Thursday, December 22, 2011

Classroom Design Challenge 3: The Science Room

In this post, I talk about a room that has really stymied me: a science room.

sci 004
First, let me talk about the space.  R has a science room in a 25 year-old school.  She teaches middle school science, but the school used to be a junior high so the room is equipped with things you'd find in a high school science lab (that go almost unused in a middle school classroom): a fume hood, big counters and cupboards that line almost every wall, and the sinks.  Let me tell you about the sinks.  They are the biggest pain if you don't use them on a daily basis.  Because it used to be a science room, there are 6-8 sink/plug/gas (yes: GAS but disconnected) stations spaced just under every two metres about the floor.    Because the high sink stations take up so much floor space and are spaced out around the room, it makes for very limited choices in terms of desk/furniture arrangement because you can't go very far without bumping in to one of these archaic monuments.  And that's just one of the challenges of many that the sinks present (others: visibility; an abundance of water and available electricity; aesthetics; the students get snagged on the protruding gas taps; etc.). 
sci 001
Second, let me tell you about R.  As per my usual Modus Operandi, I observed her in her room.  R teaches math and science in this room.  Like E in the previous post, she uses technology (a Mac with an interactive interface and a projector) in her lessons.  Like E, R also likes to have direct eye contact with her students. Part of R's problem though is that the room forces her to space her students out so that some of her students sit way in the back.  One really clever technique that R uses for math is: during the formative/working together part of her lesson, she will give a problem and the students use individual whiteboards to try out possible solutions.  The students love the whiteboards because they have a clear place to work, and because their work is erasable, the students seem willing to take a few more chances and are not as worried about making mistakes.  After a given amount of time, the students hold up their boards and at a glance, R can see who needs more support and if she needs to adjust her instruction. 
Here are some suggestions for R:
  • Get rid of the sink stations.  Easy to recommend, not so easy to execute.  R has requested that the sink stations be removed for years, but she is still waiting.
  • Put R on a stage.  Elevate the teaching area at the front by her whiteboard.  This way, R will have a better view of her students, especially those in the back, and vice versa.  She could increase her whiteboard area too by putting two together, stacked like tiles on her teaching wall.  I also recommended getting one of those mic/amp systems so she could be heard easier (the room, with the tile floors, high ceiling, and hard walls, is one noisy space), but it is an expensive suggestion.
  • Clear out a space at the front of her classroom during instruction times.  Have the students bring their chairs and whiteboards to the front during instructional times so that she has immediate contact with her students, and them send them to the "work areas" at the back and sides if they can work independently.
  • Bring desks back in.  I know, an unusual suggestion coming from me, but it might be the most practical.  R and I were able to rearrange her large tables a bit so she had more students sitting at the front and less students in the far back, to improve the student contact, but even that was challenging with the sink stations blocking the way.  Smaller desks might give R more choices about how to arrange students in the "in-between" tight spaces between those pesky sinks.
  • Make your own furniture.  I think I recommended to R that she attach plywood to the tops of her existing tables to make longer, more dimension-friendly tables. 
If you have any ideas, please pass them along!  (My Comments boxes seem to have technical difficulties, so please use Anonymous commenting or email me.  Thanks.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Classroom Design Challenge 2: The Portable.

In my Tuesday Innovation job, I get to go around to a bunch of interesting classrooms.  Sometime teachers ask me to come in to their classrooms to help them with the classroom environment because they have heard about what I've been doing in my own class or they have seen this blog. 

In the next few posts, I am going to talk about a couple of classroom challenges that I have found, well, challenging.  In this post, the classroom belongs to E.  E teaches high school math in a portable classroom built 25 years ago.  It has that long beam running down the middle length of the ceiling, and a large seam running likewise down the floor. 

E's portable is not this one, but looks like it.

Inside, the portable has a long bank of shelves down one whole wall under the 3 windows.  Her biggest class has 30 students which means that there are 30 large desks in her class.  The desks are bigger than the ones I am used to in elementary, and hers measure 60 cm by 60 cm.  The desks are a bit of a necessity because: they came with the portable; there is no place to store the desks even if she wanted to get rid of them; the desks actually are useful in that they can hold the students' notebooks and textbooks at the same time; and no tables are available anyway.

Before I made any suggestions to E, I went in and watched her teach in her current setting.  She is a great teacher. She has every lesson stored on her tablet computer (I can't imagine how long that took!), and she displays the lessons on a screen using a projector.  Her lessons are very interactive: she gives examples, and gets students to try them out, sharing their possible solutions.  The whole time, she is talking to the students, asking questions, and giving feedback and assistance.  She seems to have eyes in the back of her head because she can detect movement and off-task behaviour without even looking at the wayward student. 

Here are a couple of things I noticed about E and her classroom:
  • E likes eye contact (despite having eyes in addition to ones on the face portion of her head).  She can tell when students need more help or more challenge just by looking at them.  By taking the temperature of the room, she knows how to adjust the lesson as a whole.
  • E likes to move.  She moves around her students in a graceful flow instead of sitting in one spot and waiting for students to come to her. 
  • E uses technology to make her lessons more effective.  She uses her tablet and projector the same way any skilled artisan does: it is used like an instrument, a tool, a natural extension of her craft. 
Here are some recommendations.  (Some of them I passed on to E, and some I did not.)
  • Don't do anything about the desks.  They allow enough surface area for what the students need.  By having them in horizontal groupings of 2 or 3 facing the front, it allows the amount of student to student interaction that E needs when students are working on problems together.  Tables actually might not give the eye contact that E requires to monitor her students' understanding.
  • Free up floor space to allow E unimpeded movement.  The desks take up almost all of the room so anything else that is not necessary should be removed.  E brought in this screen from home because the provided one wasn't big enough.  But her screen also takes up a lot of space because it has that big tripod base.  If there is anyway to get a big wall mounted screen, that would free up more floor space.
  • Move the projector to the back of the classroom off the floor.  Currently the projector is on a rolling cart.  It takes up prime real estate because it is in the centre of the classroom.  By getting the projector up high and at the back of the class would allow this centre lane to be used by desks or even E herself.  By using hooks along the ceiling, the wires would also be out of the way (one thing I don't like about media carts). 
  • Put the tablet on a podium.  E doesn't really stand and lecture, but a podium would still be useful because I noticed that every time she wrote on her tablet she had to bend down to this low table.  If the tablet was on a high podium she would not have to do all of these core exercises, and she would maintain more eye contact with her students.  If the podium had shelves she could keep all of the papers and books she needs for the day there, instead of having to use a big table that cut into her floor space.
  • Unscrew the long bank of wall mounted shelves, and rejig them into a set of raised platforms (yeah, you know me and my risers). By reinforcing these shelves and laying a sheet of of plywood over them, E could raise the back row of desks so that she could maintain eye contact with even the lurkers in the back. If she ever left the portable, she could just screw the shelves back to the wall.

    Here's a potential floor plan I made for E. 
    I'd actually angle those side desks for more eye contact,
    remove the shelves and raise the back desks.
  • Here's the (elaborate) sketch I sent E to explain how the podium, projector, screen, and wire set up would work.
    Mind you, see how having to bend to low table has done wonders for her waistline in my pic?
As it turns out, E found the most elegant situation to this design challenge: her admin told her she could change classrooms!  E let me know her future move and maybe we'll work on this less challenging project together.