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.

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