Yesterday, I had a couple of visitors pop into my classroom. Jane and Jane are educational consultants who are helping my district with the implementation of full-day kindergarten. Because they know about early childhood education and emergent curriculum, I asked my principal to bring them by my classroom because I thought they could help me with my exploration of "organic learning" and give me some feedback about classroom environment. Sometimes I wonder if all the attention I give to design is just wasted on window dressing, and is really missing the mark (the mark being, what we can do to give kids the best education).
When the Janes came (accompanied by my dear friend Andrea, who is the Early Learning Coordinator), it was at snack time. It was unfortunate because the Janes didn't see us in our full learning mode. But they still were able to see what the room looked like with kids in it.
I was interested in what they asked even more than what they said. They said really positive things, but they asked some interesting questions that I hadn't really explored consciously before. At first they asked the regular questions like where the risers came from, what the students do for storage, etc. But then they asked some not so frequently asked questions. (I know I don't have the exact phrasing of their questions, but I think I have the gist).
Do the kids give you a lot of input (about the classroom set up)?
The answer is yes and no. They tell me that they like the risers and the decor, but they don't really tell me how it should be changed. I think they see the environment as something I am really interested in, so it's the "teacher's thing" and they let me run with it. Not really my intention, but this is where it has ended up. In fact, during classroom meetings the things they want to change are things they do or have (e.g. more art, another classroom pet, etc.), or things beyond our classroom, (e.g having a swimming pool at our school). I think they are satisfied with our classroom set up. I asked the Janes if they thought my classroom was too much stimulation or too much to do with me, and they didn't think so. I think they liked to overall tone of the classroom because it was calm and inviting.
Do the boys use the risers to stand more than the girls do?
Generally, the answer is yes, the boys use the risers as a standing desk more than the girls, especially at the beginning. One thing I definitely noticed is that the girls use the vertical bulletin boards to write on more than the boys. One particular group of girls like to collaborate on stories, so I think they find it easier to post the work up, so they can see it and talk about it. The boys are more "huddlers", standing at the risers or the back window counter.
Do the student choose where they sit on the risers, or do they have assigned spots?
The students choose where they sit. They place their lapdesks and now a pillow to vaguely reserve their spots on the risers, and they those they tend to move spots from day to day, they seem to have a social contract with each other that their spot on the risers is theirs for the whole day. Thus, they tend to return to the same spot within the day, and their ownership of that spot, for the day, is respected. And yes, I will move kids around if I feel that is not the best spot for them to learn, but it happens less than you might think.
What kinds of effects is the environment having on learning?
This really is the big question, and it does not get asked very much. And the problem is I can't really tell what effect it is having. I have no data, and any thoughts I have are anecdotal. I think I told the Janes that I definitely saw a lot of pride in my students with the classroom. They like their classroom, they like the look of it, and they especially like the choices they get to make in terms of working spaces, (standing, sitting, lying down, with or without other people, in a corner, by a window, on an easel, on a bulletin board, seated at a desk, etc.).
The part I didn't tell the Janes is that I feel that the riser set up has really brought my class together as a community. Because all of my students share all of the workspaces, the students are having to make decisions and interact with others in order to find themselves a workable space. They have to monitor their own behaviour if they are allowed to stay on the risers or choose the place where they sit on them. Also, the students are not separated from other students by individual desks or chairs. I remember at the beginning of the year, one student in my class being very uncomfortable sitting by boys, so she sat on the edge or maneuvered herself to be with girls. I don't see that same discomfort now.
Another test was my new student, B, who has been with us a few months now. At first, he really didn't fit in. He chose to sit at a desk because that is what he was used to at his last school. At the beginning, he really acted up because he was trying to get noticed so he could make friends or find his place within the classroom. Now if you walked in my classroom, you couldn't tell B from any other student.
Another parallel is when the class across the hall joins us for a big session of writing workshop. When we first started joining classes, the students from the other class took a while to settle in, but now it is remarkable how the space accommodates over 45 bodies working in different areas. When people come in during those times, they are surprised that I have more than one class in my room at the time.
So yes, I guess the classroom environment does affect the way students learn and interact. At first, I couldn't see it because I didn't think I had anything to compare my situation to.
The time I had with the Janes was only about 10 minutes. I wished that I could have picked their brains a bit more, but even in the short time that I had with them, they had me think and rethink about what I am doing with classroom design.