Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nothing to Do with Classroom Design (still)

Okay, so should I be insulted that my most popular blog post ever had nothing to do with classroom design?

As it turned out, it was more of a study in Social Media.  When I first posted the post about the Hidden App, I had a small spike in views of my blog.  This always happens.  My two followers read my post, or at least receive it, and then my readership flatlines. 

Then for the first time, I put a link to my blog on my Facebook page.  This caused a large spike that I had not seen before on my blog, and probably never will again (because people won't fall for that trick a second time). 

Then I put a link to my blog on my Twitter account.  This resulted in maybe two more views.  My Twitter account is close to dormant, and I have one follower (again, not my mom), so it was no surprise that my tweet had no effect on my blog readership.  But then my friend Anita tweeted about my post and I enjoyed another medium sized spike, as she has an active relationship with Twitter. 

Now my readership is kind of flatlining again.  It's like watching the stock market.

It wasn't until later that I saw the irony of the situation: I write about the sorry state of people not connecting due to electronic devices while I spread my message on my blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. 
Somehow, that irony was not lost on my wife.  

And now, back to life.  For a bit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Hidden App

Last night, my wife and I went to this cafe where we grabbed a quick dinner. It wasn't very busy at the cafe; there weren't many other people.  Even with the lack of people, I was surprised at how silent the place was.  The reason was, that apart from my wife and me, everyone else, mostly couples, was hooked up to their iPods, laptops, and handheld devices.  Okay, I get it when you are by yourself and you are eating, and you hook up to a device to pass the time, like reading a book.  And I almost get it when you are with other people and you get a call or text, and you quickly take it, then return to your party.  But I don't get it when people come to a social place, with other people (presumably friends or loved ones), and ignore their company.  There was this party of three who sat at a bigger table.  One lady was watching a movie, the guy was typing something on his laptop, and the other woman was texting people on her phone. 

Call me old fashioned, but this is not my idea of hanging out, of socializing.  (In fact, it reminded me a lot of when I was single.)   And, despite the fact that his technology is largely responsible for this state of affairs, I don't think it is Steve Jobs' idea of socializing either.  I know because he came to me in a dream last night after I saw this. 

Steve explained to me that there is a hidden app in every electronic device, not just the ones made by Apple.  You activate it by hitting the OFF button.  It is amazing!  You can see a non-virtual world in stunning, realistic 3D (and without having to wear weird looking glasses).  You can interact with people (in real time) by looking at them, talking, and listening, maybe even touching them.  You will pick up on the nuances of conversation, the body language, the tone, the way the hair drapes around the face.  Instead of typing or reading "lol", you can actually Laugh Out Loud or better yet, make someone laugh.  You will be astounded at how fascinating, interactive, and real it all seems.

And the name of this wonderful, hidden app?

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Last month, I had some teachers from Australia come by for a visit to my classroom.  They had encouraging things to say about the design and decor of my classroom. They asked a lot of questions, ("What do the parents think?").  They also had some suggestions, ("Wouldn't it be great if you took some data to back up your ideas here?").

But it was the first comment they made that really struck me.  It was something like, "I wish I could show this to some of our teachers back home.  They say they can't make changes to their classrooms because all they really have are four walls."  The Australian teachers liked how I had drastically changed the atmosphere of my classroom without having to tear down any walls or bring in a lot of expensive furniture or equipment.

A Love of Labour?  Wrong Guy
I took their comment as a huge compliment.  If you told me a few years ago that I was going to transform my teaching by transforming my classroom, I would have laughed.  (And if you told my mom that other people would be looking to me for design advice, she would have laughed).  In retrospect, I've poured a lot of time into this little project.  Here is an incomplete list of the things I have spent hours and hours on, with respect to classroom design:
  • getting rid of things that emphasized the factory model of school.
  • bringing in personal touches from home.
  • reading or trying to find resources that will enhance my classroom design journey (there are very few).
  • designing and constructing the risers.
  • looking for lapdesks.
  • finding deals on lamps, stools, material, etc.
  • rearranging things in my room.
  • thinking, thinking, thinking.
  • blogging.
I have spent a crazy amount of time on my classroom design, but it does not feel like work because I enjoy it so much.  Like my woodworking hobby, despite the fact that I am not terribly proficient, I still have a great time while I am doing it.  It is NOT work. 

The Design Guy
Speaking of work, I wrote in this blog that on Tuesdays, I have been seconded to look at innovation in my school district.  I have seen lots of terrific things and have been lucky to visit quite a few classrooms.  But the really funny thing is I always seem to spend a portion of time on classroom design.  Either by word of mouth or from this blog, people want me to come and see what is happening in their classrooms in terms of atmosphere, or they want me to drop by to give them advice.  People have done some really effective and unusual things in their classrooms.  (I am really happy to see that the changes they made reflect their philosophy about teaching.) 

Some teachers have some real challenges on their hands: no windows, no plugs, a science room that has sinks every couple of metres, noisy floors and heating systems, really ugly wall colours, too much storage or not enough, etc.  As I said, I don't really know what I am doing, but I try to give them a few suggestions based on what I hear the teacher saying about what they are trying to accomplish (e.g. a relaxing mood, a community feel, more visibility, etc.).   Sometimes, I give lots of suggestions because I get really excited about the possibilities, but that can be really daunting to the teacher who is just beginning their own design journey.  I tell those teachers: "Start small.  Do as much as you can handle.  Start with something that you think will have an impact on improving learning, but make sure that something is manageable."

Advice from Those Who Know
I wish I could take credit for this sage advice, but I heard it first from my students.  Remember?  After the first year, I asked them for advice and they said to introduce the risers slowly to get everyone used to the idea.  That way it was manageable for me and for my students.  Starting small or slowly makes daunting doable.   

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Floor Plan: How Does It All Fit?

I explain to people about my classroom, and I get a lot of blank stares.  No desks?  Risers?  Kids sprawled out on the floor?  They stand up to work?  You have a bunch of storage trolleys?  You do have some desks and occasionally some tables?  You can get 45 students to work in your classroom? How does it all fit? 

I have already mentioned my bias against desks (and their industrial, factory-like quality), but here I have a new complaint and an old one.  First, the old one: desks are not space efficient.  Between the desks and the chairs, they take up way too much room.  The risers take advantage of the third dimension.  By sticking my students in an elevated position in my classroom, they take up less space (hmmm, is this what they mean by "higher" education?).  Also, the chairs force a predefined space.  The risers are like a long bench, and my students voluntarily and gleefully cozy up to each other.  During discussion times, I can fit 15 students on the big set of risers which takes up the same space as about 6 desks and chairs.  

My second beef with desks is a new one: they are really noisy.  As you may remember, they ripped my stinky carpet out of my class and put in some lino tile.  I started off with a full class set of desks in September.  I could hear every time a student shifted in their chairs, every time they pushed their desks forward to look for something inside, every time a pencil or ruler dropped, every foot step, every sneeze.  All of these sounds were amplified because they reverberated off the hard floor.  I believe that some of the sound was reduced by the wimpy, wispy sheers I have hanging from my ceiling (because I noticed a
difference in the lino classes that are not equipped with the wimpy, wispy sheers).  But as my class moved to risers, the noise level dropped appreciably.  There are no chairs to shift and no desks to push.  Even the other noises are reduced because I am able to put a few rugs down in strategic places.  I couldn't put rugs down with desks because the desks would bunch and snag the area rug. 

I have a new partner this year (because of my Tuesday "innovation" job --- more about that later).  A few years ago, I had this big beast for a teaching partner.  He was terrific because he allowed me to start to pursue this whole classroom design journey, and he was handy because big beasts can hang up high things like wimpy, wispy sheers.  This year, I have a new partner.  She is not a big beast; she is shorter and cuter, more of a spunky sprite.  She is not so effective at the hanging jobs, but she is very enthusiastic about the other jobs.  It has been fun.  One thing she said to me on Friday was that when she gets her own classroom, she is definitely getting risers because of how much they cut down on the noise level in the room.  I like that, scientific evidence: an unsolicited confirmation of an observation I made.  Perhaps it is even more noticeable to the spunky sprite because she is only there once a week.  Or maybe because of her lack of height, her ears are closer to the noisy tile. 

Speaking of the tile, the other day, I realized that they used 12 inch square tiles to do my floor. This makes a perfect 1 foot or 30 cm grid running through the floor of my classroom. Pacing it out, I have a 29 x 29 ft classroom. This includes the cloakroom and the counters. Here is a picture of a floor plan I created (using Smart Notebook):
[If you click on it, it should get a little bigger]

I can easily fit my class on the risers during instruction and discussion times.  During "work" times, students break out to different areas of the classroom:
  • risers (directly on risers or on lapdesks)
  • floor and rugged areas
  • stools
  • counter spaces
  • bulletin boards (they work standing up, tacking their papers to the vertical boards)
  • easel
  • on top of the rolling storage bins
  • desks (some students still like to have their own desks, but that number is really dwindling.  In the diagram above there are 7 desks, but I think that number is down to 4).
The choice and variety affords lots of space, spontaneity, and flexibility.  Notice that I have two carpeted areas.  I look at classrooms with rows of desks and they struggle to have one carpeted area. Every afternoon, I bring the students to the back carpet for a read aloud story and some sharing, just for a change of scenery.  

The varied arrangement allows me to have 45 students working on writing plus 2-4 adults working with students in different areas.  I also have a folding card table that I can put anywhere.  I use it mainly for Guided Reading, so I can have a small group around a common table.  The little red stool allows me to pull up beside students and have a little working chat.  When I have learning centres or the Exploration Stations, I usually have them set up on the perimeter, maybe with one on the risers or another on the front carpet. 

The risers are fully movable and the 4 storage bins are on casters which makes for a space that can be converted easily and quickly to a new configuration.  By moving the risers, forward and back we can adjust for a larger or smaller group size.  By pushing them together, we can have wide work spaces for art.  By moving them off to the side, we have room for dancing or for parties. 

So this is how it all fits together.  It is still probably hard to visualize.  Maybe it would be better if you dropped by.  Call first, and bring doughnuts.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Jazz not Symphony

In a previous post, Daniel Pink and Me, I talked about how Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind, has described 6 senses that we all need in the workplace:
  • Story: the brain responds when information is conveyed in a story context instead of a list of unrelated facts.
  • Empathy: we relate to each other better when we understand how the other person feels.
  • Play: no joy, no engagement.
  • Meaning: we are now looking for meaning within our work, instead of relying on extrinsic motivation solely.
  • Design: everything has a design element, so we need to pay attention on why things are the way they are, and accept them or change them.
  • Symphony: we can be more effective if we are able to bring all elements together. 
All of these senses resonate in a classroom environment as well.  Story, Empathy, Play, Meaning, and Design provide a rich context for learning and help us relate to each other.  Symphony is bringing all of these pieces together in a meaningful way.

But for me, I'd like to add a 7th sense that runs slightly counter to Symphony, or is perhaps complementary to it.  And that sense is Jazz.  Symphony is bringing parts together in a pre-scripted arrangement.  When someone strays from that script is is noticed and discouraged.  Symphony is still beautiful, but has a different intention from Jazz.  Jazz has a basic melodic framework, but the players are encouraged to go as far as they can with the tune while still referencing the shared elements of melody, chord structure, tempo, rhythm, etc.  Listen to Disney's symphonic arrangement of "Someday My Prince Will Come" and then listen to the rendition by Miles Davis.   The Disney version is heavily orchestrated and every note is predetermined.  In Davis's version, it goes all over the place (and is 6 times longer than Disney's).  Yet in both cases, the players know where they are in the song because of the structure.  The difference is the amount of structure.

For me, teaching is more like jazz, rather than symphony. Like jazz, teaching has to be fluid.  Yes, you have to have an idea of what you want to accomplish (e.g. learning intentions, curricular objectives, etc.) but your teaching has to be open to variables outside of the plan (e.g. teaching style, relationship with the students, students' personalities and experiences, fire drills, etc.).  There is no such thing as the perfect lesson because what works for one teacher in a certain classroom on a given day with a certain group of students will not necessarily work if any of those variables are changed.  With Jazz, teachers can go off the plan and improvise on the spot. 

Similarly, in design and innovation, great designs are flexible and open to unintended uses.  I mentioned that the Stratocaster electric guitar has many qualities that make it a great country or rock guitar.  Its design make it easy to change and modify.  The iPhone is pretty good as a phone, but is also user-customizable so that it can be a calendar, a personal trainer, a media player, an organizer, a book, and whatever else you need it to be.  My chin up bar works better as a place to hang my laundry than it does as a workout device (Hey, those shirts can get heavy, and who can do any exercise with all of that laundry in the way?). 

I don't think Daniel Pink intended for Symphony to mean something so highly scripted as I describe here.  He was just emphasizing the need to bring all of the important elements together.  But it made me think that for me, Jazz is also a good metaphor for teaching and innovation.