Make Your Custodian Uncomfortable!

I like to go to places like Disney World because it’s a fantasy. It’s a place that is like no where else. One that is far from reality. We never stay there for long; just long enough for us to decompress and wish to be “back home”. Traditional classrooms are like Disney World: A fantastical bubble where rules beat to their own drum and where people feel safe to dream big. Sadly, the difference between school classrooms and Disney World is that no one expects Disney World experiences to sustain when one leaves and moves on with their life. We expect however, that what is learned within classrooms should naturally present itself in the real world and prepare students for tomorrow. Abner Peddiwell in Sabertooth Curriculum refers to education being the ability to teach what the community needs and having the will and energy to do it. Our community today no longer matches what we see in classrooms. Therefore, what classrooms look like and how they are structured becomes almost an old dream, a thing of the past. It’s become what HGTV would call a “fixer-upper”.

If we look around our community and study the successful work spaces that exist today, we we will notice what I believe to be three characteristics about these environments:

1. Environments that naturally foster communication and collaboration

2. Environments that invite workers to be flexible with ideas, spaces, and even schedules

3. Environments that give a sense of community and comfort within the entire work space.

One day I realized that if that is what I see in my world, that is what I need in my classroom as well. One of the most difficult challenges teachers face is helping students transfer learning from classroom to independent practice. I believe part of the reason this is difficult is because of the visual and physical disconnect between the different environments. We have to reimagine our learning spaces. Think coffee shops, libraries, and office spaces of social media companies. Then ask yourself the following questions:

How can my classroom be structured in a way where students can’t help but collaborate? How can it inspire flexibility and creativity? How can my learning space be even more comfortable for students?

If you’re thinking this way and envisioning what you would see in the natural community around you, you will notice how out of place desks would be if placed in a coffee shop. In our realistic collaborative, comfortable, and flexible work spaces, we have round tables, coffee tables, couches, high bar tables, pillows…you get the picture. So start dragging those desks out (with a smile)! Make your custodians give you dirty looks! Stack up those blue static-y chairs and send them away. Your kids will thank you later.

If we imagine it right and our classrooms do become reflective of real-life work spaces, then furniture and/or decor can be found not in school stores or catalogs, but in our communities. I spent an entire summer stopping in and out of 4 different Goodwills in my neighborhood. You will not find everything you want in one stop but with enough patience, you can collect bargain pieces as low as $5 dollars to start redesigning your class learning space.

Below are photos of my classroom last year. It became sort of a transitional classroom where my students said it was part coffee shop, part library, and part classroom. I kept some resemblance of traditional classrooms as a way to support students who were not quite ready for a drastic change and needed the transition. However, by the end of the year, all kids were fluidly moving in and out of work spaces and viewed the entire room as their place rather than just their four-legged table top. With a classroom where every student has an iPad, one would think everyone is silently absorbed to their digital screens with no mind to those around them. It’s quite opposite actually. Students pile together to read, share, and collaborate as if they were 10 year olds going on 30. I will always believe that instructional approaches and tools impact engagement, but the physical space in which learning takes place can make a world of difference to helping students draw the line from school to world.

If you have redesigned your classroom, please share!