Tuesday, September 01, 2020

"Is Classroom Design (Still) a Thing?" Classrooms in a COVID context.

It's hard to believe, but I started my Classroom Design journey 10 years ago.  From the beginning of my teaching career, from my first portable 30 years ago, I always thought about the way classrooms affect learning.  It wasn't until I started this blog though that I actually began to act on this idea.  I started blogging here for a few reasons:

    1. I wanted to document my journey and my thinking.

    2. Writing is a creative outlet for me, but it is also a way for me to process and reflect.

    3. I wanted to share and reach out to anyone else who was thinking about Classroom Design for feedback, support, and for more ideas.  

At the time, not a lot of people were thinking about how the way classrooms are set up affects learning.  I remember working on this blog at the beginning, and my father in-law asked me, "Is Classroom Design a thing?"  It was a foreign idea for him, thinking back to the classrooms he was in as a boy.  

I haven't blogged much in the last few, other things taking up my time, but I have been thinking a lot about classroom design lately, and not by choice.   In case you are from another planet or you are reading this many years in the future, due to the COVID 19 pandemic, schools were closed in the spring.  In my jurisdiction (Vancouver-area, British Columbia, Canada), we shut down in March and returned to school with limited amounts of students in class in June.  We were one of the few provinces to return in June.

What did June look like in my classroom?

  • On Monday and Tuesday, I had 7 students in class.  On Thursday and Friday, I had 4 students.  (The rest of my 12 students I taught through home-based assignments and video conferences on Wednesdays).  
  • For the in-class students, every morning, I met them outside (I wore gloves and a face shield) and took them back to the classroom to wash their hands.  They waited in line around the perimeter of my classroom which was marked with a vinyl tape line.  
  • Every day, we reviewed the safety and hygiene procedures.
  • I rolled up the carpet, pushed the risers to the back, and brought in some desks.  Each student was able to have their own desk and chair.  It was their spot and they were 2 m away from each other.
  • Each student had their own bin of materials, and their own individual work.
2 m spaced desks

What did I think of teaching like this in June?  
The in-class teaching was scary at first.  It felt really weird and we were all afraid of infecting each other after being isolated for three months.  The students did an excellent job of following the safety protocols and keeping their distance.  This was all doable because there were less than 10 students.  

In class learning went very well, however, trying to maintain online learning and staying connected to the 12 home students while seeing them once per week, was very, very challenging.   When we went for summer break, I was burned out.  I felt like pond scum.  I felt so bad that I thought I had contracted COVID (I tested negative).   It took me until late July to start feeling okay again.  

What does this have to do with Classroom Design, Greg? or "Is Classroom Design Still a Thing?"

Classroom design is impacted by COVID in these different learning conditions:

1. At home learning and Classroom Design
2. Return to class in June and Classroom Design
3. Starting new in September and Classroom Design

1. At Home Learning and Classroom Design

The feedback I received from parents was that though at home learning was not the same was classroom learning, they thought the transition (to home learning) went better than they thought it would.  They cited as a reason that we had built a good working and supportive community within the class.  At school, this class really liked being with each other and the design of the class (with the risers for whole class, the tables for collaboration, the tall stools looking out at the beautiful view for inspiration, the rug spaces for play or for stretching out on the ground, etc.) made it possible for different kinds of choices, learning, and interactions.  

(A few photos of the classroom before COVID, below).

Similarly or possibly conversely, the students' home environment had a massive effect on their learning.  Because our on-line learning began after a three week gap (two weeks of Spring Break plus time for us to cobble together a remote learning system), understandably, many students had a tough time getting themselves back in "school" mode while at home.  Some were in their pajamas, eating snacks or were passive or unresponsive during on-line lessons because watching me do a lesson on a screen did not seem that different from watching a video which is what they were used to doing from the comfort of their homes.  After adjustments along the way (worthy of a separate blog post), the learning situation improved. But it was noticeable that whether at home or in school, the environment played a large roll in students frame of mind for learning.   

2. Return to class in June and Classroom Design

When I heard we were going to return to in-class learning in June, I went in to school as soon as I could and started re-designing the space.   I already described what I did above.  Usually, when I am arranging my class, I focus on things like community, curiosity, comfort and flow.  But in redesigning my space for June, I focused on one main question, "How can I keep everyone as safe as possible?"  This utilitarian thinking drove everything: access to the sink, 2 m spacing, individual work spaces and supplies, getting rid of the carpet, reducing multi-touch areas, etc.  

3. Starting new in September and Classroom Design

Starting September with a new batch of 22 kids and some different conditions (full time attendance of the entire class with 2 m spacing an impossibility) will be a (design) challenge.  
  • Seating and desks
    • I have 10 desks left from June and 9 student chairs.
    • I re-assembled 3 tables, but they might only allow for 6 students with minimal spacing. 
    • I will probably dismantle the risers because they are great for community, but not so good for avoiding contact and shared spaces. 
  • Access to the sink 
    • In June, we washed our hands about 10 times a day.  We had a clear line while we were waiting in line that allowed safe spacing.  In September, we will probably have to go in groups to line up for hand washing. 
  • Again, safety will be important, but in this case equally important will be the affective domain. 
    • Last time, one of the biggest "benefits" to going to home learning in partway through the year was we already had a pre-established community and some norms and routines in place.   In September, I will probably have a new batch of students so I will have to find ways of bringing everyone together as a community. 
    • Beyond this, I want to focus on the emotional well-being of the students, and to decrease the fear and anxiety of coming to school in these unusual conditions, so I will work on using the classroom environment to create a sense of calm and comfort while still maintaining safety.  I'll try things such as:
      • warm, medium intensity lighting, not too bright, not too dull.
      • a neutral, natural colour palette as much as possible in the students' main frame of sight.
      • reducing the reverberation from the floor as much as possible.  Taking the carpet out in June was okay with 7 students, chairs, and desks, but multiplying that number by 3 is going to create a lot more noise and amplified echo from the hard slick floor.  I will continue to use my cobbled together mini-PA so every student can hear me without me having to shout.
      • having lots of fresh air circulating through the classroom and including live plants.   


I went into school today (since I began writing this).  Here is what my classroom looks like so far:

10 desks at the front, spaced about 1.5 m. 

3 tables in the back.

I made a prototype transparent vinyl barrier between students at the tables.
The green tape shows where the barrier would go for 3 students (preferable).

For 4 students.

So, yes, Classroom Design is still a thing, especially in the time of COVID.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Purge

This is a blog post that I wrote last year, 2019, and then for some reason forgot to post it.

The Challenge

My friend Lori challenged me during the Christmas break with this idea she got from some minimalist organization.  The idea was to get rid of one thing on the first day of January, two things on the second, three things on the third, and so on until on the 30th day you are getting rid of 30 things.  Usually I hate stuff like this.  I deleted the stupid ice bucket challenge that people sent me or the photo challenge or the Nigerian financial aid challenge, etc.  I see them as a waste of time that don't actually accomplish that much.

But the purge started to grow on me.  I thought my existence could use a great de-cluttering.  As I started to do the math though, I realized that in the last four days of the challenge, I would be trying to get rid of over 100 things!  Lori had said I could chuck them, gift them or donate them.  The idea was to get them out of your life or household.  I KNEW I wasn't going to have enough time to hunt down 100 things at the end of the month, so I kind of did the challenge backwards. I did the math and figured that over 30 days I would be deleting 465 things in total.  I figured that as long as I got rid of 465 things over the course of the month, that would achieve the same aim and be way less stressful.

The Purge

Here are some of the over 465 things I ejected:
-owners manuals of things I still have and no longer have
-toys and knicknacks (mine, not Beth's.  Yeah, I know).
-shirts and pants
-a couple of old jackets and sweaters
-pieces of wood I was saving for ?
-7 old toothbrushes
-36 pairs of underwear or socks
-clothes pins.  
-over 50 CDs and CD cases
-books and magazines
-stereo equipment

I was able to get rid of 465 things in weeks.  At first, it was kind of hard, but after a while, I got on a roll and it was really liberating.  Do I really need that bottle of 2 in 1 shampoo that has been sitting in the shower for two years?  Clothes pins?  Clothes pins?!   When is the last time I put washing on the line?  I can actually explain the 7 toothbrushes.  I was saving them for my (ex)brother in-law who used them to clean his bike chain, but I guess I didn't need to save them anymore because sister did some purging of her own.  

I put some stuff in the garbage.  I gave some things away at school.  I put a lot in donation bins.  I don't miss any of it, and my life seems less cluttered, but the biggest thing is my attitude toward new stuff: Do I really need this new thing?  I plan to repeat the exercise every year, so when this thing in my hand at the store, is this just something I am going to end up dumping on some January?  I plan to purge more, and more often.  I also plan to apply this to my classroom.  If I don't see myself using this thing any time soon, out it goes?  Hmmm, the minimalist classroom?


At the end of January, I checked with Lori to see how she did with the challenge.  She kind of shrugged and said, "That?  I gave up on that weeks ago.  I realized that by the end, I was going to spend hours trying to find over a hundred things in the last week......"

Note from 2020

Did I do the Purge again?  Yes, but not in January as I said.  I did it last week while I was self-isolating.  I don't know if I hit 465, but I was able to unload this weird pink chair that had been looking at me funny for months.  -GM

Monday, November 11, 2019

"New" School: Smiling Creek Elementary

Hi Classroom Design Friends,

Last year I moved schools from a 50 year old (but my room looked Dickensian; no direct sunlight, grates on the windows, mice) school, Leigh Elementary, to a factory fresh school with the cheerfully natural name of "Smiling Creek".  I tend to move every 4-6 years to keep my teaching fresh, to learn new things, and have an excuse for not knowing what is going on.  I was looking for a move. 

When I was thinking of leaving my beloved Leigh, I had NO intention of going to a new school.  I have taught in two new schools and a third in its second year, with the amount of work it takes to get a school up and running is daunting, you usually start with limited supplies, the students are a massive pack of wild cards, the parents have unrealistically high expectations, and trying to build a school/staff culture takes time and energy (which you already used up moving).   New schools are a constant year (or ten) of playing catch up.  Going into my 30th year of teaching (yes 30th and yet I'm only 19),  I didn't think I had it in me to go to a brand new school.

But I did.

Why?  The first and biggest reason is Remi.  Remi was my principal at Leigh.  He's a smart, fair guy who handles chaos in a very low key way.  In the time that Remi was principal at Leigh, the population doubled.   In addition to the solid core of teachers that were already at Leigh, Remi was able to attract and hire excellent teachers to keep pace with the student population growth.  When I found out that Remi was going to be opening Smiling Creek, I started to budge a bit about going to a new school. 

Knowing that I had opened a few schools and with my interest in classroom environments, when Remi began ordering supplies and furniture for the new school, once in a while he would run an idea past me.  Unlike previous new schools, I had the sense that Smiling Creek would have sufficient supplies to open.  So that ticked another box in Smiling Creek's favour.

The part that finally tipped the decision to shrug off my resistance to a new school was the new staff.  When I found out the who the teachers from Leigh that were probably going to move with Remi, plus the names of the teachers from other schools who were interested in moving to Smiling Creek, I could NOT pass up this chance.   When the dust finally settled with staffing, I was working with some newish friends, some old friends, some young up and comers, and some veteran legends.

What about the other parts that dissuaded me from a new school?  The work load of opening, the catch up, the kids and parents?  The last parts were less unknown than I thought or were overcome easily.  The students were not as wildcardish because a good chunk of them were coming with us from Leigh.  Likewise with the parents; we knew lots of them and they knew what to expect in a Remi-run school. 

What about the first year work load and the culture building?  Again, I think Remi really set the tone.  Remi has a style of principaling (is that a word?) that really appeals to me:

  • 1. Bring together the best people possible.
  • 2. Have a loose plan/flexible framework, but figure it out along the way.  Together.
  • 3. Trust in your people, and support them where they need it.  And then get out of their way.
Looking back, Smiling Creek's first year wasn't that much more work or stress than a typical school year.  It was by far, the easiest of the new-ish schools where I have worked.  

My take aways? 
  • Start slowly.
  • Work together.
  • Listen.
  • Never say never.
  • Grey polyester does not look good on almost everyone.  (Okay, me).

And in an odd turn of events, my wife also ended up changing schools: to Leigh. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

Where was I? Oh yeah...

As I was saying....

Last year, I wrote about monotasking, and how to put all of your eggs in one basket by focusing on the basket (i.e. what is the thing that brings all of your tasks together into one meaningful bundle?).  And then I ended up in Emergency because I couldn't feel my feet, so I don't know if that strategy really worked for me.  Or maybe the strategy works, but I wasn't doing it properly.

I decided to do less and to say "no" more.  I was really successful at it, and I had all of this time,  Well, up until the end of November of last year.  I did five presentations in three weeks, (four of them were within a week, and two of them were on the same day), and they were all on different topics, none of which was Learning Environments.  Did I mention I was doing my first term report cards at the same time? 

What did I learn? 

  • I am actually getting better at saying no.  
  • My timing sucks.  
  • My time management has greatly improved (but I was heavily supported by my wife who basically did everything at home).  
  • I can do a lot in a little time if I really push myself and do a lot of planning (I had my three week calendar as my desktop background to remind me of which part of which task I had to have ready by when, and I stuck to it).  
  • Even though I was busy, I didn't actually feel that stressed with the amount of work (though I still get very anxious when I present).   I think it was being so relaxed going into the busy time, and having time to decompress afterward that made the difference.
  • Surrounding yourself with great people and presenting to an appreciative audience is positively motivating.
  • Caffeine is not helpful to me in a prolonged, intense experience, but adrenaline in short bursts is.
  • I really love my pressure cooker.  (Hmmm, interesting metaphor).  It was helpful in making quick, tasty, and nutritious hot meals on cold days.   

Sunday, September 10, 2017

3 Books about Innovation, the Power of Simplicity.

I read some books about innovation, and they all say the same thing: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

1.  One of them is Ed Catmull's Creativity, IncOne of my respected colleagues, Cheryl Lloyd, sent me an email with the subject line, "My book choice for you to read, Greg!"  The email had no text in the body of it, just an attached photo of the cover.  I was intrigued and read the whole thing over the next couple of days.  Catmull told really interesting stories about Pixar, one of my favourite movie studios.  They consistently produce high quality, entertaining, and imaginative movies that appeal to a wide audience where age really doesn't matter.  The one thing that drives every movie, and drives every decision of making each movie is one thing: the story.

The story is the thing that is the conduit for the characters, the setting, the animation, the music, the marketing, etc.  Everything.  It becomes really apparent from the anecdotes and examples that Catmull describes in the book that the directors, the producers, and animators have to understand and be committed to the story or the project does not work.  I loved the book as a good read about corporate insight, an understanding of the creative process, and (from a follow up email from Cheryl) how the physical building affects communication and creativity.  This entire blog is devoted to how a creative environment enhances people's (students') productivity (learning).

2.  The second book, Insanely Simple by Ken Segall is about Apple and Steve Jobs, and how Jobs was always striving for simplicity.  Examples are: the one button iPhone, the two word ad campaign, "Think different.", and the clean lines and user interfaces of iPods, iPads, and iMacs. Not only are Apple's products minimalist and streamlined, but their processes are too.  There aren't meetings about meetings, in fact Segall explains how Apple's meetings are a small number of creative people who have the authority to make decisions.  Segall tells the story of Jobs politely but clearly asking people to leave meetings because their roles and functions are not clear, nor necessary to making decisions.  Similarly, there are no focus groups.  Jobs eschews focus groups because they tend to yield mediocrity, not innovation, or try to please everyone which leads to feature bloat.  

3.  The third book is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May.  I wrote about this book years ago (here), but I was reminded of it while reading these two other books because of its message of simplicity.  Elegance in design is the reduction of the unnecessary and distracting; the ability to pare something down to its core but still allowing the user to modify and personalise.  

What does this mean for education and classroom design?

I love elegance.  In the things I have created and designed, I have tried to keep everything as simple as possible, rejecting the ornate.  Reading these books, I am reminded of how important simplicity is.  

As we've been getting ready to go back to school, I've seen countless images of classrooms on line Classroom design has really taken off in the last few years, but with the influence of Pinterest and TV design shows, I think we have created a monster.  In the name of classroom design, people are creating these beautiful and interesting spaces, but they are beautiful and interesting the same way that I find Las Vegas beautiful and interesting.  

We are packing classrooms with homey borders and accessories, lighting that rivals something from Cirque de Soleil, furniture that is varied in colour and design presumably to give students choice, but might turn out to be clunky because they don't fit with the rest of the classroom, etc.  Maybe it's because I value simplicity, or maybe it is because MY purpose of classroom design is to help self-regulation while kids learn and to remove distractions, but I think we need to dial back and edit some of our design choices.  I am definitely guilty of this and need to relook at my classroom.  

These three books uphold the power of simplicity.  I think this concept is directly applicable to education as well, beyond classroom design.  Why not keep the users' (students') experience (learning) as clear and as simple as possible?  By simple, I don't mean boring, but how about a clean, clear way that keeps distraction and abstraction to an absolute minimum?  You know, elegant?

I took this picture to remind me what simple looks like.