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.


  1. What a great post1 I really love the idea of the students being involved in the design of their classroom. For now, I am a traveling music teacher visiting 4 classes a day, but in 2 years, my school will have a permanent building, and I will have my own classroom. Your post has given me great food for thought.

    Rachel Ann Cross

    1. Thanks for commenting, Rachel. Oooooh, the traveling music teacher. That's a tough gig. Packing and unpacking for each class, unless you teach kazoo or something light.

      In terms of design, YOU are the environment though it would be great to bring a halogen worklight with you as a portable footlight like in a cabaret.

      Let me know if I can help you in your thinking and designing process.