipment, and how they all work in concert with each other has to be carefully thought out. I spend lots of time every day/night thinking and reflecting on how tomorrow will be different or better than today.
- What useful feedback from the students can do to enhance the space and process?
I remind myself that the student’s feedback is essential and I take their comments seriously as I apply them to my own reflections. I make changes to my instruction the class agrees on what will improve their learning.
I make a point each morning to stop myself after I’ve written the daily agenda, learning objectives, and goals for the day to reflect on how the room is going to be used. I often visualize the class functioning and look for potential trouble spots in flow and focus. As the class begins I have to think about the current use of space and if the reality of what I envisioned is working. What is more important is that I need students to tell me if what I have organized is working for them. We practice providing feedback for the layout and organization of the room every single day at the end of class. Students lead this discussion and talk honestly about what worked and what didn’t. It is my responsibility to listen to their observations and respond. Sometimes I respond with my original thought process and explain what my rationale was when designing the activity. We decide as a group what will change tomorrow. Thankfully (to my ego) sometimes the students tell me what I originally envisioned is working well and nothing needs to be changed or tweaked.
Everything is on the table and transparent. Students have just as much a right to see what goes into the planning and organization as anyone. They also have the right to challenge my process and demand that I be better.