Thursday, November 24, 2011

It turns out I am a Person of Colour.

I am starting to rethink the colour debate.  (I've posted about this a couple of times before; once promoting a neutral colour scheme here, and then again talking about how the classroom has to match the outlook of the teacher here). My school district is promoting a neutral colour palette because that bright splashes of colour are overstimulating.

Kindergarten class with natural wood furniture and a few muted pastel accents.

This Kindergarten class is pretty mild in terms of colour and is not too overpowering.  I guess the theory is if we are going to teach students about self regulation, then we have to give them a gentle atmosphere so we don't set them off right from the start.

I experimented with colour in my own class at the beginning too.  I had this one bold blue wall (with the smushed sheep sponge painting disaster), plus a couple of commercially-made alphabet strips with a rainbow background.  See below.

But when I moved to a different classroom, I pared the colour right down. NO commercial posters, NO big walls of colour, NO borders. Okay, I did have some burgundy drapes and a couple of other accents. And for a long time, I was very happy with it. 

Here's my calm, happy window space.  Ahhhh.

But then my contentedness ended.

The first reason is: over the summer, my stinky carpet (that had stains of suspect origin) was replaced with clean, blue-grey lino tile.  After 3 months, it looks pretty much the same as it did in August.  Clean, bright, and hmmm, a bit sterile.  My colour is the best out of the other colours that went in (and yes, I picked it, so I can't celebrate or complain) because the other ones look like baby vomit, or like the rich blue tile, they looked great in September, but show every single scratch since.  My floor looks clean!  Bright!  Think: New Hospital!  Not really the look I was going for.

The second reason that the non-colour honeymoon is over is: with my job to explore interesting classrooms, I have the opportunity to visit lots of other classrooms.  Last month, I invited myself into a couple of classrooms in another district.  Many of the classrooms looked pretty much as you would expect: a bunch of desks, mostly in rows with the usual displays with the background paper and borders that look like Walt Disney had a hemorrhage in a rectangular shape.  But a couple of classrooms were pretty terrific.  See below.

The four pictures above come from a grade 3/4 class. 
Every space in the classroom is used in a beautiful, inviting, and useful way.

Okay, I admit it.  I had colour envy.  It wasn't just colour, though, it was warmth.  My classroom lacked the warmth that colour gives.  I have to say that as ugly, stained, and nasally repellent as my old carpet was, it muted the atmosphere of my classroom, and oddly the muddy brown tone of the carpet added a certain richness.  The pictures of this other classroom actually don't do justice to the overall impact of the space.  To get everything to show up on the camera, I had to use a flash, so the colours are more subtle in real life because of the way this teacher used accent lamps.  And there were lots of them.

Actually, the classroom I originally visited in this district belonged to L.  She was kind enough to invite me in to see some of the things she was trying.  I was particularly interested because she teaches grade 7.  She had removed almost all of her desks and replaced them with small group tables.  She also had a number of floor spaces to use as well.  It turns out that her classroom was inspired by the classroom in the photos above.  I recognized elements like the dramatic use of table lamps and the corresponding throw rugs to cover the cords.

I love this shot.  It is of L reading a picture book to
her grade 7 students while they sit on the floor.
Also check out the multilink, multicoloured foam carpet they are sitting on.

L uses furniture and lighting to define her spaces.

Above: a couple of oasis spots.
I love the fact that L was able to make changes to her classroom and that they were inspired by a primary classroom.  Her students really bought into the design changes too.  They are very proud of their classroom, and think it is a great place to learn because it feels interesting.  Also, they love the freedom of having different spots to work.

I'll probably use some of the lessons I learned from these other classrooms to return some warmth to my classroom.  Maybe I'll bring in some accent colours and then mute them with lower lighting.  I already have some cool spherical fixtures in my class, so maybe that will be enough.

So a gradual return to colour.  In moderation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Classroom Design Challenges 1

It is pretty easy to create a nice looking classroom when you have a new school with new furniture.  New desks and tables in rooms with new carpet or flooring with good lighting and freshly painted walls look nice if not just for the sake of being clean.  But what do you do when your classroom presents a serious design challenge?

Meet C.  Her school is slated for demolition, but that does not really help her this year, her first year in the school.  You can probably picture her classroom.  It looks like it was built in the 60s.  It has a nice window that runs the length of the classroom, but the shelving underneath it (that also runs the length of the classroom) is painted in that glossy, institutional Smithrite green.  And the top of it is about four feet off the ground, so it does not work well as a workspace or a display area.  The floors are a non-descript, but luckily unobtrusive lino-tile.  The walls are a scuffed off white, and she has three massive whiteboards on two of the walls.  The final wall houses her desk and a small cupboard.  Probably the ugliest things in her classroom are the light fixtures.  You know the ones?  The open fluorescent fixtures from back in the day that look like overturned ice cube racks.

None of this would matter, but she felt the space just wasn't working for her.  She felt cut off from her students because of the labyrinth of desks she has.  Her room is skinny and long, and the defacto teaching area was at the end of one of the long parts which forced her into a lecture style of teaching.  After talking with C, I came to know that she was all about community and that she needed to connect more with her students as individuals.  The room did not allow this.  She could only really see and hear the kids in the front rows of desks.  But the hardest part was that her kids had no interest in giving up their desks or even seeking alternate arrangements for the room.  In their eyes, this was the way school was supposed to be.

Taking the feedback from her students and what I knew about C, I went away and tried to come up with some suggestions.  It was really difficult because: there was no budget for any of this, the students were resistant, and the room had some inherent problems (Did I mention that there were only two outlets in the room?).  This is what I came up with:

This is not to scale, but will give you the basic idea.  Here are the suggestions I gave C:
• Put the desks along the walls for the kids that must have desks, but during instructional time, they turn their chairs inward or toward where you are teaching. If they are working independently, they can turn their chairs back towards their desks.
• It might be a good idea to have a chart paper stand. Why? When you pull down your screen, you block your white board, so sometimes it is good to have a screen to show things from your computer, and then have the chart paper for quick brainstorming or for criteria. Also, if you need to have a homework chart, you can put it on chart paper; that way you can eliminate at least one of your whiteboards (which can be unsightly and take up too much room for kids’ work, etc.).
• Have a set of low risers along the shelf/window wall. These serve at least two purposes. Kids can sit on them when you are giving instructions. Kids can stand on them and work standing up using the window counter as a workspace. You mentioned some of your kids work best standing up. Your window counter really is the only space for this unless they stand at a desk.  The risers can be rearranged easily later for group work, art projects, campfire, etc. I only include low risers in this particular set up. You can always use high risers for the tables in the centre.
• I like the table in the corner. It is a nice intimate place to work or conference.
• The rug could be a place to work or meet. You could put a low riser on it and that great padded bench you have to create a lounge. I recommend that you put a rug down in any big blank floor space just to cut down the echo of the floor. I originally had the rug up by the screen, but you mentioned that your students are resistant to sitting on the floor, even with rugs. (I realized that mine aren’t as willing to sit on the floor this year either. Must be the cold lino).

Flashforward to a month and a half later.  C invites me back to see her classroom.  I walk in and a big smile spreads across my face.  I realize she has adopted almost none of my suggestions because what she came up with is better.  The fluorescent lights are off which takes the attention away from them.  Instead, she has a number of accent lamps and natural light coming from her big windows.  There are nice area rugs in places with throw pillows on one rug, and a padded bench and some faux suede cubes on the other for a casual meeting area. 

The biggest thing I notice is that ALL of her desks are gone.  There are tables instead with their ends up against the side walls.  Now, there is a large, unimpeded walkway down the centre for C to travel on so that there is no separation between her and her students.  When I ask her about how she was able to "convert" her students she told me that it happened gradually.  It kind of began when I sent her my suggestions, and she showed a Powerpoint document I had also sent her that had slides of all kinds of different possibilities for classrooms on it.  When the students saw some possibilities that didn't look like preschool, some of them jumped on board.  It was one student in particular, F, who really got into it and would come in every day and ask what changes they were going to make next.  He was the one who really got others excited about the possibilities.  The changes to the classroom were not going to be done to them, but with them.

A recent addition: I love this room within a room idea.

There are so many lessons here:
  • Students can be advocates for change if you let them.
  • You will get greater buy in if students can see what their part is or how they can benefit.
  • Sometimes students can't see their way in unless they are given a few non-prescriptive possibilities.
  • There is no one way to do anything, but there are some right ways, and you know when it is right when it feels right.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Classroom Innovators

 I posted that I have this one day per week job (as well as my regular classroom) to seek out and spread innovation.  It has been so much fun!  I get to see big, little, and medium-sized ideas.

A lot of teachers who I have seen have put a lot of thought into their classroom environments.  They have come up with some really creative ways to personalize their spaces for themselves and for their students.  (In future posts, I will post some examples of things people have done to their classrooms, but for this post, I will concentrate more on innovation in general).

In broad terms, I have seen:
  • teachers reaching students in unusual ways.
  • creative uses of tools and technology to present ideas and to allow students to show their learning in non-traditional ways.
  • integrating curriculum to meet the needs of students.
  • building community within the classroom walls, but also schools reaching out to the community so that the school is a place that helps adults as well.
  • a conscious effort to bring imagination back into the classroom (to downplay the idea that school is just a place where we disseminate information, and instead to promote the idea that schools foster wonder and creativity).
  • collaboration among teachers, classrooms, schools, and community groups to improve learning and educate the whole student.
  • learning in the natural world, and not just reading about it, but experiencing it first hand, plus finding ways to improved our environment.
I don't want to go into too much detail.  The teachers I have visited over the past few months know that I will be sharing the details of my investigations with my own district first, so I can't give too much away here yet.  But I can talk about some non-specific things until I get permission from my teachers. 

Here are some interesting patterns or observations I have found out about innovation so far.
  • Innovation is supported in my district.  We have a lot of mechanisms to try new things.  A lot of the teachers I interviewed also said that it was important to have some kind of support (e.g. administration, colleagues, district structures, university cohorts, etc.).  In some cases, the support was in the form of being a sounding board, and for others, for example, it was a bit of financial support.  I found it interesting that many of these "innovators" thought it was important to have support from others because I always envisioned innovators as "lone wolves." There was some time that the innovators had to work out things by themselves, but for the most part, my small sample enjoyed the support of others.  It seems like there is no "set mind" for innovative teaching, but the support aspect seems to suggest that even if innovation can or can't be taught, it might be able to be cultivated in the right circumstances. 
  • Innovation is somewhat community-minded.  The changes that these teachers made all seemed to have an impact on the classroom, the school, or the neighbourhood.  It usually was not targeted to one student or to merely the teacher him or herself.  It might have started with a narrower focus, but always seemed to expand to create some kind of change with a wider audience. 
  • Innovation seemed to originate from a specific need or a problem.  Here are some examples: 
    • "I felt cut off from my students, so I rearranged my classroom." 
    • "Not all of my students were getting the same or correct information, so I tried _______________."
    • "My students have such challenging lives at home that I had to help their parents first."
    • "My kids don't sit and read, so I had to find a different way for them to learn and show what they learned."
  • The path of innovation is not a straight one.  Though the original need may have been specific, the course of action was not.  People tried many things and either failed miserably or went along fine and then met some unforeseen obstacles.  Sometimes the need was there at the beginning, but NO courses of action presented themselves (for a long time), and then one seemingly random event would change things, or a series of occurrences would converge together.    
  • Innovation has a playful nature.  One of the reasons why these teachers hung in there so long was because of how much fun they were having.  Though the problems were important to them, the teachers did not take themselves too seriously.  It is like when we played when we were kids: we just tried all sorts of things until one of those things stuck.  It didn't have to be perfect; it just had to feel right.  Innovators still play. 
  • Innovation has a slightly subversive feel to it.  When I talk to these teachers, they get this strange gleam in their eyes, or their voices go into a low conspiratorial, but proud whisper.  They know what they are doing is not traditional, and it is actually one of the reasons they find it so fun.  Picture leaders of the French Resistance and you get the vibe (without the cool berets). 

So, if I was to sum up my findings about innovation in a few sentences, it would be something like:

"I've got this interesting problem that's bugging me, so help me or get out my way, because I am about to try something weird and I have no idea where it might go." 

Okay, one (long) sentence.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A New Classroom Design Website

I was checking out my blog stats the other day, and I noticed in the Referring URLs section a site that said, . I was eager to look at it because there are so few sites on my new favourite topic. It turns out that the site belongs to a really great guy named James Clarke.

James once contacted me because of my blog and the post in particular that I wrote about Isis's Stepseat.  James is a (real) designer and over the months, we have been picking each other's brains about classroom design.  We are like-minded people: James comes to classroom design as a designer first, but with the heart of an educator; whereas I have the mind of an educator with a strong new passion for design.  Mainly, we corresponded in broad strokes: things we thought were important, the directions we wanted classroom to move, etc. 

James also told me about the wonderful things he had done with his company about getting people to use their spaces and their furniture in meaningful ways.  He told me about this one event in particular where they brought in students from his son's school (where James is also a governor) to teach them about the situation in Ireland and the IRA.  They used video footage, had guest speakers, and used simulations so the students could understand the deeply complex issues.  I was really impressed because they created an environment where not only did the students get the facts, but they also made a personal, emotional connection with their learning.  If that isn't 21st Century Learning, I don't know what is.

I also found out, way after James and I started corresponding, that he wrote the Learning Journeys booklet that I enjoyed so much.  The document was like a crash course in the big ideas behind classroom design.  Now, when I saw that James had his own website, I was really intrigued.   So I started to dig around the website, and when I got to the Influences page, I saw the pictures of Heppell and Robinson. "That makes sense," I thought. And then I scrolled down, and saw, well, ME. I thought I might be having one of those weird dreams, so I showed it to my wife and she just started howling with laughter. Nope, that proved I was awake.  I showed it to a few of my colleagues at work, and by that time James had updated the photos to the incomplete Mount Rushmore of Classroom Design (Heppell, Robinson, me, and space for someone else), with the photos at the top. My co-workers were awed. Not really the effect I had predicted, as I thought it would give them a good laugh, but it was positive.  To be mentioned in the same breath (pixels) as Heppell and Robinson was humbling.

I am trying to talk James into writing a book to help teachers with the interiors of their classrooms.  We really need help so that our environments can accommodate our teaching practices.  If we really want to inspire students, then we need to change our present, out-dated traditional classooms into incubators of wonder and creativity.